In Vitro Follies

Life Increasingly Looks Like a Commodity

JERUSALEM, FEB. 14, 2004 ( Babies are increasingly treated like goods. A recent example is the announcement that babies have been born from 12-year-old embryos, the Jerusalem Post reported Feb. 3. Doctors from Hadassah-University Hospital in Ein Kerem were behind the birth of the two babies, now 9 months old. Previously, the longest human embryos have been frozen and then defrosted to produce a baby was seven years.

The parents underwent in vitro fertilization treatment 14 years ago, resulting in 12 embryos. Of these, four were implanted in the woman’s uterus. The rest were frozen. The woman became pregnant and gave birth to twin girls.

Two years ago the couple decided they wanted more children. So half of the remaining eight frozen embryos were thawed and implanted. Of these, three were successful, and one was then killed to increase the chances for survival of the others.

Criticism came immediately, when on Feb. 1 the Sunday Times in London published news of the case before the official announcement. Paul Danon, spokesman for the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said: “The child becomes a victim of other people’s wants.”

A further example of IVF follies was the report of a woman giving birth to her own grandchildren. According to the London-based Times of Jan. 30, the woman gave birth a few days previously to twins, acting as a surrogate mother for her daughter who could not become pregnant. The daughter had undergone IVF treatment to produce the embryos.

Commenting on the matter, Nuala Scarisbrick, a spokeswoman for the charity Life, said: “The blurring of such vital boundaries, such as the identity of one’s mother, father and immediate family, will have a profound effect on how these children view themselves and the world. Once again the IVF industry has gone too far by changing the natural order of things beyond all recognition.”

For sale via Internet

Another extension of IVF is the sale of sperm via Internet. BBC last Aug. 19 reported on the birth to a British couple of a baby boy conceived with sperm bought through the Web site

The site has been widely criticized by family and medical ethics groups, noted BBC. But its founder, John Gonzalez, was unrepentant. “Here’s to the birth of countless more MNI babies over the coming weeks and months,” he said. Another 19 customers were already reported pregnant, with a further birth expected within weeks. Gonzalez said he was expanding operations to Spain, Germany and the Netherlands.

Shopping on the Internet for sperm is also extending to the United States. The Chicago Tribune last Aug. 20 reported on the birth of twin girls to a lesbian couple in New York. The couple obtained the donor sperm through a Web site of a California clinic. Prospective buyers can guide their selection using donor information such as race, blood type, occupation and eye color, as well as more detailed medical and genetic data.

“We service every state in the U.S. and 22 countries worldwide, so it allows people to see what’s available 24 hours a day in the privacy of their home,” said Dr. Cappy Rothman, medical director of the Los Angeles Cryobank.

Selecting donors in this way favors a eugenics-based approach. The Chicago Tribune reported on the Fairfax Cryobank clinic, in Virginia, that allows potential customers to see donors’ SAT scores and to select sperm from donors with Ph.D.s.

Such selective practices can include searching for white women who will donate eggs to produce babies with lighter skin color, the Sunday Times reported Nov. 16. The London newspaper reported that British IVF clinics are helping couples from Asian ethnic groups to produce babies with white donor eggs, to be combined with sperm from the male partner of the Asian couple, resulting in a mixed-race baby.

One such case was a light-skinned Asian female teacher and her white boyfriend who used a white donor egg and the man’s sperm to have a white baby. According to their doctor, the couple were interested in a white egg because “they had lots of Caucasian friends and they felt they were living Western lifestyles.”

Dr. Ehab Kelada, clinical director of the London Fertility Center in Harley Street, London, said: “Although it’s not the main reason, some Asian couples ask for a white egg because they say they want a pretty child with lighter skin.”

Fatherhood after death

A new twist on life after death is using sperm taken from dead bodies. Israeli Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein has published a directive giving the go-ahead to women to use sperm taken from the bodies of their dead husbands, the newspaper Haaretz reported Nov. 13.

The new rules allow sperm to be taken even if the men had not given their consent while alive. Owing to the brevity of the period in which it must be collected — no more than 24 to 36 hours after death — the operation will be carried out on the widow’s request. Afterward, the widow submits an official request to a court to use the sperm. The court then rules whether the dead man appeared to have been interested in having a child.

Single motherhood via IVF is also now a reality for those women who have never married. In Spain, single women now account for around 10% of all IVF procedures, the national newspaper El País reported Nov. 10.

Spanish clinics say the women concerned are mostly 35 or older, and the phenomenon is on the increase. Investigations by the newspaper — government authorities don’t publish any data on the practice — revealed a wide variety in the numbers of single women treated by clinics. One center in Barcelona saw up to 44.9% of its 218 IVF inseminations in the preceding year taken up by single women. A Madrid clinic reported single women accounting for 9.4% of 639 procedures. The lowest rate, 3%, came from a clinic in Granada.

If Suzi Leather, head of Britain’s Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, has her way, single women in the United Kingdom could soon have unlimited access to IVF. Leather called for single and lesbian women to be given the same rights to IVF as heterosexual couples, the Telegraph reported Jan. 22.

She called for a clause in the 1991 act governing IVF to be removed. The clause asks doctors in fertility clinics to “take account of the need of a child for a father” in assessing a single woman who wants to have a baby.

Her call was denounced in a commentary published in the newspaper the same day by Dr. Theodore Dalrymple, a general practitioner. “He who promotes single parenthood is indifferent to the fate of children,” he said. “In Ms. Leather’s brave new world, women are to have children merely because they want them, as is their government-given right, irrespective of their ability to bring them up, or who has to pay for them, or the consequences to the children themselves.”

Despite criticisms, IVF is on the increase. In the United States, data just released for 2001 showed 40,687 births resulting from in vitro and other fertility technologies, Reuters reported Dec. 16. This was a 16% increase on the previous year. IVF and its follies have taken on a life of their own.

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