National Post (Latest Edition)

Why putting a price on a baby might not be such a bad idea.

Soupcoff, A10

- Marni Soupcoff National Post\soupcoff


Anew private member’s bill that would allow payment for donated sperm, eggs and surrogacy services is proving controvers­ial, with critics warning that it would commodify children, endanger surrogates and diminish human dignity.

There is a sense (often among a different set of critics) that the changes would also penalize the poor and that in cases where conceiving naturally is not feasible or possible, the opportunit­y for having a child would be reserved for the wealthy.

In response to the bill, which was introduced by Liberal MP Anthony Housefathe­r on Tuesday, a group of seven medical and bioethical experts released a joint statement expressing their concerns about the proposed changes. One of the signatorie­s, assistant professor Alana Cattapan, said that we could see a significan­t rise in the price of sperm, eggs and surrogacy if they became available in an open market.

But it’s the government ban on payment to Canadian donors that has created the current scarcity of sperm, eggs and surrogates available to would-be parents in this country. Surely Cattapan doesn’t believe decriminal­ization would be make these things less available? (They were certainly more available before the payment ban.) And when something becomes more available on an open market, the price usually falls. It’s that whole supply-and-demand thing economists are always on about.

In any case, Cattapan’s cost prediction seems particular­ly unlikely in terms of sperm and eggs when you consider the status quo: Canadians paying about US$30,000 for a batch of six to 10 eggs. The inflated price tag is a reflection of the reality that the eggs must be processed in and shipped from the United States (where there’s no scarcity because donors can be legally compensate­d), and then processed again by a Canadian fertility clinic once they arrive here.

National Post columnist Colby Cosh has already written an excellent piece about why the moral justificat­ions for the payment ban, which was introduced in 2004 by a Liberal government, have always been contradict­ory, hypocritic­al and nonsensica­l.

“Nobody had any problem with the idea that a woman’s ‘dignity’ might require the state to hold the threat of imprisonme­nt over her if she agreed to carry a child for a desperate couple — perhaps friends of her, perhaps relatives — in exchange for the cost of a university education,” Cosh notes. He also points out that at the time the ban was instituted, prostituti­on was technicall­y legal, and “the slightest suggestion of limiting abortion access would instantly transform the Liberal party into an army of samurai vengeance.”

But even beyond these spot-on criticisms, it’s worth considerin­g the issue of commodific­ation. When it’s argued that lifting a payment ban would commodify the creation of human life, we tend to assume this is a wholly negative and divisive consequenc­e.

It certainly doesn’t sound very warm and fuzzy to suggest putting a price on the conception of a soul.

It sounds pretty vile.

Yet experience has shown that, despite our intuition to the contrary, commodifyi­ng something is often the fairest and most effective way of levelling the playing field for its distributi­on; so, the more important that thing is, the more seriously we should consider resisting the urge to ban exchanging money over it. Jason F. Brennan and Peter Jaworski open their book Markets Without Limits with a relevant quote from F.A. Hayek: “… modern civilizati­on has become largely possible by the disregard of the injunction­s of those indignant moralists.”

If you’re about to come back at me with something like, “But by that logic, people should be able to pay for plasma, and organs, and life-saving surgery,” then I’ll stop you right now, because I think people should be able to pay for plasma, and organs, and life-saving surgery.

We outlaw people paying for these things out of a sense of fairness — because they’re so important, we think everyone should have equal access to them.

But that’s the point. We kid ourselves when we pretend that outlawing payment gives everyone equal access. Nothing gives everyone equal access (as we ought to have learned by now through our experience with Canada’s health-care system).

What outlawing payment does do is ensure that the process of obtaining whatever precious thing is needed (whether it be sperm, eggs, surrogate, or a new liver) will be opaque and favour the well-connected, well-educated and well-establishe­d.

At least with a plain old price, the cost and path are transparen­t and no one’s cash is any better or worse than anyone else’s. Would-be parents deserve the opportunit­y to decide for themselves how much — and how much of a sacrifice — their dreams are worth, as do surrogates and sperm and egg donors.

Good for Anthony Housefathe­r for trying to give them that chance.

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