Yesterday, British scientist Robert Edwards was honored for a Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work developing in vitro fertilization. IVF has aided the births of some four million babies since the first "test tube baby" was born in 1978.
Along with the different iterations of reproductive technology have come some novel social situations that then-Yale undergraduate Jessica Cohen explored in a 2002 piece in The Atlantic. She responded -- mostly on a whim -- to an ad in the Yale Daily News offering $25,000 for eggs from a very specific type of person.
The ensuing correspondence with her would-be egg users is a mix of forced casual banter and disturbingly precise fantasies of babymaking perfected.
The would-be parents' decision to advertise in the News--and to offer a five-figure compensation--immediately suggested that they were in the market for an egg of a certain rarefied type. Beyond their desire for an Ivy League donor, they wanted a young woman over five feet five, of Jewish heritage, athletic, with a minimum combined SAT score of 1500, and attractive. I was curious--and I fit all the criteria except the SAT score. So I e-mailed Michelle and David (not their real names) and asked for more information about the process and how much the SAT minimum really meant to them. Then I waited for a reply....
David responded to my e-mail a few hours after I'd sent it. He told me nothing about himself, and only briefly alluded to the many questions I had asked about the egg-donation process. He spent the bulk of the e-mail describing a cartoon, and then requested photos of me. The cartoon was a scene with a "couple that is just getting married, he a nerd and she a beauty," he wrote. "They are kvelling about how wonderful their offspring will be with his brains and her looks." He went on to describe the punch line: the next panel showed a nerdy-looking baby thinking empty thoughts. The following paragraph was more direct. David let me know that he and his wife were flexible on most criteria but that Michelle was "a real Nazi" about "donor looks and donor health history."
This seemed to be a commentary of some sort on the couple's situation and how plans might go awry, but the message was impossible to pin down. I thanked him for the e-mail, asked where to send my pictures, and repeated my original questions about egg donation and their criteria.
In a subsequent e-mail David promised to return my photos, so I sent him dorm-room pictures, the kind that every college student has lying around. Now they assumed a new level of importance. I would soon learn what this anonymous couple, somewhere in the United States, thought about my genetic material as displayed in these photographs.
Read the rest of Cohen's "Grade A: The Market for a Yale Woman's Eggs."
Revisit more pieces from The Atlantic's archives with the Technology Channel.