Roasting the Embryos of Abraham

SA embryo broker Jennalee Ryan in her Dominion home.
Not since a South Korean scientific “rock star” faked a cloned human embryo in 2004 — “I was blinded by work and my drive for achievement,” a chastened Dr. Hwang Woo-Suk said in 2005 — has genetic material disturbed the reputation of a single person so thoroughly.

Embryo broker Jennalee Ryan, the founder of San Antonio-based Abraham Center of Life, says everybody’s throwing rocks at her since a Federal Drug Administration agent got past security at her gated Northside Dominion community two weeks ago, interrupting an interview she was giving an Associated Press reporter — the last global-media outlet you want around when a fed’s pestering you with, “Where’s the tissue? Where’re the embryos?” over the course of a four-hour raid.

The AP story in the Washington Post finally got two bewildered cliques to take notice of the Abraham Center (which the Current profiled in “Designer Genes,” October 4-10, 2006): the Express-News, and the Dominion Homeowners Association, which reportedly didn’t like the idea of a neighborhood embryo-convenience store nearby (in an E-N article citing covenants that forbid businesses within the Dominon’s hallowed gates), so Ryan recently moved her home office to a spot near the airport.

What’s everybody’s problem? It
wasn’t like Ryan kept frozen embryos in a liquid-nitrogen-filled Igloo cooler in the garage, although with the recent freeze, she could practically leave them outside in little vials clothespinned to a line (that’s a joke). If you’re thinking of running an embryo home-brew operation, according to brighter minds at, keep your embryos at 31 degrees below zero. Even then, human embryos can be crazy resilient — like in the case of the Hurricane Katrina embryo saved from a flooded New Orleans hospital. The rescued embryo became a little boy last week.

To run the self-proclaimed “World’s First Donor-Created Human Embryo Bank,” Ryan does most of her work over the net. She contracts with a New York fertility center to warehouse the $2,500-a-pop, cryogenically chilled product. She does not handle pre-embryo material — sperm and egg — she doesn’t need to shake hands with the egg donor she screens through the Abraham Center’s website or the men whose lively effervescence she buys from an online sperm bank (Oprah says there are more than 150 nationwide: a whole cottage industry has sprung up around assisted reproduction, including tracing anonymous sperm donors).

“Anybody can go in and get a sperm and egg and create their own embryos for themselves and freeze the rest,” Ryan told the Current. She said acquiring inventory that might otherwise never reach America’s estimated 6-million infertile couples was an idea she got last year, right about the time that gloom cinema about the collapse of fertility, Children of Men, was in the can.

“The pro-lifers should love me because I create life, I don’t destroy it,” Ryan said. And with donations like the 13 leftover frozen embryos that two mixed-race couples recently had no use for — “I’m sure they’d be thrown down the toilet,” she said — you’d think Bexar County Right to Life’s VP Schuylar Crist might welcome Ryan to one of the pro-life processions they hold outside the women’s clinics on San Pedro, aka “Reproductive-Rights Alley”.

But Crist called Ryan’s work morally reprehensible, and said that her donor-screening process could promote eugenics (a claim the current mixed-race embryos Ryan says she’ll have in the kitty would refute), and, diving into “Where-does-life-begin?” polemics, Crist emailed the Current to say, “It was wrong to buy and sell humans as slave property hundreds of years ago ... it is just as wrong to buy and sell human lives now!”

Addressing that argument is beyond the FDA’s purview. And, since Ryan herself never handles human tissue, cells, or embryos, the FDA closed its investigation of her Center, the government regulation agency’s spokeswoman, Karen Riley, told the Current last Friday.

“We sent an investigator to a facility that we heard about,” Riley said.               Albert Anouna, director of the Sperm & Embryo Bank of New Jersey (a business that transfers embryos to San Antonio), said the raid should provide some measure of comfort to the public at large.

“The FDA can walk in on anyone at anytime for any reason,” said Anouna, the recent subject of an FDA visit, who went on to praise the agency for keeping tabs on all biological businesses, even those operating from half-million-dollar homes.

“Because you can’t have people trading in illegal body parts or bringing in sperm from other countries that hasn’t been tested.”


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