Anything Goes: Life Made to Order

Era of the “Unborn Mother” Could Signal New Bioethical Lows

MADRID, Spain, JULY 12, 2003 ( The divorce between ethics and technology in the field of human reproduction seems complete. The annual meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology, held here from June 29 to July 2, saw a series of announcements that left observers increasingly alarmed.

When scientists raised the possibility of extracting ovarian tissue from aborted fetuses, newspaper headlines around the world proclaimed the era of the “unborn mother.” Researchers announced that they have been able to remove immature ovaries from 4-month-old fetuses, the British daily Independent reported July 1. The researchers hope to prove that the tissue can be stimulated in test tubes to further develop to the stage where ova can be extracted.

The team of scientists from Israel and the Netherlands has gone further than any previous attempt at experimenting with ovarian tissue from human fetuses. Tal Biron-Shental, a gynecologist from Meir Hospital-Sapir Medical Center in Kfar Saba, said that the researchers obtained ovarian tissue from seven aborted fetuses aged between 22 and 33 weeks and managed to keep slices of the ovaries alive for four weeks. Asked when she would be able to produce fully mature eggs from fetal ovaries, Dr. Biron-Shental said: “It will still take a long time. I don’t know exactly.”

Roger Gosden, a leading fertility specialist working at the Jones Institute in Norfolk, Virginia, noted that one of the ethical problems involved in such a method is that a fetus cannot give its consent. Further criticism came from Archbishop Peter Smith of Cardiff, Wales, reported the Guardian on July 2. “There is something deeply wrong with a society that can even contemplate harvesting eggs from the ovaries of aborted fetuses,” the archbishop said. “How is it that we can recognize that the aborted fetus is human enough to become a biological parent and yet not human enough to have the right to life?”

The next shock announcement came from Sweden. Researchers there said it might be possible within three years to transplant wombs, the London daily Times reported July 2. Scientists explained that the transplant would work best if the donated uterus comes from the mother or sister of the recipient, to minimize the chances of rejection. The recipient would then conceive by in vitro fertilization (IVF).

Patients would have to take immunosuppressant drugs to stop their bodies from rejecting the organ. But once the woman had given birth to the children she wanted, the new womb could be removed. The Times reported that about 4% of all female infertility is caused by uterine problems.

The Swedish team, led by Dr. Mats Brännström, of Sahlgrenska University in Gothenburg, declared that last year it had already successfully carried out womb transplants on mice, who later gave birth. Brännström speculated that the technique could even be used eventually to transplant wombs into male-to-female transsexuals, allowing them to become pregnant using donated eggs. There could, however, be difficulties due to the form of the male pelvis.

Part male, part female

Concerns over the lack of ethical restraint were further increased with the announcement of an experiment that created a hermaphrodite human embryo. The chimera was formed by placing cells from a newly conceived male embryo into a 3-day-old female embryo, the London daily Telegraph reported July 3. The resulting embryo was part male, part female, and could potentially have developed into an apparently healthy fetus.

The experiment was carried out by Dr. Norbert Gleicher, the head of a private U.S. fertility clinic. After three days, the male cells appeared to be evenly distributed in 12 of the chimeras, he told the conference. The embryos were destroyed soon after.

Gleicher said chimeras could help treat genetic diseases such as severe combined immunodeficiency. “If you have a defective embryo and you are able to introduce just 15% healthy cells, you may be able at that point to treat single gene disorders,” he said. “Normally you would do this with embryos of the same sex, but we did it with different ones as a model. Our primary purpose was to see if this was feasible and I think we have convincing evidence that the answer is yes.”

But professor Lynn Fraser, a fertility specialist of King’s College London, questioned the point of the experiments and whether chimeras could ever be used to treat single gene disorders. “It’s a non-starter,” she said. “Biologically it’s an unsound approach.”

Playing God

The rash of extreme experiments coming from Madrid drew strong reactions, particularly in the British press. In an article entitled “Playing God,” published July 3 by the Guardian, Hilary and Steven Rose, respectively a sociologist and biologist, noted: “Anything goes in this technologically sophisticated western world where consumers are king and queen.”

The drawbacks of such techniques, they commented, include the crisis to be faced “by a child who learns that she is the product of a fertilized ovum harvested from a long-dead fetus and frozen sperm from an unidentifiable source.” We also run the risk of turning children into a commodity, “with product specification, quality control and rejection of substandard products — the wrong sex, the wrong genes.”

It’s true, they observed, that there are increasing problems in having children. But the expansion of IVF “starts at the wrong end.” They recommended more prevention, such as women having their children at an earlier age.

On July 6, Sunday Times commentator India Knight observed that the root of the problem with IVF experiments getting out of hand is “some people’s fixation with their ‘right’ to have children.” She also asked about the rights of the embryos. “They are life, so much so that they are even capable of creating life themselves.”

In an article published that same day by the Telegraph, the Catholic primate of England and Wales, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, criticized Parliament for spending so much time in its recent debate over the ethics of fox-hunting, while ignoring the problems of IVF research. “When will we begin to debate the ethics of the future of our species with anything like the passion, and the thoroughness, that we debate the future of our foxes?” he asked.

The cardinal expressed concern that “scientific development is far outstripping our capacity to understand and grapple with the profound ethical dilemmas that each new piece of research presents.”

Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor called for a serious reflection about the sanctity of life and its transmission. “It is time for a constructive and informed debate at the level of the general public, which is not driven by vested or commercial interests. There is a risk otherwise of wholesale intellectual and moral disengagement from issues of enormous significance for us all, as human beings.”

No. 2378 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church declares: “A child is not something owed to one, but is a gift.” This “supreme gift” of marriage, notes the Catechism, is a human person.

It continues: “A child may not be considered a piece of property, an idea to which an alleged ‘right to a child’ would lead. In this area, only the child possesses genuine rights: the right ‘to be the fruit of the specific act of the conjugal love of his parents, and the right to be respected as a person from the moment of his conception.'” Last week’s announcements show the danger of forgetting the rights of children in the headlong rush to reproduce at any cost.

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