Babies Made to Order

IVF and the Meaning of the Family

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LONDON, MAR. 2, 2001 ( Artificial methods of conceiving children are forcing courts and society to rethink their concepts about the family.

Initially, in vitro fertilization (IVF) techniques were thought of as being an aid to help childless couples overcome their impediments to childbearing. But once the link was broken between a couple´s marital relations and the procreation of new life, the result has been a breakdown in relations between parents and children.

An infertile father?

The Guardian newspaper of England reported Feb. 20 on the case of a British man who was unable to father children, as a result of cancer. A couple of years ago «Jon» went to a clinic where he signed the forms to authorize the use of anonymous donor sperm and IVF to enable his girlfriend «Debbie» to have a child.

The first attempts at conceiving were a failure and the two of them split up. Later on, Debbie, by then living with another man, tried again with some of the remaining fertilized ova and this time the IVF was successful, leading to a daughter, «Chloe.» Jon has never seen Chloe and is engaged in a series of legal battles to gain parental rights.

Jon wasn´t present at the moment of conception, nor is his name on Chloe´s birth certificate. However, he is the legal father because of his signature on the consent form for the IVF treatment. Jon went to the high court and the court of appeal in an attempt to gain access to Chloe and to be given parental responsibility for the child he considered his daughter.

He set a precedent as the first man to be confirmed by the courts as the father of an IVF and donor-sperm baby because of his signature on a form. But the courts have ruled that he should not meet Chloe until she is 3 years old, and until then all he can do is send her a present and some cards several times a year.

In one of the rulings, Judge Mark Hedley commented that «at some stage this child has to come to terms with the fact that she has a biological male progenitor of whom she can know nothing, a legal father with whom she has no contact, and quite likely, a male figure who is acting as her father and is the only one she has known as such. What effect this will all have can only be a matter of speculation.»

Fathers stand in for their sons

Another way in which familial relations are being distorted is when fathers take the place of their adult sons in IVF treatments. The Observer reported Nov. 19 on how British women are being impregnated with sperm donated by the father of their infertile partner. The paper quoted «senior medical figures» as confirming that this practice, though unusual, was now regularly performed in British clinics.

The procedure makes a father´s son his biological half brother and a child´s biological father his or her grandfather.

Psychiatrists warned of the impact such treatment might have on a child and its family. «It may change every single relationship within the family,» said Dr. Samantha Gothard, at London´s St. Anne´s Hospital.

This practice is not limited to Britain. A doctor at a maternity hospital in Japan has acknowledged inseminating wives with the sperm of the fathers of their infertile husbands in at least nine cases, five of them successful, the Washington Post reported Nov. 17. Another doctor said he had performed the procedure twice, with one successful pregnancy.

Surrogate mothers

In cases where it is the wife who cannot conceive, the solution proposed by some is surrogate mothers. The Sunday Times of Jan. 28 noted that «rent-a-womb» agencies are increasingly common in the United States. This has enabled British couples to pay for the services of surrogate mothers who simply sign forms in hospital immediately after giving birth to allow the buyers automatically to be recognized as parents without formally having to adopt the baby.

This burgeoning trade came under examination due to the scandal of Judith and Alan Kinshaw, from Wales, who paid £8,000 for 6-month-old twins they had spotted on an American Web site. The babies were later taken into care by government authorities after it was revealed that they had already been sold to another couple by a baby broker.

The Kinshaw case showed the legal perils of adoption, which can be avoided by hiring a surrogate mother. Prices charged by the American women range from £12,000 to £20,000 depending on whether they use their own or a donor egg, the Sunday Times said. The British couples pay around £50,000 for a total package which includes the cost of creating IVF embryos using their sperm and eggs, counseling and legal fees.

They select a surrogate mother from a catalogue. After the pregnancy has been established they return home, then fly back nine months later to pick up the baby, which under the new law, is simply signed over to them as parents.

Another method used by British couples is to buy ova from the United States, in order to get around the ban on trade in human eggs in the United Kingdom. A BBC report Feb. 16 detailed how in the past two years the number of couples willing to make the trip to America and pay up to $5,000 for an egg has tripled.

In the United Kingdom, where the practice of egg buying is illegal, couples can wait several years for a suitable donor to become available.

Information on donors in the United States, including pictures and educational details, is posted on Internet by agencies. Interested couples can search this information and select a donor before flying out to America to have the egg implanted.

The BBC reported that critics of the U.S. system have questioned the ethics of the egg market. They say it encourages couples to try to engineer the perfect baby. Certainly, the agencies themselves are quite open about the desire to give the new child the best genetic start in life.

IVF and same sex families

Another way in which IVF is challenging the concept of a family is its use by lesbians. The Spanish paper El Mundo reported Oct. 8 that some estimate that up to 75% of the single women who undergo IVF in the country are lesbians. Homosexual activists say about 375 children are born to lesbians in Spain each year by means of IVF.

Figures from the Spanish Fertility Society indicate that about 500 single women go through IVF treatments annually. Many of these women come from other countries, wishing to take advantage of liberal laws in Spain. A doctor at one clinic calculated that some 26% of single women patients were foreigners.

In their rush to «produce» children, adults seem to have forgotten about the consequences this will have on the new lives they are bringing into the world. What sort of family structures will all this lead to? We can only guess at the difficulties these kids will have in adapting to their brave new world.

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