This week's BioNews includes news from the United States that a New York fertility clinic has started an 'embryo adoption' scheme. The scheme has sparked controversy because the embryos available for donation are catalogued according to the physical and intellectual attributes of their genetic parents. Another apparent eyebrow-raiser is that embryos are being made available to lesbian couples and single women, as well as to heterosexual couples.
Clinics which offer recipients the chance to select embryos according to a number of desirable characteristics are often accused of trading in designer babies. If patients are able to choose their prospective children from a range of different embryos, are they not exerting unprecedented control over their family's complexion?
The designer babies accusation is, however, a bogus one. Most people receiving embryos or gametes are concerned to match their own characteristics with those of their future children. Thus, clinics often try to select embryos created by people who are of similar racial and physical characteristics to the recipients.
Most of us would consider this kind of matching to be perfectly reasonable. Helping a patient have a child which may look a little like them seems preferable to leaving such things to chance. And if this kind of selection is acceptable, why is it not also acceptable to choose embryos according to desired characteristics which may not be present in the recipients? If selection for similarity is appropriate, then selection for difference should be equally appropriate.
In reality, there are few people who are likely to be attracted to embryo donation. Women seeking to have a child without the involvement of a man will, more often than not, choose sperm donation over embryo donation because the resulting child will be, at least in part - genetically related to them. Heterosexual couples are also unlikely to be greatly attracted to embryo donation. Few couples are unable to produce neither viable sperm nor eggs, particularly with the advent of microinjection techniques.
But for those few people who do seek embryo donation in order to have a child, why should we not afford them the opportunity of arranging their family as they see fit?