In Genetics, You Get What You Pay for . . . Right?

They are in the back seat, engaged in one of those games that little girls play to pass the time, this one involving folded paper and fortunetelling and questions about their future lives.

This hypothetical query arises: "If you could choose, would you rather be pretty or rich?"

"Pretty," the 12-year-old says emphatically. Her 10-year-old sister agrees. Pretty is best, she says, "because if you're pretty enough, you can use that to get rich. You could become a model or a movie star."

Or, she might have added, you could sell your eggs--your genetic material--to a procession of wealthy, childless couples for $25,000 a pop or more.

I thought about my daughters' conversation when I read our front-page story last weekend about the big money being paid to beautiful college coeds who "donate" their eggs to infertile women.

Women like Rachel, who told reporter Kenneth Weiss she made more than $36,000 last year by passing her eggs along to two childless couples. A tall, pretty strawberry blond with blue-green eyes and an Ivy League pedigree, Rachel earned enough to begin paying off her student loans.

And she learned something that life, not college, teaches--the value of beauty as a commodity.

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It was hailed as a breakthrough in the treatment of infertility when the first child was born from a donated egg in 1983. Since then, more than 10,000 babies have been born through the use of donor eggs.

The eggs are extracted from young women, fertilized with the would-be father's sperm, then the embryos are implanted in the womb of the mother-to-be. The child that results carries the genetic heritage of the father and the egg donor.

It is one of the most successful methods of assisted conception, and the desire for donated eggs is exploding, mainly among couples who had put off childbearing until middle age, then found it difficult to conceive.

The egg donor game has become big business, with heavy competition for young women with good looks and brains, and narcissistic appeals to would-be parents that rely primarily on the lure of beauty.

Like the Malibu photographer who tried to auction off the eggs of fashion models. For $15,000 to $150,000, couples could buy the eggs of beautiful women and give their children an advantage in life, his pitch said. Or the Manhattan Beach company that markets its egg donors to prospective parents with a brochure featuring them posing in bikinis.

It seems only fair to me that women who go through the arduous process of egg donation should be compensated for their inconvenience and pain. But should the going price for their eggs depend on whether they're pretty or plain, and on how much desperate couples are willing to pay?

Already market forces have spoken, allowing women like Valerie--a stunningly beautiful medical student with an impressive resume--to demand "$50,000, plus compensation" for her eggs, while the "average" donor typically receives $5,000 or less.

It's a situation that highlights our obsession with physical beauty; our confidence that, with enough money, we can buy whatever we think we need. It has gone beyond providing help to infertile couples, USC bioethics expert Alex Capron told Weiss. "We are selling beauty, brains or brawn to buyers."

Capron says parents forced to give up on the dream of genetic offspring may be trying to create a child that satisfies other ego needs--is better-looking, more athletic, smarter.

The ads they run in college newspapers often resemble romance ads from the personals columns: "Intelligent, athletic egg donor needed." "Must be . . . athletic, outgoing and beautiful." "Caucasian, under 30 . . . proven college-level athletic ability. Compensation is $100,000."

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I don't begrudge these parents their dreams. If I'd been forced to pick another mother for my daughters, I'd have chosen one much smarter, prettier and more athletic than I.

And I understand why even young girls like my daughters consider good looks an important asset. A growing body of academic research suggests we are hard-wired to appreciate certain physical traits, to equate them with good genes, robust health, fertility.

If I were leafing through a catalog of prospective parents for my children, I might well opt for the best-looking genes I could afford. In fact, some of my friends might say that's just what I did, even though I got pregnant the old-fashioned way.

I'll never admit to choosing my late husband for his good looks, but I do remember the first day I met his family, surveyed the room and thought to myself, "What a good-looking bunch." I considered myself lucky to have tapped into such an attractive gene pool. "He's going to make some pretty babies," I used to crow, only half-joking, to my friends.

And he did. But just as we pass along hair color and height and facial features, we also transmit to our offspring traits less easily seen and less often appreciated. My daughter got her father's curly eyelashes, but she got his quick temper as well. Her sister has their dad's honey-colored skin, but, just like he was, she is stubborn as hell.

Everything from our vulnerability to addiction to our capacity for happiness is influenced by our genes. And every child represents a roll of the dice, with thousands of possibilities and no genetic guarantees.

That tall, blond Ivy Leaguer, with the tennis talent and perfect teeth whose eggs went for $50,000? She just might produce a scrawny child with her Uncle Joe's flat feet, her Grandma's frizzy hair, her Aunt Helen's learning disability.

I hope these parents get what they want. But, more important for their kids, I hope they want what they get.

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Sandy Banks' column runs on Tuesdays and Sundays. She's at sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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