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Commentary: Does Sophia Vergara own her embryos?

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by Robert Klitzman

Editor’s note: Robert Klitzman is a professor of psychiatry and director of the Masters of Bioethics Program at Columbia University. He is author of “Am I My Genes?: Confronting Fate and Family Secrets in the Age of Genetic Testing” and the forthcoming book, “The Ethics Police?: The Struggle to Make Human Research Safe.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) — Sofia Vergara, star of the hit TV show Modern Family, plays a fiery young wife whose gay stepson is raising a child with his husband. For the last three years, Vergara has been the highest paid woman working in U.S. television. She’s also ranked as the 32nd most powerful woman in the world — ahead of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth and Harvard University President Drew Faust.

Recently, Vergara gained further attention when her ex-fiancee, Nick Loeb, published an op-ed in The New York Times, arguing that he should be able to use embryos they created together.

Loeb and Vergara created two embryos and signed a contract that the embryos could only be used by mutual consent. He then “gave her an ultimatum” that they proceed to implant the embryos. “When she refused, we split up.” She has since become engaged to the film star Joe Manganiello.

Loeb, whose ancestors founded Lehman Brothers, and whose uncle, Edgar Bronfman Sr., owned Universal Studios, wrote that he always wanted to have children. He has filed a complaint to obtain the embryos in order to implant them into the womb of a surrogate he would hire. He would then raise the children on his own. He says he does not want “the two lives I have already created (to) be destroyed or sit in a freezer…”

The dispute raises ethical dilemmas. The children, once born, would presumably have strained relationships or no contact with Vergara, which would be difficult for them.

It’s not just celebrities who are confronting these issues.

Are embryos property — like say, sneakers, flowers, fish or toothpaste? Who really should own them? Will the children who are born from them have rights to know or have relationships with their biological parents?

Every year, thousands of individuals are creating embryos, many of which end up unused. Since the birth of the first so-called “test-tube baby,” Louise Brown, in 1978, the multibillion dollar assisted reproductive technology industry has grown enormously.

At least 12 percent of the U.S. population is infertile. Many women who were fertile in their early 30s postponed childbirth to establish a career are much less fertile in their late-30s or early 40s. Countless heterosexual, gay and lesbian couples, as well as individuals who choose to be single parents, turn to these technologies.

At least one company, California Conceptions, has started manufacturing, owning and selling embryos. The company obtains sperm from a man and eggs from a woman and then makes a batch of embryos to sell to couples who want a child. The sperm and egg providers generally remain anonymous. They will never meet each other — or, most probably, the children they produce.

The company offers a guarantee: Get pregnant or get your money back. Pregnant women may not end up with a “take-home baby” since miscarriages can occur. However, the clinic can create inexhaustible supplies of embryos.

Some prospective parents may want children made from the eggs and sperm of blond, blue-eyed Ivy League athletic stars. The company then obtains the eggs and sperm (or “gametes”) from donors with these traits.

Several critics condemn the entire practice, arguing that it cheapens human life, turning embryos into a market product or commodity, and exploits women.

Some pro-life activists may object because they feel that embryos are human lives, and hence, should not be bought and sold. But pro-choice proponents and most scientists counter that embryos are definitely not full human beings, and have important moral status, though not that of a full human being. Indeed, many Americans support women’s rights to have an abortion in most cases.

Children who are conceived using donor gametes usually never learn who their biological parents are. Yet such secrecy can backfire; a relative can blurt out the information, or the child may discover it, and feel betrayed.

Knowledge about biological parents is good to have for a number of reasons. For one thing, family medical history strongly affects a person’s risks for various diseases. Contact is beneficial, because gamete donors may develop serious diseases after the child’s birth. Yet ongoing contact generally is not possible.

Ordinarily, to avoid the problem facing Vergara and Loeb, doctors require that couples decide in advance on future uses of embryos they make for their own use. If any are left over, or if the couple divorces, or one member dies, can these cells be discarded, used for research or given to others?

But when a company owns the embryos, it can do what it wants with unsold ones — or it could go bankrupt or get bought. Batches of embryos would then be sold en mass as mere property as if they were sneakers or soap. Indeed, a few years ago, deCode genetics, which had collected DNA samples from tens of thousands of Icelanders, went bankrupt, and a British holding company now owns all the DNA.

In addition, offspring produced from a batch of embryos could potentially end up getting married. Their children would then be at risk of various recessive diseases. Currently, no mechanism exists to prevent this possibility because there is no limit to how many embryos a company can make from a given pair of gamete providers.

The American Society of Reproductive Medicine and others should consider how best to tackle these problems.

Several approaches can help. First, the number of embryos manufactured from any one pair of biological parents should be limited. Secondly, clinics should be encouraged or required to maintain records of all egg and sperm providers. Clinics may argue that such a registry will deter egg and sperm providers, but that will not necessarily happen. Thirdly, doctors should encourage parents to disclose the fact of donation to offspring in age-appropriate ways. Fourthly, clinics should specify what will happen to unsold cells. We also need broader discussions about how to approach these issues.

Whether we are celebrities or not, we are all living in an age of modern families; and the more we can address these challenges, the better off we will be.

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