Manipulating Lives

In Vitro Fertilization Techniques Under Question

By Father John Flynn

ROME, APRIL 16, 2007 ( Even as in vitro fertilization becomes more popular, some of the practices involved in its use are causing concern. Health authorities in Britain recently initiated a public consultation regarding putting limits on the number of embryos that can be implanted.

According to information on the Web site of the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA), currently around 1 in 4 pregnancies achieved using in vitro fertilization (IVF) ends in the birth of twins. This is more than 10 times greater than the naturally occurring twin birthrate.

The HFEA declared that it was convinced by the arguments made in the report “One Child at a Time,” carried out by an independent expert group, that being born as part of a set of multiples is the biggest known risk to the health and welfare of children born as a result of IVF.

The report, published last October, recommended that only one embryo be transferred to those IVF patients who have the highest chance of conceiving, and therefore the highest risk of conceiving twins.

The HFEA has just published a consultation document entitled “The Best Possible Start to Life” to start off the public inquiry of the British health authorities. The text observes that it is not only children who suffer from the excessive number of multiple pregnancies. Mothers are also more likely to have dangerous complications during their pregnancy.

As for the children, the document said, while many of the births are without problems, nevertheless, a high proportion of twins are very vulnerable at the beginning of their lives, because they are born too early and too small.

A recent study cited by the HFEA found that 126 infant fatalities could have been avoided in 2003 alone, had all the IVF babies born in the United Kingdom been singletons.

The larger numbers of multiple births also places strains on the health system. Between 40 and 60 out of every 100 IVF twins are transferred to neonatal intensive care units when they are born. This compares to around 20% of singleton IVF babies.

The inquiry by the HFEA is now open to submissions from the public. After a process of study, new guidelines for clinics may be introduced in 2008.

There is concern in the United States over the issue of multiple births resulting from IVF treatment, reported the Boston Globe on March 26. Many patients ask for the implantation of multiple embryos, in the desire to ensure pregnancy.

According to Dr. Elizabeth Ginsburg, the medical director for the IVF center of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, only about 10% of the 1,800 IVF cycles performed at the clinic last year were single-embryo transfers.

This is higher than many other clinics. The article cited data for 2005, from the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology, showing that only just over 2% of IVF cycles performed by its member clinics across the nation involved single-embryo transfers.

Ova for sale

Questions are also being raised about the practice of paying women for ova donations. In the past, donations were limited to providing ova for use in IVF treatments. With the rise of stem cell research using human embryos, the demand for donated ova is rising sharply.

The drugs used by clinics to stimulate ovaries have done great harm to some women, declared Deirdre McQuade, spokeswoman for the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. bishops’ conference.

“The embryonic stem cell agenda is a threat not only to embryonic humans but to young women as well,” she said in a statement released March 8. McQuade also drew attention to the dangers caused by paying women for ova donation. This could well lead to the exploitation of women who suffer from poverty or come from ethnic minorities, she said.

The temptations involved for women to donate ova are not small. Women can be paid from $5,000 and up in the United States for donating ova, the Associated Press reported Jan. 20. The article also noted that regulations regarding payment vary widely and that the issue is also causing divisions among researchers and women’s groups.

Meanwhile, young women are increasingly being targeted by ads offering payment for ova donations, the Chicago Tribune reported March 4.

Advertisements appear on city buses, in campus newspapers, and on the radio. The prices offered for donations also rise notably for women with desired academic or physical qualities. One ad cited by the article quoted an offer of $100,000 for ova from a woman with proven collegiate athletic ability.

Risks involved

The risks of ova donation, however, are very real. The London-based Telegraph newspaper reported Feb. 18 that, according to a study published in the journal Thrombosis and Thrombolysis, Italian researchers from the University of Padua found that among all women undergoing infertility treatment, 1 in 10 will suffer mild forms of adverse reactions. Another 1% are at risk of life-threatening blood disorders.

Another UK paper, the Independent, cited research in a March 2 article on the dangers of women being subjected to overly aggressive procedures in IVF treatments. Research from the University Medical Center in Utrecht, Netherlands, published in The Lancet, a UK medical journal, found that high doses of drugs used to stimulate the ovaries
causes unpleasant side effects. Moreover, a combination of milder treatments and the implantation of only one embryo reduces costs.

Other dangers involve the children conceived using IVF. Babies resulting from fertility treatments have higher rates of birth defects, the Associated Press reported Feb. 9. The information comes from a study of more than 61,000 births in Canada.

Researchers examined 61,208 births in Ontario during 2005, including 1,394 that resulted from fertility treatments. They looked at rates of birth defects and adjusted estimates of risk to reflect differences in the ages of the mothers, whether or not they smoked, gender of the babies, birth complications and other factors.

Nearly 3% of babies born through fertility treatments had a birth defect. This compares with a rate of just under 2% for babies conceived naturally. Overall, there was a 58% greater risk of defects.

The chances of problems increased according to the complexity of treatment given. The rate of defects was highest with IVF, and lowest when limited to just giving medications to help a woman’s ovaries produce more eggs.

Abandoning the weak

The Catholic Church’s opposition to the use of IVF is long-standing. These techniques, observes No. 2376 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “infringe the child’s right to be born of a father and mother known to him and bound to each other by marriage.”

Moreover, the following number continues, “They dissociate the sexual act from the procreative act.” This domination of technology over the origin and destiny of the human person “is in itself contrary to the dignity and equality that must be common to parents and children.”

More recently, Benedict XVI addressed the issue of technology and the human person, speaking Feb. 12 to participants in an international congress on natural law. The Pontiff said: “I feel the duty to affirm yet again that not all that is scientifically possible is also ethically licit.

“Technology, when it reduces the human being to an object of experimentation, results in abandoning the weak subject to the arbitration of the stronger.”

Continuing his comments, the Pope warned: “To blindly entrust oneself to technology as the only guarantee of progress, without offering at the same time an ethical code that penetrates its roots in that same reality under study and development, would be equal to doing violence to human nature with devastating consequences for all.” A timely warning for a world often reluctant to accept ethical limits.

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