Psst! You want a smart kid?

Choosing your baby's sex isn't the half of it. In America today, wealthy would-be parents are seeking straight-A (pretty, Caucasian, sporty) students in a bid for high-class donor eggs. By Mary Dejevsky
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The Independent Culture
If you felt shocked, or even the slightest bit queasy, when one of Britain's test-tube baby pioneers suggested that it would soon be "a sin" for parents to produce children with a genetic disease, prepare to be outraged. In the brave new world of American medicine (guiding principle: the survival of the richest), parents can already order up children to their own specifications, and not just to escape what the British doctor Bob Edwards has called "the heavy burden of genetic disease".

The fact is that when Dr Edwards said "We are entering a world where we have to consider the quality of our children", he was already behind the times. Across the Atlantic, would-be parents soliciting fertility treatment, and some who are not, face a startling array of choices, including the sex of the child and its likely height, weight, hair and eye colour, and sporting and intellectual brilliance. If they have the money, that is.

The possibilities of child-selection were brought home to Americans in a blaze of publicity this spring, when an unnamed couple placed identical "wanted" advertisements in several student newspapers - those of high- priced, elite colleges where they might be most likely to find the genes they wanted for their own.

"Intelligent, athletic egg donor needed for loving family," their advert read. "You must be at least 5ft 10in, have a 1,400 plus SAT score [the standardised US university entrance test], and possess no major family medical issues." And the reward? $50,000.

Four months on, the couple's friend and spokeswoman has issued a progress report: 300 women responded, and 90 have reached the next stage of consideration, she says; 20 are from Yale, 30 from Harvard, 40 from Princeton and 15 from Stanford - the classy West Coast university attended by Chelsea Clinton.

What drew most attention, however, at least in the US, was not the audacity of the couple in advertising for quality eggs to help bring them their perfect American child, nor their calculation in placing the ads exclusively in elite college newspapers, nor yet the principle of "eggs for sale" - American egg donors expect to be paid - but the sum on offer.

Until then, there had been a "going rate" of about $3,000-$5,000, plus all the costs of medical treatment and insurance. This advert suddenly propelled "high-quality" donor eggs into a different price league. $50,000 would meet almost half the cost of fees for the chosen student's four- year college course. The same sum would provide a handsome down payment on a house in all but the most expensive areas, and is a good deal more than the average American's annual wage. This was a real threshold, and it represented the price of a "perfect American child", or rather, an even chance of producing such a child.

Over the last two years, commercial advertising for donor eggs has become ever more common. With quality at a premium, advertisers see student newspapers as a way of tapping a promising gene pool. Where else can you find so concentrated a group of intelligent women, women from the right sort of background, at a stage in their lives when they could still use some extra money?

The end-of-year issue of the Yale Bulletin and Calendar contained a typical advertisement - classified under "Miscellaneous", among adverts for cats, a photocopier and tennis partners - for egg donors aged between 21 and 34 for what was clinically described as an "in vitro fertilisation programme". Among its diverting statistics, a recent Harper's Index included the information that one California-based fertility service, Options Fertility Registry, had found 18 egg donors by advertising in Ivy League student newspapers over the last two years.

Just this month, a "donor eggs" advert appears in - of all places - the New York Review of Books, camouflaged as a "situation wanted". "Our dream," says this self-styled "loving couple", "is a Caucasian woman in her twenties, of average weight and height, who has demonstrated intelligence." The sum on offer here is only $6,000, but the "going rate", it seems, is already edging upwards.

Such open advertising, however, offers only a hint of the flourishing market in donor eggs that already exists in the US, largely courtesy of the Internet. Here is a veritable catalogue of human possibilities, both "wanted" and "for sale".

For desperate would-be parents, there are forms for identifying what you require in an egg donor, including every shade of ethnic distinction (Thai, Turkish, Welsh), religion, hair colour and texture, height, weight and professional/ academic qualifications. Some websites, like that of the University of Chicago's advanced fertility centre, offer a virtual "shopping list" of donors, by number. "No 15" is "35 per cent German, 25 per cent Danish, 25 per cent Dutch and 15 per cent Cherokee"; she has light brown wavy hair and blue eyes, stands 5ft 4in, weighs 164 lb, has been pregnant before, and runs a nursery. For further information you must register and pay a fee.

Would-be donors face forms that demand detailed medical information, some going back two or more generations. "Tanning ability?" and "predominant hand?" are questions that the agencies see fit to ask, along with "are you willing to take an IQ test?" Individual donor adverts, often with pictures but without names, may be more affecting, or more openly mercenary. A winsome brunette from Tennessee writes: "I am a professional singer and am currently finishing up my BA from the University of Colorado... My degree is in music, engineering and communications... Egg donation would help me with my school and music expenses while helping an infertile couple with a family."

Some cite purely altruistic motives: "I am a sensitive, intelligent black college graduate. I am 25 years and have one child... I am 5ft 6in and weigh about 165 pounds but look like I weigh 145 pounds. I believe that every woman should have the opportunity to experience the joy of being pregnant..." The would-be parents try not to sound unreasonable or too close to the end of their tether, and stress their credentials as loving parents.

So rapidly has this "egg market" developed that it is impossible to gauge either its true scale or the rate of success: how many donated eggs result in successful pregnancies, or even how closely the baby matches up to would-be parents' "specifications". One sex-choice clinic in Virginia claims a success rate of 93 per cent for girls, 73 per cent for boys. Scientific conclusions are still a way off. It is only now, moreover - following a horrendous mix-up at a New York clinic that came to light when a woman gave birth to one black and one white twin - that the US Administration has introduced voluntary regulation of fertility clinics.

For infertile women, donated eggs may offer the last, best hope of a child, and Internet "catalogues" are one of the few easily accessed (and - initially - anonymous) sources of information. For anyone else, "surfing" the proliferating US fertility Websites can be a profoundly disturbing experience. Here is a society that has publicly consigned Nazism to a box labelled "never again", but in private seems to be embracing one of its most fundamental tenets: eugenics. Perfect little Americans can not only be bred, but are for sale to those with money to buy.

We may not be confronting a cross of Brave New World with the American Dream quite yet, however. Close scrutiny of the "wanted" ads, and interviews with some of the (often defensive) clinic staff, leave an ambiguous impression. The possibility of "shopping" for a child exists, to be sure. But most of those searching the "catalogues" have exhausted all other routes to parenthood. Minimising the risk of genetic disease is one consideration, especially in sex selection. But what most of these would-be parents are seeking is not necessarily that tall, lithe, beautiful American with the brain of Einstein and the brawn of Michael Jordan, but a child who will fit in to their family; someone of their specific ethnic mix and character, who can pass as one of their own.

Of course, this is vanity of a sort. But it has little in common with building a master race. Not yet, anyway.