Putting a price tag on an embryo: Morally right or wrong?

THERE are few moments in our life when we feel like it’s morally wrong but we seldom criticise them.

For example, when we hear that someone is putting a price tag on the embryo, an instant resistance will immediately pop in our mind – but instead of criticising it – we choose to silence ourselves due to its economic benefits.

Since 2011, the number of the foreign patients visiting Malaysia for in vitro fertilisation (IVF) egg donation treatments increase gradually due to the medical tourism plan propounded by Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC). The high demand of the embryo in the Malaysian medical field has stimulated the commercialisation of the embryo.

With reference to the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (Fourth Edition), commercialisation is defined as the process of making a product or service available for sale to the public.

In other words, the embryo is now being treated as a commodity, labelled with a price tag and up for sale in the market. The commercialisation of the embryo has stirred an ethical tizzy within the Malaysian community whereby the first group argue about market triumphalism while the second group contend on the natural law and morality.

Market triumphalism argument


It is polemic to mention that our life has been governed by the market or market values as never before in the past 30 years. Many economists or the people from first group prefer to sidestep moral and natural law issues by sticking on one simple ground – the utilitarian.

According to the economic theory propounded by Adam Smith, the economies will be well thrived via competition, capitalism and free market. Similar approach was also pressed by Greg Mankiw who remarked “the supply of goods to the buyers who value them most highly, as measured by their willingness to pay.”

In other words, the goods will be allocated efficiently to those who value them the highest. By applying this principle to the commercialisation of the embryo, the first group will argue that it benefits the buyers and sellers at the same time.

The result of the exchange/deal will allow the seller to get profits while the buyer gets the embryo for the purpose of reproduction or research. It was said that the social utility or collective well-being will be maximised and the embryo will be appreciated in the ultimate sense.

However, the special nature of the embryo as a commercial critically raise the ethical questions in the issue of commercialisation of the embryo. First, natural law; and second, morality.

Natural law and morality

Under natural law, putting the price tag on a part of the human body violates human dignity and equity. In 1785, Immanuel Kant revolutionised human dignity as the moral principle that prohibits us to treat the other as any means. He claimed that people do not have a price and people are ‘above all price’.

According to Fertility Space, the average cost of IVF in Malaysia ranges between RM14,000.00 to RM16,000.00 per cycle (including the cost of the embryo).

The US-based National Infertility Association (RESOLVE) also states that the average cost of embryo donation ranges from US$2,500 to US$4,000 (RM11,400 to RM18,200). As we can see, there is no fixed price on the embryo and no person should have the unfettered right to put a price on the other’s body part.

In this respect, the commercialisation of the embryo impliedly increases the risk of promoting the notion that the persons have a price and some persons have less worth than others. Labelling a price on an embryo is said as a corruption of human dignity, because it treats the embryo as a product to be traded rather than being a natural human body part.

Putting price tag inappropriate

Next, the commercialisation of the embryo also motivates people to ignore the intrinsic value of the norms until it violates morality. The market exchanges of the embryo alter the character of the embryo in which the norm is that the embryo is a natural human body part; not a commercial to be sold in the market.

The main changing of the society’s attitude will be reflected in their sense of obligation to uphold the spirit of altruism. In other words, the profits of marketing the embryo is inhospitable to a person’s moral responsibility to “voluntarily donate” the embryo.

This is affirmed by the similar research done by Richard Titmuss on the corrosive effect of the commercialisation of blood donation. It was found that the system of blood collection in the UK (the blood is contributed unpaid by the voluntary donors) is better compared to the US (the blood is contributed by selling and buying from the donors).

The research showed that the fatal effect of the commercialisation of blood is it erodes the people’s sense of obligation to preserve the norm of giving and contributing in a society.

By applying the said explanation in the commercialisation of the embryo, the society will tend to have the stigma to value the embryo in monetary form and undermines the “gift relationship” until it renders the core spirit of being a human, including a person’s civic duty, generosity, and altruism.


So, in answering the question of “should the embryo be commercialised?”, the answer will be a solid negative as it is against the natural law and morality.

There are three points we could humbly conclude from the discussion above. First, money is fungible, it should not be put on the scale to measure the value of everything. Putting a price on everything is hollowing the public discourse.

Second, the measurement of the value of the things is according to social behaviour to develop a mutual respect among one another. A mere measurement of value via money is vacuuming the quality of life in Malaysian society.

Third, not everything should be labelled with a price tag and up for sale – including embryo – for the sake of better future. – Jan 7, 2023


Eve Hong Xin Yun is a third year law student in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM).

The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.  

Main photo credit: Verywell Health

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