Reproductive Revolution

Science Changes The Rules

Sarah Bershak seems like a fairly typical 3-year-old: adorable and full of energy. But her mother is anything but typical: Judith Bershak had Sarah when she was 50 years old and past menopause.

Correspondent Susan Spencer reports on Bershak and others who are expanding the horizon of human reproduction.

Bershak accomplished this with the help of technology. In the lab, her doctor, Richard Paulsen, used in-vitro fertilization, combining the egg of a younger woman's donated egg with sperm from Bershak's husband.

"We'd been through hell trying to have a child and trying to adopt and all that, and this seemed very easy by comparison," says Bershak. "A lot of work was done by the laboratory."

Dr. Paulsen, director of fertility at the University of Southern California School of Medicine, has helped about 100 women older than 50 have babies. "Regardless of the age of the woman, if you get a young egg, she will be able to become pregnant, " he says.

There is nothing wrong with having children at that age, says Paulsen: "The life expectancy of a person at the age of 50 is at least 35 years."

Researchers may soon achieve another breakthrough. They are working on a procedure that would allow an older woman to not only bear children but to have offspring with her genes instead of those of a donor. The idea: Take the genetic material out of the older woman's egg and put it into a younger donor egg, which has better odds of leading to a successful pregnancy.

According to Dr. Jamie Grifo, head of the infertility program at the New York University Medical Center, the science is already there. This technique can potentially "be a replacement for donor egg," Grifo says.

When Sarah Bershak is 25, her mother will be 75.
Yet another technique may revolutionize fertility treatments. Researchers say that they will soon be able to freeze eggs, which would allow a young woman to simply store her own for later use, whenever she wanted. But for now, infertile woman are increasingly using egg banks, including some that operate via the Web.

And the market for eggs is becoming more and more crowded. Among the entrants is Ron Harris, who started a Web site called Ron's Angels, which claims to auction off the eggs and sperm of models.

"We're screening for intelligence, social skills, beauty, healthiness," says Harris, a former fashion photographer.

Check out the Ron's Angels Web site for yourself.
One of the first to sign on was a model named Nicole. "I think a beautiful child definitely has a better chance in life," she says. "I think that they'll do better in the real world. I think good-looking people just generally, just rock!"

The eggs and sperm are being auctioned for different prices. One woman has priced her egg at $150,000. Why so expensive? "She must think her time and trouble is worth that," Harris says, laughing. Despite a glut of media attention, Harris still hasn't brokered any deals. He says that he has five or six serious bidders at the moment.

Harris is unapologetic about his business: "Society seems to feel those traits are important, or they wouldn't be putting them on television and making millions of dollars off them. The cosmetics business, the fashion industry - we know that this is all driven by these same traits. It's not what I'm doing; the entire culture is doing it."

Some ethicists are thrilled with what Harris is doing, though.

"I think Ron's Angels may help because people are so shocked by Ron's Angels that they may wake up and say we better take a good look at what is going on, " says Elizabeth Bartholet, a Harvard University law professor who has written two books on reproductive issues.

She hopes that Harris will force people to think about the issues involved in designing babies. There is "incredible potential for genetic manipulation," Bartholet says. "Now that scared us when Hitler was doing it. Should it scare us less when private parties and their doctors are doing it?"

For Dr. Grifo, such questions are off the mark. Manipulating genes, he says, simply means upping the odds for a healthy baby. Grifo is now using a new procedure to pinpoint embryos that carry genetic diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, and certain kinds of mental retardation and autism.

After analyzing the embryos, he then transfers only the healthy ones into the mother. The process starts by removing just one cell from the embryo. But some fear that in the future, doctors will use the same techniques to screen for other traits, like blue eyes or obesity.

Grifo himself realizes that the procedure could lead to some moral quandaries. "We started this procedure to help people with genetic problems," he says. "I think we will as a society need to make really difficult decisions about where the line should be drawn. And the line is a difficult one."

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Web story produced by David Kohn;