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Assisted Reproduction

Get Pregnant With Built On Spec Embryos Or Get Your Money Back!

I wish I had more time today to comment on this disturbing article from Alan Zarembo at the Los Angeles Times. Suffice it to say that I am disgusted that a medical facility would intentionally create embryos from donor sperm and donor eggs without any Recipient Parent in mind. To be clear, when I was contacted for comment about this article, it was well understood in the community that the medical facility and its embryo program, California Conceptions, was creating embryos from donor gametes with no specific recipient parent in mind. In other words, they were creating a bank of the most commercially desirable embryos to be “sold” to patients with a money-back guarantee.

Make no mistake, this is commodification. These are not donated embryos. Rather, they are embryos created from donors hand-selected by California Conceptions. It is one step removed from a mail order catalog. The only difference is that the product being sold is nascent human life.

There is no shortage of unwanted human embryos in the United States. The best estimates indicate that there are more than 500,000 unwanted cryopreserved embryos currently being stored in fertility clinics across America. Many of these embryos would be available for donation to a financially-strapped couple looking to begin a family. Then again, donated embryos do not make for a very profitable business model.

Beyond the despicable commercialization aspects of this program is the potential underlying harm to the resulting children and their families. Many will have genetic siblings they will never know. Further, patients who use this money-back program will likely be unable to have children who are genetically related to each other as any desire for a sibling will likely result in a brother or sister with no genetic connection to the first child.

I am an unapologetic advocate for access to assisted reproduction. But this program has pushed the ethical envelope beyond anything that can be morally or even pragmatically justified. There is simply no credible basis to justify a program that not only wrests the decision making from an infertility patient, but allows a physician to intentionally create the most commercially marketable embryos for potential sale in the future. We build houses on spec. We shouldn’t be condoning a practice that creates children on spec.

Dr. Ernest Zeringue was looking for a niche in the cutthroat industry of fertility treatments.

He seized on price, a huge obstacle for many patients, and in late 2010 began advertising a deal at his Davis, Calif., clinic unheard of anywhere else: Pregnancy for $9,800 or your money back.

That’s about half the price for in vitro fertilization at many other clinics, which do not include money-back guarantees. Typically, insurance coverage is limited and patients pay again and again until they give birth — or give up.

Those patients use their own eggs and sperm — or carefully select donors when necessary — and the two are combined in a petri dish to create a batch of embryos. Usually one or two are then transferred to the womb. Any embryos left over are the property of the customers.

Zeringue sharply cuts costs by creating a single batch of embryos from one egg donor and one sperm donor, then divvying it up among several patients. The clinic, not the customer, controls the embryos, typically making babies for three or four patients while paying just once for the donors and the laboratory work.

People buying this option from Zeringue must accept concessions: They have no genetic connection to their children, and those children will probably have full biological siblings born to other parents.

Inside the industry, Zeringue’s strategy for making embryos on the cheap has spurred debate about the ethical boundaries of creating life.

I will have more thoughts on this when time permits.


14 comments for “Get Pregnant With Built On Spec Embryos Or Get Your Money Back!”

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  • Just to play devil’s advocate for one moment: our society encourages adoption even though there is no biological connection so I don’t think that represents a good argument against this process.

    As for cost, I find it so odd to see the price tag for donor-egg cycles to easily reach $20K and up when here in the midwest we paid $9,000 for a donor egg cycle in 2007. There was no money-back guarantee, but our clinic’s success rate was just as good, if not better, than many east- and west-coast clinics. It’s mindboggling that couples who are “desperate” enough to consider Zeringue’s service still think that lower cost IVF must equal poor quality and chances.

  • Rational Citizen

    I am familiar with this center and have done a lot of homework on the matter. You may wish to verify your facts. Your post is shamefully wrong.

    “creating embryos from donor gametes with no specific recipient parent in mind”
    The clinic actually matches recipients before the donors start medications. It’s actually a shared egg donor/sperm donor cycle and they are not creating a bank – even says so in the article.

    The quotes you pull out are examples of media sensationalism trying to get attention… should be obvious to you posting on “The Spin Doctor”.

    How about this: “There is no shortage of unwanted human embryos in the United States. The best estimates indicate that there are more than 500,000 unwanted cryopreserved embryos currently being stored in fertility clinics across America.” Really? So we can just waltz into a clinic and gain access to someone’s frozen embryos. Aren’t you a family law attorney? Don’t you know these belong to other people and if they aren’t donating them, people can’t take them. Seriously?

    “Make no mistake, this is commodification.” You run an egg bank for crying out loud. Maybe this is a threat to your business and that’s got you blinded and going off like a whirling dervish.

    Let’s consider for a minute that you are wrong – you’ve embarrassed yourself in the LA Times and took it even further on a blog. Do your homework sir. And while you are at it, help us all with the definition of slander and libel. I wonder if the clinic knows of your post.

  • Dr. Craig Sweet


    First, I want to thank you for your support in questioning the procedures that are being practices at California Conceptions. While I have absolute respect for my peers, people who have dedicated their lives such as yourself to building families that would otherwise not exist, there comes a time when one has to openly comment on what is perceived as questionable ethical practices.

    As you are aware, I have been working with our main regulatory organizations (ASRM & SART) at some level regarding the creation of embryos without a certain destination for over one year. I wrote a blog on the topic at http://bit.ly/XDTJvt. If I had distill my remarks (minus the lengthy discussion that should accompany each statement, as in the blog), they would be as follows:

    * Combining egg donors with sperm donors and creating embryos for transfer is commonly called a donor/donor split cycle but should never be called “donor embryos” from the get go. This demeans the amazing gift that true embryo donors give in donating their embryos to patients in need.

    * Embryos deserve an intermediate level of respect somewhere between simple cells and the ultimate legal and moral respect we give to our patients.

    * Business, corporations or sole practitioners should never own life. They can help to maintain and foster the embryos but should not be responsible for disposition decisions.

    * While I suspect the physicians of California Conceptions have truly tried to not create a bank of embryos, it is inevitable that some of their recipients will, at least temporarily or perhaps for longer, be unable to receive created embryos (i.e., illness, transportation issues, financial constraints and so on) and that they will remain cryopreserved at California Conceptions, owned by the practice and waiting to find a home. In the L.A. Times story, they make it clear that they actually do have a bank of embryos that they own consisting of at least 10 sets of embryos. An embryo bank may have ten sets of embryos in it or thousands. Certainly, it would might all agree that it would be egregious to have thousands of embryos languishing in cryopreservation. The inevitable issue is that a bank of ten sets of embryos is still concerning making this topic worthy of continued discourse.

    * Even though this process touted by California Conceptions potentially saves some patients money and builds families, the ends do not always justify the means.

    * You can be certain that forces that want to control IVF and/or give personhood to embryos will jump on any situation where a business can own the embryos for even a short period of time. The law of unintended consequences marches forward.

    * Our guiding societies need to take a very careful look at this practice and render a decision that will be fair and best to the greatest number of individuals.

    * While I am a potential competitor to California Conceptions, this issue is far bigger than either of our practices. I did not come to my decision to write the blog, publish the position statement and bring these issues up on EDN lightly. It took me over a year and the L.A. Times article to come to the conclusion that I needed to take a stand.

    We also developed a position statement stressing how a true embryo donation program differs from California Conceptions (http://bit.ly/UfPIJY). This might be worth a review by your readers.

    Thank you for your continued leadership and guidance in this matter. The reproductive community and patients owe you a debt of gratitude for the work you have done in the past and the work yet to come regarding issues you feel are ethically inappropriate.

    Also, thank you for allowing me to chime in on this very important topic.

    Craig R. Sweet, M.D.
    Medical & Practice Director
    Embryo Donation International

  • Leanne Gray

    Can you please send me the list fertility clinic doctors in los angeles.

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