Hot Genes for Sale?

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Why is it that the biggest debates on bioethics tend to be triggered by oddballs? In early 1998, eccentric physicist Richard Seed ignited a furor when he vowed to clone a human being. (He hasn't been heard from since.) Now comes Ron Harris--fashion photographer, soft-core-porn videographer and the entrepreneurial mind behind such Web ventures as Eros Entertainment Inc. Harris' latest idea: a sexy, come-hither website called Ron's Angels that intends to auction off the eggs of beautiful models.

The site's debut last week at outraged fertility experts and ethicists, who accused Harris of everything from running a soft-core eBay to the Hitlerian crime of eugenics. Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, who wrote the 1992 federal law regulating fertility clinics, called the operation "crass commercialism." Some suggested that Harris might be more interested in selling ads on a hot website than in selling eggs--or that the whole thing might even be a hoax.

In an interview with TIME, Harris, 66, admitted that he wants to make a buck--he charges $24.95 a month for full access to the website--but insisted that the site is for real and is based on his own personal "theories of beauty and biology." Says Harris, without a trace of irony: "This is the first society to truly recognize how important beautiful genes are to our evolution. I have created a dialogue that will improve this society."

While Harris' project may seem shallow, the idea of choosing an egg donor based on physical characteristics is hardly new. Several egg businesses already let clients select donors by race, weight, height, eye color or hair color, not to mention such preferences as "fine boned" and "tanning ability." Harris isn't the first to charge for eggs either: virtually all egg donors are in fact sellers, at a typical rate of between $3,000 and $5,000 per ovum, plus medical expenses. And an unnamed egg-seeking couple put an ad in several college papers last winter offering $50,000 for eggs from a young woman with specific physical and intellectual attributes.

None of this makes Harris a wholesome character. But in the end, he has broken no laws--and broken little new ground in the selling of eggs. He has merely upped the ante. He has, that is, if his venture is a success. The site has received only one legitimate bid so far, says Harris' spokesman, and in the negative publicity that followed the website launch, five of the eight models originally displayed on his site have dropped out.

But Harris says he's getting calls from more young women who want to be donors, including students from Harvard and Berkeley and "a Bo Derek look-alike." One of his charter donors, actress Nicole Newman, 25, says she's sticking with the project in the hopes of making money for college--and to be right where the action is. "It's the new millennium," she says. "We're the first people at the door."