Davis Doctor Provides Cheap Embryos, Raises Ethical Questions

Tuesday, November 27, 2012
Dr. Ernest Zeringue

In a medical field that does not lack for controversy, Dr. Ernest Zeringue of Davis appears to have broken new ground in bioethics with an innovative business model for in vitro fertilization.  

Zeringue has cut the price of his services in half, and provided unheard of money-back-guarantees, by opening a new revenue stream. He receives up-front permission from egg and sperm donors to sell any leftover embryos created during the process to other patients. Instead of the donor owning the embryos, as is the custom now, the clinic maintains ownership and total control.

The result is genetic siblings born to different parents unaware of each other’s existence.

Couples who might not otherwise be able to afford the process—which can run $20,000 and often isn’t successful on the first try—pay $12,500 at Zeringue’s California IVF: Davis Fertility Center Inc. Patients get their baby and Zeringue gets three or four embryos he can sell to other customers. 

Because the country is still wrestling with some of the basic ethical considerations of in vitro fertilization, it can seem odd negotiating costs and property rights at pregnancy clinics. “It gets kind of creepy,” Columbia University bioethicist Dr. Robert Klitzman told the Los Angeles Times. He said  “there is a yuck factor” in what amounts to the sale of embryos.

Los Angeles fertility lawyer Andrew Vorzimer, a self-described “unapologetic advocate for access to assisted reproduction,” said he was “horrified” by the prospect of a company, not would-be parents, controlling the process. He used an expression often heard among critics who fear Costco-like volume sales of embryos in the marketplace: “It is nothing short of the commodification of children.”

For some people in the field, these considerations are secondary and ethical considerations come down to informed consent. Is the process transparent and free of coercion? But the marketplace can be a tough arena for hashing out the limits of the hard-sell, especially when supply and demand could conceivably be changed overnight.

Currently there are more than 500,000 embryos cryopreserved in fertility clinics across the country, many from couples who completed their pregnancies, and their families, before all of their embryos were used. It seems unlikely that many would be given away free, and not many have.

As Vorzimer pointed out on his website, “Donated embryos do not make for a very profitable business model.”

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

An Ethics Debate over Embryos on the Cheap (by Alan Zarembo, Los Angeles Times)

Get Pregnant With Built On Spec Embryos Or Get Your Money Back! (by Andrew Vorzimer, The Spin Doctor)

UCI Settles Dozens of Fertility Suits (by Kimi Yoshino, Los Angeles Times)

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