The Strange World of Assisted Reproductive Technology

Bioethics   |   Pia de Solenni   |   Oct 17, 2011   |   3:46PM   |   Washington, DC

So here’s the thing. If you’re looking for something to follow that’s strange, weird, and fascinating, forget reality TV or any other fiction. Just look into the largely unregulated world of assisted reproductive technologies (ART).

ART includes in vitro fertilization (IVF), surrogacy, sperm donation and egg donation among its many offerings. Granted, these procedures have become fairly commonplace in our culture despite religious and moral concerns. In part, it’s because the process is the means to a baby. A baby is generally considered to be something desirable especially when the parents desperately want her; so it can be difficult to understand why a process that results in a wanted baby would be wrong.

Which leads to the second reason that these procedures have become so widely accepted: religious leaders, namely Catholics, who see these techniques as problematic have been largely silent. I’m sure there are many reasons, but I think it goes back, in part, to the fact that it’s very difficult to tell parents who can’t conceive a child naturally that they shouldn’t be able to use other available means to help them in their efforts to have a child.

Back in 2001 when President Bush announced the compromise to allow already existing lines of embryonic stem cells to be used for embryonic stem cell research (ESCR), perhaps one of the most constructive criticisms came from Michael Kinsley, editor of Slate, who wrote a biting column pointing out the duplicity of the “embryophiles” who opposed ESCR and cloning but approved of IVF, a procedure which routinely results in the destruction of embryos. Kinsley was a supporter of ESCR, but his critique showed how widely IVF had come to be accepted even by those whose beliefs on the dignity of the human person would lead them to reject ESCR.

Meanwhile, the industry of assisted reproductive technologies has grown beyond IVF. This unregulated baby-making business has created situations where individual men have fathered at least 70 children or even 150 children by selling their sperm to sperm banks which apparently have no protocols at all for the children that might be created from the sperm they’ve collected.

The business has expanded to other countries like India where surrogate farms exist, literally businesses that find and maintain surrogates among poor women who reason, “Any fool can have a baby, it takes a smart woman to get paid for it.” Of course this leads to the question of whether a surrogate mother has any right to the child she bears for someone else. (Outside of Bollywood movies, she doesn’t.)

For intelligent and attractive Caucasian women, there’s even more money to be made in the business of selling their eggs, harvested through sometimes dangerous and even life-threatening procedures.

And now women in their late 40s and 50s are using all these various means to have children at a time when their expired fertility suggests that they should be hoping for grandchildren and not a little one of their own, as illustrated by a recent New York Magazine cover story. The magazine came under criticism for imitating the famous cover of a nude and pregnant Demi Moore for Vanity Fair. While the article was not about women in their 70s having children, the model was in fact a 73-year-old woman photoshopped to have a large pregnant belly, thus indicating some editorializing on the part of the magazine.

So you see, notwithstanding Photoshop, it really is a strange, even titillating, mad scientist world that’s anything but fiction. And yet it’s a world that reveals so much about all those who support it.

The manipulations of ART clearly indicate a type of consumerism. ART works for people who want a specific child in a specific way at a specific time.

The difference between having a child and being a parent is turning into something of a running theme for me. (Here and here.) I think the same consideration applies in this discussion, as well. There are many opportunities for people to become parents, either by having their own children naturally or by adopting children desperately in need of a home (and parents). In either case, there may still be situations where people view children as a fancy accessory or possession. The fact that they’re having a child naturally or adopting doesn’t mean that their intentions are necessarily good. But at least the child isn’t being custom ordered like a car or a piece of furniture.

A friend of mine who was diagnosed with chronic infertility related to me an ongoing conversation she was having with her husband who was against adoption. He didn’t like the idea of raising someone else’s child. She countered that regardless of whether she gave birth to the child or someone else did, there would be no guarantee that the child would be good, intelligent, capable, thoughtful, or any other good quality. Her understanding made so clear to me the difference between being a parent and having a child. She was willing to accept any child that she could have naturally or adopt. She wanted to be a parent.

And I can’t help but note the irony that as I write this, the world is mourning the death of Steve Jobs, a founder of Apple and Pixar.  In the eyes of many parents trying to conceive a child through ART, a child like Jobs would be “perfect.” But wait, Steve Jobs wasn’t ordered like one of his Apple products. He was adopted. Lots of people can have children, not all of them can be parents to those children. Note:  Pia de Solenni is a moral theologian. She writes, consults, and travels for speaking engagements from Seattle, Washington. The column originally appeared in HeadlineBistro and is reprinted with permission.