The Booming Better Baby Business, by Jennifer Lahl

I’ve written before about the better baby business and the fact that people’s desire to take control over the characteristics of their future offspring is strong–and some of us argue that designing babies is becoming mainstreamed. Perhaps we may even see the day when parents who choose not to choose from a cafeteria style menu of options for their children will be charged with parental negligence.

Debora Spar’s recent book, The Baby Business: How Money, Science and Politics Drive the Commerce of Conception is a fascinating look at babies, as the title suggests, as a business. Spar, a professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, begins her book, at the beginning, with Rachel’s cry to ‘give me sons or I shall die’ and the account of one of the earliest surrogate pregnancies between Sarah, Abraham and Hagar.

The baby business gets a lot of things right. First, Spar acknowledges that the desire for babies, boy babies, and of course healthy babies has always been with us and it isn’t going away. And that people have always been willing to pay top dollar for ‘good’ babies. Second, The Baby Business reminds us, whether we like it or not, buying and selling babies is a real business with real profits. People are buying and selling babies and making a lot of money. There is a demand for babies which has always been with us and will never go away. And as long as there is a demand for beautiful healthy babies, you can bet there will always be a supply.

Spar’s book spans biblical times to our modern day repro tech craze of internet purchases of the best genetic information money can buy. She weaves in lots of history, the history of eugenics in America (the landmark case of Buck vs. Bell and Darwin’s influence to produce fitter families), the Nazi’s quest for the perfect Aryan race, the history of birth control and of traditional adoption moving from a closed/sealed records model to open adoption where pregnant moms comb through books looking for the right parents to give (fees added) their baby to.

And yet throughout the book she reminds us of the very real baby market which has been present in one fashion or another since the beginning of time. Sometimes the market has been underground, sometimes that market has been sluggish (i.e. contraception and abortion had a dramatic effect on the supply of babies) and sometimes, like now, the market seems to know no bounds as couples, parents, people will pay top dollar again and again and again just for the hope of a child of their own.

The baby business is not, by Spar’s own admission, a book on the morality of buying and selling babies. It is not about the rightness or wrongness of designing children, or producing a savior child for a sick sibling. It doesn’t wrestle with the questions of when does life begin or what are the legal rights of the unborn. It is a book that seeks to address the realities of the baby business as a market force that is real and present. It is a book which forces us to look squarely at a business with wares to sell, and the wares just happen to be babies.

Jennifer Lahl is National Director of the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network