The surge of Assisted Reproductive Technologies, ART, has ushered modern society into a ‘brave new world’ resulting in an array of ethical situations never thought possible.
Previously, it took a man and a woman to produce a child. Now, the possibilities seem endless and are advancing rapidly even as the traditional family unit continues to disintegrate.
Beginning with In Vitro Fertilization, or IVF, in the late 1970’s, ART now includes a variety of related techniques. IVF, however, is by far the most common and accounts for 99% of procedures.
To further complicate the issue there is the new concept called “social infertility,” or “psychological infertility”. Women who simply do not want to have relationships with men, including gays and lesbians, now have access to taxpayer-funded IVF.
Like many intricate medical procedures, the average person typically does not understand the complexity or risks involved in IVF or related procedures. The term in vitro, comes from the Latin term meaning ‘in glass’.
The procedure begins with the ovaries being hyperstimulated with a variety of potent drugs. (In some cases, an egg donor is used.) At the proper time, the eggs are retrieved using an ultrasound guided needle which pierces the vaginal wall to reach and retrieve the eggs. It is common to remove between ten and thirty eggs and is typically done under some form of anesthesia.
Immediately following the retrieval, the eggs are mixed with the sperm. The best of the resulting embryos - living, preborn children - are transferred to the uterus.
Several embryos may be placed into the uterus to improve the chance of implantation and pregnancy (Interestingly enough, Australian scientists have found the death rate of babies conceived using in-vitro fertilization is significantly reduced when only one embryo is implanted). The leftover embryos are often destroyed or used for research purposes.
There are many risks and potential side effects, including:
- Potential over stimulation of the ovaries.
- Ovarian rupture.
- Drug related side effects, such as: breast and uterine cancers, heart attack, stroke and blood clots.
- Risks of puncture and/or bleeding, infection and complications from anesthesia
- Multiple pregnancies may result, causing an increased risk of pregnancy loss, obstetrical complications, and premature birth.
- Ectopic pregnancy may occur if a fertilized egg develops outside the uterus.
And, none of this comes cheap. All told, the costs for IVF can easily exceed $40,000. At the same time, success rates vary widely and may depend on a number of factors, including maternal age, the reason for infertility, and ovarian function. Other factors include smoking, obesity, and semen quality, among others.
What began as a way to help physically impaired married women begin a family, has exploded into a lifestyle choice. Coupled with IVF, the relatively new procedure of egg freezing has allowed more and more women to essentially stop the proverbial ‘biological clock’, if only for awhile. National Public Radio devoted a segment to this fad titled, “Egg Freezing Puts the Biological Clock on Hold.”
The Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology, which sets industry guidelines, still considers egg freezing experimental. Even the most renowned experts will admit their methods and success rates reveal a field that is rapidly changing. Obviously, there are some harsh realities with the cost of egg freezing, as well. Consider these very real scenarios:
- Success rates for live births vary widely. For those under 35 years old, the rate is only 46% and for the 43-44 year age group, a dismal 8%.
- One couple was left with 18 embryos after their IVF procedure. The couple has advertised the leftover embryos on Craigslist so they can donate them to others ‘in need’.
- “…Well, the trouble is, we have 5 frozen blastos (embryos). It's too much money to keep them frozen…I don't know what to do with them. I don't want them to just be thrown in the trash, and I'm not sure how I feel about scientific research…”
- “It's such a hard decision. We had 7 leftover from my IVF. Due to storage and thawing fees, which aren't covered by insurance, we couldn't afford to hold onto them any longer.”
Our focus with each area of technology should maintain the dignity of all involved.
“While some of this science suits the adults involved, what about the best interests of the children involved?” says Jennifer Lahl, founder and president of the Center for Bioethics and Culture. “I say freezers are for food, like the Thanksgiving turkey, not for our future progeny.”
There is evidence that suggests that IVF offspring are at higher risk for lower birth weight for unknown reasons. Data has also shown that certain birth defects are more common in infants conceived through IVF.
The question remains then: When IVF candidates are carefully informed, do they really want to experiment on their future children?
Suzanne L. Ward
Director, Education and Public Relations
Georgia Right to Life