21:46pm 4th August 2006
The world's first human embryo bank has been launched offering 'bespoke babies' for infertile couples.
For around £5,000 couples can buy ready-made embryos matched to their specific requirements - even down to choosing what eye and hair colour they would like their child to have.
In each case the embryos are made from eggs and sperm from two donors who have never even met. The moment of conception occurs in the laboratory and is determined by the genetic combination the clinic thinks will best meet the needs of the paying couples on its books.
Ethical campaigners last night condemned the move as the "absolute commercialisation of human life." They said it was heart-breaking that babies are now being treated as the equivalent of a supermarket "special offer".
Currently in the UK where one partner is infertile a couple can use donated sperm or eggs to create an embryo to be implanted in the woman's womb. Some couples can also use left-over embryos no longer needed by others who have undergone IVF.
But the new service is totally different as it allows couples to buy fresh embryos that fit their requirements but which have no biological link to either of them.
The human embryo bank is being run by The Abraham Center of Life in San Antonio in Texas. Although the clinic is in the USA, British women are expected to fly over for treatment.
It boasts that its sperm donors all have doctorate degrees and most of its egg donors have college degrees, are under 25 and healthy. So far most of the couples on its waiting lists are happy just to get an embryo and have not set out detailed requirements.
Waiting list for Aryan children
However some have asked for - and been allowed to join list of recipients that will get - embryos made from blond haired and blue eyed donors.
Whether a couple are put on the list for an existing embryo or one in the process of being created, they get 'portfolios' that include the donors' medical and social histories and usually a picture of them as a baby.
To create the embryos the chosen donor is given drugs to make her produce eggs and once collected they are combined with the selected sperm. Out of a single cycle of eggs several couples - each paying $10,000 (£5,300) - will each get two embryos for implantation.
Centre director Jennalee Ryan said already she has a waiting list of clients for embryos and so as soon as they become available they are spoken for. She said unlike other embryo donation or adoption schemes, these are not left-over embryos from infertile couples.
Because of the inherent problems that exist in such couples she said typically these only have a 30 per cent chance of producing a pregnancy. However she claimed the quality of the donor embryos she uses could offer double the chances of success.
Ms Ryan said the idea of the bank came out of her existing adoption service when she realised that many couples would be keen to use donated embryos to create a family that way instead. She said babies given up for adoption tend to come from lower social groups and there is often a history of drug or alcohol abuse.
However her egg and sperm donors are all well-educated and medically screened to ensure they have no health problems.
She said it was also cheaper than adoption or IVF with an egg donor which in the USA can cost up to $20,000 (£10,500). "It offers an opportunity for couples to have a child who could not otherwise afford it," she said.
'We are putting good genes back into the universe'
Ms Ryan admitted some people especially religious groups have objected to the bank. "But what I say to them is Jesus was not conceived in the normal way either. I don't lose any sleep over what we are doing. I feel what we are doing is positive.
"We are helping couples and putting good genes back into the universe."
But Josephine Quintavalle of the UK campaigning group Comment on Reproductive Ethics said it amounted to the "absolute commercialisation of human life."
She said: "It is heartbreaking to see children reduced in this way to the equivalent of a special offer supermarket commodity. Cut price, tailor-made human embryos, complete with door to door delivery."
A spokeswoman for the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority said current rules would prevent any UK clinic from offering selection of embryos for non medical reasons. But she confirmed there is no law to stop women from Britain going to the USA for such treatment.