The big business of fertility

A donated human embryo is seen through a microscope.


Kai Ryssdal: The first Nobel Prize of the year was announced this morning: Robert G. Edwards has won the Nobel for medicine. It comes with a cash award of about $1.5 million. But the economic and human impact of his work has been much larger. In the 32 years since the world's first test tube baby was born, in vitro fertilization has become a multi-billion dollar industry., as Marketplace's Steve Henn reports.

Steve Henn: More than four million babies have been born thanks to Edwards' research. It's made biological parenthood possible for same-sex couples and families who couldn't conceive. It's also created an enormous global industry.

Art Caplan: The treatment of infertility in the United States alone generates billions of dollars.

Art Caplan is the director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. Caplan says despite the industry's size...

Caplan: In vitro fertilization in the U.S. is completely unregulated. It's really a field that has grown according purely to market forces.

By some estimates, close to 15 percent of the world's population is infertile. Already close to 3 percent of all live births in developed countries are possible because of IVF. And Caplan thinks this is just the beginning.

Caplan: In the future with new genetic knowledge coming, what was a technology that once was only of interest to the infertile is going to become in the 21st century a technology that could be used to design our descendants.

There's already a market for elite egg donors. Debora Spar is the president of Barnard College and author of "The Baby Business."

Debora Spar: Generally if you are talking about "Ivy League eggs," we're talking anywhere between $10,000 to $25,000 per harvest.

Overall, there are few health guidelines for young egg donors and there often there are no guarantees for parents.

For the Innovation Desk, I'm Steve Henn for Marketplace.

About the author

Steve Henn was Marketplace’s technology and innovation reporter for the entire portfolio of Marketplace programs until December 2011.
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"Bob Faulkner," people have been designing their decendants much longer than you think, since humankind existed. The only difference between today and way way way back then are the available methods of doing so. Primitive peoples, nomads and evey other kind of human culture has always practiced doing away with unhelathy offspring or doing away with any offspring that is not the strongest or whom had the most potential that would ensure the parents a child whom can work the fields or inherit the family name etc (which automatically meant doing away with female babies whenever male babies were wanted). Today we can choose everything from athletic ability to intelligence and good looks(in accordance to what the latest standards of what constitutes cosmetically-desirable physical and facial features) even before a person is conceived. However there are yet primitive living people in the world whom practice infanticide if a child is born with cleft palate, or is handicapped, or is a girl.

"Completely unregulated"? So your average auto mechanic or NPR host can open a fertility clinic and hang out their shingle?

It scares me so much to hear people talk of "designing" our descendants. That is pure suicide for the human race. God help our future.

It is currently impossible for same biological gender couples to become biological parents together. One or the other may become the biological parent with a sperm or egg donor--who would be the other biological parent.

I was under the impression that IVF isn't *entirely* unregulated. In particular, last I heard it was illegal to pay an egg donor for her eggs. Has the law really changed in the last decade or so?

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