This essay, posted in February 2007, is Copyright © 2007 by Mary Meehan.
Where We're Headed
A recent story about a Texas company that sells human embryos should make us wonder about the future. According to the Washington Post, Jan. 6, 2007, a company in Texas is producing "ready-made embryos that single women and infertile couples can order after reviewing detailed information about the race, education, appearance, personality and other characteristics of the egg and sperm donors." Each embryo costs $2,500. In the first batch of 22 embryos, the biological father is "a 6-foot-tall lawyer with blond hair and blue eyes." The biological mother is a student over 20 who has "brown hair and hazel eyes."
Commercial eugenics is getting so awful, and so off-the-wall, that it's hard to discuss seriously anymore. So let's imagine that we are 25 years down the road when the following engagement announcement is submitted to the Washington Post:
"Mr. and Mrs. Adam McSnorkle of Washington are pleased to announce the engagement of their daughter, Ashley Brittany McSnorkle, to Joshua Caleb Wythe-Witherspoon of New York City, son of Mr. and Mrs. Chauncey Wythe-Witherspoon.
"The bride-to-be, a 2030 graduate of Virginia Tech, is an information systems manager with Toys R Us. The prospective groom graduated from Yale in 2029 and will receive a degree from the Harvard Law School shortly before the couple's June wedding. He will join the firm of Hamilton, Hopkinson and Rutledge in Washington."
Now, let's suppose that a vigilant Post editor decides to spot-check the accuracy of paid wedding announcements because of recent embarrassments. In one, the bride's parents were described as "of Philadelphia," when her father actually was "of Allenwood"--that is, the federal penitentiary in Allenwood, Pa. In the other, the groom turned out to be a charming airline pilot who liked marriage so much that he had a wife in every major city. So the editor asks a top investigative reporter to check out the McSnorkles and the Wythe-Witherspoons. Here's what the reporter finds:
"Ashley Brittany McSnorkle, while legally the McSnorkles' daughter, actually is Embryo No. 536, bought from Baby-Making, Inc., Ashtabula, Ohio, for $2500 (plus surrogate fee) in 2007. Her biological father is Sperm Donor No. 1008 of the Super-Sperm Bank, Sheboygan, Wis. The father is not really a donor, but a seller. The Super-Sperm Bank staff tell me he received a "fair payment" for the batch of sperm he provided; but they decline to say how much.
"Ashley has two mothers, Egg Donor No. 25 and Surrogate Mother No. 8 of Baby-Making, Inc., both of whom were paid for their services. A Baby-Making staff member confirmed the $2500 price for Ashley herself, but refused to say how much more the McSnorkles had to pay the surrogate mother. The staffer said Ashley's sperm and egg parents were both blond and blue-eyed and were also 'pretty prolific.' He estimated that Ashley has at least 30 sisters and brothers 'out there somewhere.'
"I was able to talk with Ashley," the reporter continues. "She's a nice young woman who seems bewildered by her roots. 'I was pretty shocked when I found out,' she said. 'I was just 15, and I was looking for some letters that I'd sent to my parents from summer camp in New England several years earlier. In an old filing cabinet up in our attic, I came across a letter and contract from Baby-Making, Inc.'
"'Mom--or the woman I thought was Mom--is sort of ditsy, you know? When I asked her why she did this, she said she'd always been sorry that she wasn't blond and blue-eyed. And she used a surrogate to carry me because she didn't want to mar her figure. Well, I got the blond hair all right, and I've been hearing dumb-blond jokes all my life. If I'd wanted blond hair, I could've gotten it out of a bottle!'
"Ashley continued, 'But I have brown eyes instead of blue ones. Brown eyes are perfectly OK with me, but Mom said they've always bothered her. The sperm and egg sellers were both blue-eyed, but she thinks they lied on their questionnaires when they said their parents and grandparents were all blue-eyed, too. It was kind of embarrassing to find that Mom and Dad sued the sperm bank and Baby-Making, Inc., over blue eyes. But the judge threw the case out. I'm glad there was at least one adult around at the time.'"
The reporter now turns to the scrambled roots of Joshua Caleb Wythe-Witherspoon: "He is, legally speaking, the Wythe-Witherspoons' son. But Joshua, like Ashley, started life in a petri dish; he was Embryo No. 489 of Baby-Making, Inc. His biological father is Sperm Donor No. 4321 of the Lots of Luck Sperm Bank, Kokomo, Ind., and his biological mother is Egg Donor No. 28 of Baby-Making, Inc. Ashley told me that 'when Josh and I found out that we were both manufactured babies, we were worried that we might be siblings or half-siblings. Whoa, that would've been a big-time problem. It was a relief to find out that the numbers of our sperm and egg parents didn't match. And we were glad to know that at least Josh didn't have a surrogate mother. That is really creepy.'"
The reporter continues, "Josh didn't want to be interviewed; he said the whole thing is deeply embarrassing, and he hopes I won't do a story on it. But Ashley told me why his parents did what they did. His mom's family has an extremely prominent nose that keeps popping up in some members every generation, and his dad's family has a receding chin that does the same. They didn't want a kid with a big schnozzola and a disappearing chin.
"The engagement photo shows a nice-looking young man. Nothing wrong with his nose; but he has a full beard, so I couldn't tell about the chin. I asked Ashley. 'Oh, yes,' she said. 'Another "Whoops--it didn't work!" The beard hides the weak chin. I think his sperm and egg parents fibbed about the chin business.' She added, 'The odd thing is that the Wythe-Witherspoons have always been so proud of their heritage. Their ancestors were in America before the Revolution. Later the family had governors, senators, college presidents, the whole nine yards. Genealogy is overdone sometimes; I mean, we all have to make it on our own. But Josh is an only child. Don't you think it's ironic that his parents gave up all that heritage for a good nose?'
"I asked Ashley if she has ever met her biological parents. She said that 'I don't even know their names or where they live or even if they're still alive. And it would be a little weird to meet them, you know? But I would like to ask them, "Why in the world did you do this? Were you really that hard-up for money? Couldn't you have gotten a regular job? And what's it like to have 30 children you don't even know?"'
"Ashley tries to be philosophical about the whole thing. 'All things considered,' she said, 'I think Josh and I turned out all right. I could have done without the year-long depression that I had after finding out but, hey, that's life these days. Yet we both wish we looked like the parents who actually brought us up. And we wish we knew at least some of our brothers and sisters.'
"What's her take-home lesson? 'Well,' she said, smiling shyly, 'when it comes to making babies, we're gonna do it the old-fashioned way. That should be more fun. And when the babies come, we won't worry about noses or chins or hair color. We're just gonna love 'em.'"