CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

More Concerns About IVF

Jun 15, 2009

For those couples who have genuine biological infertility problems, various assisted reproductive technologies (ART) such as IVF can seem like a real godsend. The desire for children is of course most natural, and the inability to have children is always felt as a grievous loss.

Yet life offers no guarantees, so science and technology have long been in the business of offsetting the shortcomings of nature. However, as with most things in life, the benefits must be examined along with the costs. Sometimes a social good can only be mitigated by corresponding harm. Sometimes a certain good may have too many negative consequences.

There are numerous risks and downsides associated with ART which I have documented elsewhere. The children themselves who are created by such techniques also may well suffer in various ways. Thus at the very least, those couples considering using ART should think carefully indeed before embarking upon such procedures.

But here I simply wish to draw your attention to some recent concerns about procedures such as IVF. The latest involves a story from the UK involving a tragic mix-up, and a devastated couple. The Daily Mail provides this headline: “’In ten seconds our world was shattered’: Distraught IVF couple discover their last embryo was given to the wrong woman – and then aborted”.

The story continues: “A couple’s last hopes of having another child have been shattered after an appalling blunder at an NHS fertility clinic led to their final usable embryo being implanted into the wrong patient. The error was made by an overworked trainee doctor who failed to carry out strict checks that require all fertility procedures to be witnessed and verified. The woman who mistakenly received the couple’s embryo was told of the devastating error shortly after it occurred and agreed to have a termination. It was the only remaining embryo of nine the distraught couple had created using IVF. The blunder at IVF Wales, part of Cardiff and Vale NHS Trust, was rated category A, the most serious level, by the Government’s fertility regulator, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA).”

Obviously a number of ethical issues are raised here. It is clear, for example, that these technologies are often running at cross purposes. The same hospital that performs fertility treatment in one room, may well be dealing with contraception, sterilisation and abortion in another. On the one hand we want to be fertile, even where it is socially, morally or biologically impossible or undesirable. On the other hand we want the ability to cut off the possibility of new life. This schizoid mentality is all part of a society that has lost its moorings and is confused about the nature of sexuality and reproduction.

But this can only get worse. As we move down the road of sex selection, selective breeding, designer babies, and grand promises of eliminating present disease and weeding out future illnesses, we will more and more make utilitarian decisions about which babies should be allowed to enter the world and which should not. The range of what is acceptable life will continue to narrow, and the pressure will mount to restrict conception and parenthood to that which is socially desirable.

But problems in medical ethics are the least of the concerns for these distraught parents. Their reality is quite obvious: their last child was killed. As the grieving mother said: “I kept thinking, ‘They’ve killed our baby! Killed our baby!’ The hospital offered us private counselling on the spot, but we couldn’t get out of there fast enough. Even our worst fears didn’t prepare us for the devastating news that our embryo had actually been placed in another woman, and that it had to be taken out and destroyed for ‘medical reasons’.”

Many similar problems such as this have occurred over the years, mostly due to human error. Numerous IVF mix-ups have occurred. Sperm, eggs, or embryos, are somewhere along the line mixed up, resulting in the wrong children given to the wrong parents. A recent example took place in Britain when a white couple had black twins following an IVF mix-up. A study later found that this was due to mistakes, overworked staff and poor management. The report found a “catalogue of serious mishaps” at IVF clinics.

And the various medical concerns continue to make news. Also in the UK, a recent study found that IVF twins are at a much greater risk of illness or early death. As the Times reported last month, “Twins born as a result of fertility treatment are at greater risk of serious illness or dying in the first three years of their life than those who are conceived naturally, a study suggests. Siblings born together after in vitro fertilisation (IVF) stay an average of four days longer in hospital after birth and are far more likely to be admitted to a neo-natal intensive care ward. They are more than twice as likely to die just before or just after birth, although the reasons for this are not clear, researchers at the universities of Western Australia and Oxford said.”

As mentioned, the desire for children is normal and deep-seated. But sometimes we must be willing to accept what nature has dealt to us, if the remedy becomes worse than the ‘illness’. Indeed, one can ask if it is even right to speak of infertility as an illness.

One thing is certain, IVF and other forms of ART do nothing to cure the condition. The infertile individual continues to be infertile after the treatment. Perhaps we should put more money into the causes of infertility. Research should be aimed at solving or relieving these problems, instead of pouring money into treating the symptoms. And other options, like adoption, should be explored more fully.

Indeed, one can also ask whether IVF is good medicine. Bioethicist Donald De Marco reminds us that reproductive technologies “represent a deviation from the traditional aims of medicine inasmuch as they treat a desire rather than a disease”.

And as fertility expert Roger Gosden notes, “The desire to bear a child can become obsessive, and the costs of infertility treatment are often heavy. Infertility patients are willing to accept considerable discomfort as they undergo a roller coaster of emotions and medical procedures that would be considered humiliating or even dangerous in other circumstances.”

Commenting on this newest story of IVF mix-ups, Bel Mooney offers some helpful insights: “The toll on her physical and mental health (and that of her husband) has been immense and one wonders what the knock-on effect of that on her existing child will be. After all, Mum is always sick or in tears … Desperate couples on the IVF carousel think: ‘Next time we will be lucky’ and perhaps say silent prayers as the cycle starts once more. As I said earlier, who can blame them?

“Yet it’s impossible not to worry that we have reached an unhealthy state when too many people believe they have a divine right to a child. When you have women in their 50s and 60s living by that misplaced conviction and conceiving babies artificially, something is very wrong. These are fiendishly difficult issues, and any government (and its watchdog) owes it to the public to legislate fairly, to be vigilant, to take responsibility and to warn.

“Many of us have doubts that the HFEA is living up to those standards. But beyond that, perhaps women themselves need to rethink their attitudes to motherhood. I would suggest that any young woman in her twenties, in a serious loving relationship, would be wiser not to postpone trying for a baby. That she should think of fertility as a privilege, not a right. And that – whisper it – childlessness might be a fate which (like so many of the other sorrows which afflict our lives) sometimes has to be accepted.”

Quite so. And this is not mere wishful thinking. I know of infertile couples who have embraced their infertility. Sure, they still ache for a child, but they have learned to accept their lot in life, and have learned to be grateful for the many mercies and blessings they do experience in a less than ideal world.

Perhaps the desire for a child has become that much stronger in a world where we expect everything to be handed to us on a silver platter. Living in an age of entitlements simply compounds the problem here. Perhaps it is time we started looking at life in all its fullness as a gift, instead of an entitlement.

www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1192867/IVF-baby-given-wrong-woman–couples-embryo-aborted.html
www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/health/article6328793.ece
www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-1193033/BEL-MOONEY-My-heart-goes-IVF-couple-child-isnt-divine-right.html

[1423 words]

11 Responses to More Concerns About IVF

  • Bill,
    I agree that postponing having children until ART is required is wrong, but mostly the article is pretty unconvincing.
    Early surgical and medical procedures often had unintended and frequently fatal (negative) consequences. Fortunately, risks were taken and many procedures are now regarded as safe. Probably this will be the case for ART.
    That abortions are freely available is no argument against ART.
    Medical science usually only manages to alleviate symptoms or to remove offending organs and institute a lifelong medication. ART may not “cure the condition” but it may well treat the symptom of not having a child.
    Matt Puusaari

  • Thanks Matt

    I have documented other concerns, risks and dangers associated with IVF elsewhere, such as in this article: billmuehlenberg.com/2007/08/30/concerns-about-ivf/

    If after assessing that evidence you still remain unconvinced and unconcerned, that is up to you.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill and Matt,

    It would be worth checking into the causes of infertility, which include excessive use of the contraceptive Pill. This would count as a significant form of “iatrogenic” treatment where the “cure” causes the “disease”, although radical feminist proponents would never dare admit this.

    And I put it that the driving force behind the use of the Pill is for men/women to control their fertility in ways that God didn’t intend.

    So, Matt, I would agree with Bill’s inference that there is a link between abortion and ART – they are all of a piece within “a woman’s right to control her body” theories.

    Bill, I note that you use the expression “divine right to a child”, but one wonders about most of the proponents of the Pill, abortion and ARTs – do they acknoweledge any God at all? Can they claim such a right when there is No-one to bestow it?

    Much to ponder – thank you…

    John Angelico

  • Thanks John

    And another important reason for infertility is abortion itself. So contraceptives, STDs (brought on in large measure by sexual promiscuity) and abortion all may lead to infertility. So there are very real consequences to the sexual lifestyle we live in modern Western societies.

    And while I did not use the phrase “divine right to a child,” but quoted someone else who used it, it does raise some issues. Even leaving aside the divine for a moment, do we have a right to children? Sure, human rights laws would argue that we should not be denied the right to seek to have children, but is there some fundamental universal right to a child?

    Again, living in an age of entitlements, we seem to think that we have a right to everything. But as just mentioned, if we also demand the right to do those very things which will make fertility less likely, then we are a very messed up people indeed.

    And for what it is worth Matt, I am still trying to find out exactly where in my article I said that the free availability of abortion is an argument against ART.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • For what the fertility industry don’t want you to know, please see the link:

    beware-of-the-fertility-industry.blogspot.com/

    Stella Solomons, UK

  • Bill,
    Thank you for your thought provoking articles.
    I understand your position is as a messenger warning against some of the problems that occur with ART.
    I presumed your statement re ethical dilemmas “the same hospital that performs fertility treatment in one room, may well be dealing with contraception, sterilization and abortion in another” was part of your argument, otherwise why even mention it? However, I agree that there are ethical arguments re aborting unused embryos.
    As to “Is there some fundamental universal right to a child?” I propose the frequently quoted “Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the Earth.” Although one could also argue “Mission accomplished! Earth has been filled!”

    Matt Puusaari

  • Matt,
    God is the One Who set forth the Dominion Mandate, but that doesn’t make it a universal and fundamental “right to a child.”

    And, as I have reported elsewhere on this site (IIRC), the entire approx 7 billion of the world’s population could stand with arms outstretched (fingertip to fingertip) in about two-thirds of the area of the state of Victoria – call it every part except the Great Dividing Range.

    The myth of over-population still needs to be debunked, it seems.

    John Angelico

  • John,
    Re your first point – sure, I agree that “Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the Earth.” doesn’t really make a universal and fundamental“ right to a child, in the same way as it is a weak argument against abortion because the argument is being made by inference. At this point I need to say I am against abortion, so there is no need to convince me on that score.
    On your second point, it is truely hard to refute such a highly scientific appraisal of the “myth of over-population.” However, as I am still forming my own views on these issues, so perhaps it’s best I don’t try. Besides, there are so many other interesting articles on this site to peruse.
    Matt
    PS
    Bill – I really appreciate the effort that you must put in to make such a great site, one that seems to have a great following from people with a diverse range of views.
    Matt Puusaari

  • Thanks Matt for the kind words. For what it is worth, in my Population Issues section I have 23 articles which deal with demography and population issues. Together they seek to make the case that planet earth is not in fact overpopulated, and that our real concern is a birth dearth.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill,
    I am currently studying infertility in my last year of high school and your articles are about the only descent information i can find on the topic. It seems to be all about how good IVF is when researching it, and it is good for those with infertility problems but i don’t know why so many chose do go through IVF where we are faced with concerns whether we get the right embryo and many other issues from the lab like if there changing the DNA code which they are to prevent genetic diseases but whether they will stuff it up cause we are all humans and we all make mistakes.

    I think microsurgery is greatly overlooked for females with tubal problems because not only if the operation is successful you wont have to keep implanting yourself with more embryos but the pregnancy will be a natural one.. of course this is more a lifestyle choice but the risk of mortality rates are lower and there’s no need for taking medication which has some nasty side effects.

    As for postponing having a child until later in life, i agree with it, mainly due to the fact that today’s society requires both women and men to work full time and so it be best for the child to wait until one of the parent can drop to half time work or no work while the child is at home. (I am strongly against child care), but for the fact of infertility being a risk, i would rather weigh the risk of chances of being infertile at the time with being there for the child, but then again that is also a lifestyle choice.
    Thanks for the articles,
    Liz Kidd

Leave a Reply