An Ottawa music station, Hot 89.9, recently launched a “Win a Baby” contest. The prize offered was up to three rounds of fertility treatment worth C$35,000. It’s reported that the station received around 400 applications “from a diverse range of people, including same-sex couples, single women and cancer patients.”
Entrants had to explain, in not more than 100 words, why they most merited the prize treatment. The infertility stories of five finalists, who are all opposite-sex couples having difficulty conceiving naturally, were selected and posted anonymously on the station’s website. Listeners could vote, but the winner was to be chosen by a panel of judges. Bizarrely, in light of the nature of the prize, they must answer a math skill-testing question to be awarded the prize, presumably to comply with Ontario gaming laws.
Advertisements for the competition featuring photographs of babies were displayed in Ottawa. One showed a very cute baby holding a sign reading “Win me!” Written in small print at the bottom of the ad were the words, “Baby may not be exactly as shown,” again, a bizarre twist. One presumes it’s a legal disclaimer to avoid claims of false advertising of a “consumer product.”
Early Tuesday morning, all the finalists were gathered at the radio station in what the host described as a “win a baby showroom.” In the result, each couple was offered “up to three fertility treatments.” Listening to their reactions to the disclosure of the results live on air, it was impossible for one’s heart not to go out to them.
But many people, including, interestingly, many who are usually very liberal with respect to the social and ethical values they believe should govern assisted human reproduction technologies, had an ethical “yuck” reaction to this competition. I believe that reaction expresses a moral intuition that it’s wrong. Some people, however — especially those who believe in “absolute rights to reproductive freedom” and give priority to individuals’ rights to self-determination — say they have found it difficult to articulate why that is the case. So what might be the features that make it unethical?
First, a baby is being treated as a thing, an object or a product — a prize to be won. It’s being reified and objectified, both of which are ethically wrong treatment of a human being. Slavery is wrong for these same reasons, among others.
The radio station is putting a price on a baby’s head — up to $35,000. This breaches the foundational societal value that human life is priceless and “hors de commerce” — it’s not commensurable in money and must not be commercialized. To act otherwise is to disrespect both the life of the person treated in such ways and human life, in general.
Making conception of a baby a competition prize overtly cuts across any idea that the transmission of human life requires deep respect and, perhaps, should be governed by some sense of the sacred, even if just the “secular sacred.” It involves a trivialization of the transmission of human life, of conceiving a child, and of becoming a parent.
Relatedly, might the intuition that this competition is inherently wrong stem from making into a game assistance in such a momentous undertaking as having a child? It brings to mind a racehorse club running such a competition to attract publicity by offering as the prize the services of a stallion or mare to breed a foal.
And some people have objected because they fear the competition will bring the “fertility industry,” which is now a $12-billion-a-year industry globally, into disrepute. It might make people, who wouldn’t otherwise question that industry, ask are there other abuses we should know about and stop. There are such. Sometimes an “everyday” example of an unethical practice that happens on our doorstep, such as this competition, can have a much more powerful impact than what we see as exotic examples that we are not likely to encounter personally or in Canada.
Even if this competition were otherwise ethically acceptable, offering this treatment as a prize in a competition that attracts notoriety by exploiting emotionally and economically vulnerable, infertile people’s suffering is wrong. The overall harms far outweigh any benefits. Around 400 such people will have placed their hopes on the line, but only five couples have won, and even their suffering has been exploited. The vast majority will experience only further serious disappointment and loss.
And finally, and most importantly, what about the impact on any resulting child of being won as a prize in a competition and the station’s ethics in intentionally creating that reality? The station announced there has been interest in this competition from around the world and they revealed the winners’ identities. The competition rules provided “the finalists must be willing to share their story on air (and to) be interviewed, filmed, taped and accompanied for the duration of the Contest Period and must allow and obtain access to themselves, their home and friends as well as make themselves available whenever asked during the Contest Period.” Although the information is gathered with the parents’ consent, it also involves any future baby’s right of privacy and also raises the question: Is the station planning some follow-up?
Margaret Somerville is director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law.