“Obama Attacks Wealth Inequality,” says the headline in the New York Times. Health care reform, college aid, and stimulus-funded jobs are evening out the distribution of resources. An age of equality is dawning.
But beneath the celebration, inequality is sinking in more deeply. A market in lucrative traits is developing. Wealthy people are buying smarter babies. Even if your kids get the same private schooling, their kids will do better. Money is buying more than tutors and test prep. It’s buying merit.
I’m not talking about all-out consumer eugenics. We’re far from clarifying the genes involved in complex traits, and even further from verifying a safe way to mess with those genes. But where genetic correlates are known, market forces have already moved in. Last year, a U.S. fertility company advertised eye-, hair-, and skin-color selection in human embryos. Facing a backlash, the company suspended its plan, but not for lack of technical ability, and not before half a dozen potential clients requested the tests.
How big is the market for trait selection? In a New York University survey, 10 percent to 13 percent of patients seeking genetic counseling said they would screen embryos to select height, intelligence, or athletic ability. That’s the number who admit they’d do it. If even half that percentage holds true across the worldwide population of assisted reproduction clients (which produced 219,000-246,000 babies in 2002), that’s at least 10,000 to 15,000 customers.
But would they really do it? Would people shell out big bucks for offspring with preferred traits? Yes. They already do. The evidence comes from an analysis by Aaron Levine, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, in the Hastings Center Report. Levine documents what anecdotes have long suggested: Buyers of “donor” eggs offer more money to women who are likely to yield smarter kids.
Levine analyzed more than 100 ads placed in 63 college newspapers to recruit egg donors. Of these ads, 21 specified a minimum requisite SAT score. Half offered more than $5,000, and among this group, 27 percent specified an “appearance requirement.” The bigger the money, the choosier the client: Above the $10,000 level, most ads “contained appearance or ethnicity requirements.”
But the big story is SAT scores. “Holding all else equal, an increase of one hundred SAT points in the score of a typical incoming student increased the compensation offered to oocyte donors at that college or university by $2,350,” Levine reports. When the ad was placed for a specific couple, the premium was higher: $3,130 per 100 SAT points. And when an egg donor agency placed the ad on behalf of the couple, the bonus per 100 points rose to $5,780.
There’s no mystery about what’s going on here. It’s the logic of the marketplace. At the grocery store, you pay more for bigger chicken eggs. At colleges, you pay more for smarter human eggs. Fertility industry guidelines say “compensation should not vary” according to the “quality of oocytes retrieved.” But you’d never accept such a rule when buying chicken eggs. Why would other people accept it when the stakes are a million times bigger?
If you think you can control this market, good luck. Bans on kidney selling haven’t stopped worldwide commerce in human organs. Levine suggests a cap on egg-donor compensation at $8,000 or $10,000. But it’s easy to supplement the official payout, as people seeking organs or adoptable children have learned. No “death panel” will stop rich men from buying high-end medical care. And no fertility-regulation panel will stop rich women from buying high-end eggs.
For now, science and narcissism are limiting eugenic stratification. Most couples want their own offspring, not donor eggs or sperm. You can screen your mate for brains or beauty, but you’re still rolling the genetic dice. To test an embryo for intelligence, much less engineer it, you’d need to know a lot more than we know today about intelligence, genes, and genetic modification.
The egg market shows us what lies ahead. Once it’s possible to upgrade your seed, people will do it. And that will shake the foundations of equality. Rich folks won’t just have the best health care, education, technology, and social networks. They’ll have the most talent, too. Meritocracy will become aristocracy. What then?