By Father John Flynn, LC
ROME, SEPT. 6, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Media stories about new techniques of artificial fertilization are a common feature these days. The strong desire of couples for children, coupled with continual advances in technology, make for a heady combination.
Last Wednesday all the main U.K. media outlets reported on the birth of the first baby conceived with the help of a new screening method that checks for chromosomal defects that can impede an IVF pregnancy from being successful.
“Oliver” was born to a 41-year-old woman who had experienced repeated failed IVF procedures, the BBC reported.
Media coverage of such events is often suffused with the natural joy of the couple with their new baby. Behind the scenes, however, the growing IVF industry is a story of countless lives sacrificed, babies born who will never know their biological parents, and hundreds of thousands of lives condemned to a frozen limbo in the freezers of clinics.
The Catholic Church has pointed out for many years the ethical problems related to IVF. This position was repeated and amplified in the document “Dignitatis Personae,” published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith late last year.
“The Church recognizes the legitimacy of the desire for a child and understands the suffering of couples struggling with problems of fertility,” it acknowledged. (Par. 16)
“Such a desire, however, should not override the dignity of every human life to the point of absolute supremacy,” it added. “The desire for a child cannot justify the ‘production’ of offspring, just as the desire not to have a child cannot justify the abandonment or destruction of a child once he or she has been conceived,” the Vatican body explained.
Dangerous side effects
There are concerns even over those who are successfully born through IVF. Such children are 30% more likely to suffer from genetic flaws and other health problems, the British Daily Mail newspaper reported March 20.
The warning came from the U.K.’s Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority. More than 10,000 babies are born in Britain every year through artificial fertilization, the article noted.
The research behind the alert came from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. They studied over 13,500 births and a further 5,000 control cases using data from the National Birth Defects Prevention Study.
They found that IVF babies suffer from a range of conditions, including heart valve defects, cleft lip and palate, and digestive system abnormalities due to the bowel or esophagus failing to form properly.
Meanwhile, research carried out in Australia revealed that twins born as a result of IVF treatment are more likely to need intensive care treatment after birth and are more likely to need hospitalization in the first three years of life than naturally conceived twins.
According to an article published in the Australian newspaper May 21, IVF twins stayed in hospital longer after delivery and were 60% more likely to be admitted to a neonatal intensive care unit. They also have a greater incidence of premature birth and low birth weight.
The results came from a team in the city of Perth, who analyzed hospital admissions for the nearly 4,800 twin children born in Western Australia between 1994 and 2000.
Disassociating children from the marital relationship also leads to ever-more complicated family structures, as well as frequent legal battles. A New York state appeals panel ruled that the parents of a 23-year-old who died from cancer may not use their dead son’s preserved sperm to have a grandchild, the Associated Press reported March 3.
Mark Speranza left semen samples at a lab in 1997, but he also signed a form saying they were to be destroyed if he died. They were left there so he could have a chance at fathering a child if he survived his cancer.
After his death, however, his parents wanted a grandchild and sought to have a surrogate mother implanted with the semen. Their years of legal battles were, nevertheless, in vain.
In Texas, however, Travis County Judge Guy Herman ruled that a mother could go ahead with having sperm harvested from her dead son’s body, the Associated Press reported April 9.
Nikolas Colton Evans died at age 21 as a result of a fight. His mother, Marissa, declared that her son had always wanted children.
The article quoted University of Texas law professor John Robertson, who said that while state law gives parents control over a child’s body for organ and tissue donations, the situation regarding sperm ”is very unclear.”
Two days later, another article on the topic by the Associated Press focused on the ethical concerns. ”This is a tough way for a kid to come into the world. As the details emerge and the child learns more about their origins, I just wonder what the impact will be on a replacement child,” said Tom Mayo, director of Southern Methodist University’s Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility.
Mark Vopat, a professor of philosophy and religious studies at Youngstown State University in Ohio, was cited as saying that while the son may express a desire to have children some day, it’s not to say that he would have wanted to father a child posthumously.
Then, from Australia came the news that a woman from the state of Queensland is pregnant with a child for her homosexual brother, after being impregnated with sperm from a third party, the Courier Mail newspaper reported June 2. The identities of the people involved were not revealed.
The child is due to be born early next year, and will not have any relationship with the biological father, according to the report.
Commenting on the news, Anglican Bishop Tom Frame, who was adopted at a young age and does not know who his father is, told the Courier Mail that the impact of such an arrangement would be overwhelming for a child.
“We’ve got a child here who will grow up without its biological mother or father,” Frame said. “We are deliberately breaking to bond between the father, the mother and the child.”
Even if such children later want to find their parents their efforts are often frustrated. Such is the case of Lauren Burns of Melbourne, Australia.
Born as a result of IVF she knows that her biological father’s name is on record but state authorities are not allowed to reveal it to her, reported the Age newspaper April 12.
Four children were been born to four families using the sperm of someone who is only known to them as C11.
“It is interesting that in almost every other situation, society strongly encourages fathers to be part of their children’s lives, and those who refuse … are labeled deadbeat dads," she told the newspaper. “Yet in this exception, it is the exact opposite,” she pointed out.
Not just cells
“The body of a human being, from the very first stages of its existence, can never be reduced merely to a group of cells,” according to the Vatican document “Dignitatis Personae.” (Par. 4)
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith also commented on how in other areas of medicine health care authorities would never allow medical procedures to go ahead that resulted in such a high number of failures and fatalities. (Par. 15)
“In fact, techniques of in vitro fertilization are accepted based on the presupposition that the individual embryo is not deserving of full respect in the presence of the competing desire for offspring which must be satisfied,” the document observed. The desire for children is indeed a strong force, but when satisfied at the cost of respecting life then it loses sight of fundamental ethical principles.