Did you know that it is possible today for a newborn child to have up to five parents? This is not some wild science-fiction fantasy but the practical application of modern artificial-reproduction technology. The child who has five parents has been affected by the techniques of artificial insemination, surrogacy and embryo transfer before birth.
First, there is the sperm donor, who is the genetic father. Second, there is the genetic mother, who has conceived through artificial insemination. She will not raise the child herself and is often called a “surrogate” mother although she is, in fact, the “natural” mother. The genetic mother may also be a woman who supplies the ova for the in vitro, or “test tube baby,” process. Third, there can be a gestational mother, who has been implanted with an embryo not generically her own, which she carries to term for herself or others. Fourth, there is the “social” mother, who raises a child not genetically related to her – the child who has been born either to the genetic or to the gestational mother. Lastly, there is the “social” father, who raises a child not genetically related to him.
Artificial insemination by donor is not new: the first reported birth in the U.S. was in the late 1800s. The first paid “surrogate” was reported in 1963. In 1984, the first embryo-transfer baby born to a gestational mother was reported in California. Louise Brown, the first “test tube” baby, was born in England in 1978. Ten years later, the Steptoe-Edwards team in Cambridge announced that one thousand IVF babies had been born through their procedures.
There are many more mile-stones in this brave new world. Multiple births now seem routine: they stem from the practice of transferring four or more embryos into the woman’s uterus because multiple pregnancies increase the chances of some of the babies surviving. Embryos can be frozen and then stored until the woman decides to have them implanted later. This creates many nightmares. Remember the Rios couples? They were multi-millionaires who died in a plane crash, leaving behind two frozen embryos at an Australian IVF clinic. After a lengthy public debate, the Victoria government decides the orphan embryos could be given anonymously to a couple in the IVF programme. The rate for a successful pregnancy was said to be about 5 per cent, the children – if they survived – would have been born about fives years after their parents’ death.
The IVF procedure means that more embryos can be and are created than are actually “needed” at the time. Some do not develop properly so are discarded (or killed, it depends on your point of view). Some are implanted to improve the chances of pregnancy; these embryos too are expendable. Others, as mentioned, are frozen: placed in suspended animation for an indefinite time. Nobody knows how many die while frozen or while being thawed for implantation, or die because the freezer breaks down.
Most scientists do not seem to be overly concerned about the morality of manipulating human lives. They view IVF as an exciting challenge and want to experiment with the “surplus” embryos – or even create embryos specifically for research. The arguments supporting embryo research sound laudable: research could make cures possible for inherited disease. However, it seems more likely that such “imperfect” embryos would be destroyed rather than cured. And who is to say that the social engineers would stop at killing those babies who have fatal inherited diseases? We know that babies are already killed because they are the wrong sex.
Pre-born babies today have become just another disposable commodity, only valued if their mothers “want” them or if they come with some kind of guarantee for their physical or mental fitness. It is even suggested that it is acceptable to “grow” embryos for use as spare parts for children needing transplants and for adults with chronic diseases. Research to date suggests that fetal cells may be useful in the treatment of diabetes, leukemia and Alzheimer’s disease. Many people are impatient that the research done to date has not yet resulted in widespread use of fetal tissue to treat such diseases. Nobody seems to be asking just how many pre-born babies are being sacrificed to science.
The pressures to find techniques to bypass infertility are growing. Infertility rates are rising, some caused by an individual’s lifestyle. Women are delaying childbearing and that means some women try to conceive when their fertility is naturally declining. Tubal and Pelvic abnormalities can be caused by Pelvic Inflammatory Disease and other sexually transmitted diseases, the risks for which rise with the number of sexual partners. Internal scarring can prevent a successful implantation of an embryo. This c\scarring can be caused by abortion or, ironically, by some of the procedures used to clear internal blockages in infertility treatment.
This new reproductive technology is a huge challenge for the pro-life movement. To the best of my knowledge, the Canadian movement has not yet discussed the implications of artificial reproduction at any great depth. But the movement will have to take a stand – and soon. The potential for disagreement and division is enormous. As the letters pages of The Interim have shown, there is division on the matter of contraception. Presumably many pro-lifers would have no objection then to artificial insemination or embryo transfer, for example. Perhaps some even believe that research on aborted babies were killed any way and the research may alleviate the suffering of others.
These are not issues that can be ignored. Those responsible for putting together the Royal Commission on Reproductive Technology are already saying that its mandate will not include abortion. To me that seem rather like insisting that you can make lemonade without using lemons. At the heart of all these issues is where we stand on the value of human life. Those who accept abortion have to believe that an individual life is of no intrinsic worth. They are not going to be the ones to say that freezing embryos is wrong or that “growing” embryos to provide transplants is evil. It is going to be the pro-lifers who protest artificial reproduction and yet most of us have only the haziest idea of what is involved.
Is artificial insemination acceptable as long as the couple using the procedure is married? That is discriminating against single women and lesbian couples and would surely not be allowed. Is it acceptable for a woman to act as a “surrogate mother” for a friend or relative but unacceptable when she is paid to provide a baby for strangers? Do you know where you stand?