By Jennifer Lahl —
That we would allow humans to be experimented on without their knowledge or consent sounds like something out of the past. But in the world of assisted reproduction, more commonly called in vitro fertilization (IVF), it happens by the tens of thousands each day, all around the world, to human embryos.
Allow me to explain. IVF is employed most often by couples struggling with infertility, which is, by definition, a failed attempt to conceive for 12 months or more of regular unprotected sex. With the birth of Louise Brown, the first IVF baby, born in 1978, the decades of attempts and failures to make life in the laboratory was finally a so-called success and the booming fertility industry took off in its quest to help infertile couples have a baby.
Today, this industry, I call Big Fertility, is a growth industry in the tens of billions of dollars a year. As infertility rates rise, or couples are just waiting longer and longer to conceive (which isn’t really infertility, but menopause), and now with same-sex couples using assisted reproduction to have children, the industry has grown to meet these changing needs and demands.
We even have World Egg Banks, touting over 40,000 egg donors to make your “family building a reality”!
But was human life meant to be created, manufactured, or designed in the lab? Many signs would tell us no. First, the high failure rate of IVF cycles is evidence that demonstrates how hard it is to make life in the laboratory.
While the reason for the failed cycles vary (age of the woman, use of “donor” eggs vs. the woman’s own eggs, underlying cause of fertility, and so on), it’s clear that many IVF cycles fail and never end in the live birth of a baby. Most people are just unaware that many IVF cycles fail. The slick marketing aimed at couples desperate to conceive never mentions the failure rates, risks, and complications.
Which is why in the United States, we have approximately one million frozen human embryos. Fertility doctors will make many embryos in the hopes of achieving one live birth for the couple trying to have a child.
Science still has not made up its mind about whether it’s better to transfer fresh or frozen human embryos. Frozen embryos often die in the thawing process, too, offering more signs of just how fragile tiny nascent human life is. Is it better to use fresh eggs or frozen eggs? And just how long is it safe to keep a human embryo frozen? We just don’t know.
In fact, there have been women who carried frozen embryos to term who were barely older than the embryo that had been frozen. Think about that as it relates to human experimentation. You may have been frozen for more years than the age of your mother when you were born.
And there’s growing evidence that children born of assisted reproductive technologies have higher rates of disease compared to those children who are spontaneously conceived the old-fashioned way. Findings of another new study have just been reported in JAMA, which show “that among children with birth defects, those conceived via IVF were at greater risk of developing cancer compared with children conceived naturally.”
These cancer concerns are not new, as other studies have reported similar findings.
While I’m very sympathetic to couples struggling with infertility, human life wasn’t meant to be created in the lab, or put on ice and left for years and years. The late great Paul Ramsey of Princeton University explained back in 1972, freezing human embryos would “constitute unethical medical experimentation on possible future human beings, and therefore, it is subject to absolute moral prohibition.”
Though the medical community failed to heed his warning, Ramsey’s words are still true:
“My only point as an ethicist is that none of these researchers can exclude the possibility that they will do irreparable damage to the child-to-be. And my conclusion is that they cannot morally proceed to their first ostensibly successful achievement of the results they seek, since they cannot assuredly preclude all damage.”
The science is still unsettled on what causes these failure rates, cancer risks, and other diseases we’re seeing in the children born through assisted reproduction. Is it the fact that the underlying infertility issue within the couple is causing the problems seen in the children? Is it the technique used in the laboratory to create the embryos? We don’t know.
In other words, we’re performing highly experimental procedures on human beings who can’t in any way consent to the procedure they’re undergoing. In fact, research is being done on these children, following them over the course of their lives to see how they fare.
In what other circumstance would such treatment not be considered horrific?
Jennifer Lahl is founder and president of The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network. Learn more here