As First Woman to Birth Test Tube Baby Dies, Controversy Remains

Bioethics   |   Rev. John A. Leies, S.M.   |   Aug 2, 2012   |   4:20PM   |   Washington, DC

The European Society of Human Reproduction held their annual meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, starting on July 1. One of the reports given at the meeting noted that over the past 34 years an estimated five million babies have been born worldwide using Assisted Reproduction Technologies (in vitro fertilization or ICSI injection). Each year now about 1.5 million attempts are done worldwide employing these technologies, producing about 350,000 babies. (About 40,000 babies are born through these technologies in the United States annually.)

Coincidentally, the first woman to give birth to a “test tube baby,” Lesley Brown, died a week before the meeting took place. It was she in England in 1978 whose daughter, Louise, came into the world amidst a flurry of publicity. Mrs. Brown also had a second child through artificial reproduction.

Assisted reproduction technology is now a part of main-stream medicine. The Catholic Church has always been opposed to such technologies for moral and religious reasons—primarily because of the destruction of embryos (the destruction of human life). Multiple eggs are harvested and multiple embryos are created during these procedures. In the process, embryos not deemed in good condition are destroyed; and excessive embryos are stored in a frozen state, perhaps never to be used except for destructive research. The very number of such stored embryos has reached over 400,000. An unanswerable moral problem today is what to do with these tiny babies. We dare not destroy them for they constitute human life in its earliest stage. We dare not experiment with them for the same reason. Some infertile couples have “adopted” such embryos and obtained children through gestating them. But the number of births has been relatively small.

Again, the Catholic Church opposes the use of donated gametes (sperm and egg) for the process of reproduction. Such donations are common in artificial reproduction techniques. But this means that a third party is invited to be the parent of one’s child, which violates the exclusive marriage contract between husband and wife. In addition, someone becomes a parent with no intention of involving herself or himself with the child.

However, more and more reports are appearing which speak of the medical problems with reproductive technology. According to a recent study done in Australia as reported by Dr. Richard A. Watson, women who went through in vitro fertilization in their mid-20s had a 56 percent greater chance of developing breast cancer. Another study in Australia dealing with 300,000 babies and published in the New England Journal of Medicine stated that the risk of birth defects was 5.8 percent for children conceived naturally, but 7.2 percent for in vitro babies and 9.9 percent for ICSI injection babies.

Another concern is the large number of eggs which are produced by women donors. Drugs are given to increase the production of ova. It is not uncommon for a dozen or more eggs to be harvested.

But sometimes many more are obtained: records show that from one woman 85 ova were taken in one cycle; from another, 80; from still others, 70, 60, or 50 eggs. Harvesting of eggs is a heavy burden for a woman’s system, especially when there are high numbers, and contributes to the excessive numbers of frozen embryos. Researchers point out also that the artificial process often results in hormone imbalances which affect future pregnancies.

The Church strongly encourages helping couples with infertility problems, but it at the same time wants to preserve a true understanding of human sexuality and reproduction as God intended them. A reproductive procedure that completely replaces the marriage act, which results in the destruction of embryos or the introduction of an outside person as parent of your child, is not according to God’s plan. That is the teaching of the Church. The Church urges continued research in the field of reproduction in order to help infertile couples but at the same time has the duty to repeat the truths of Scripture and tradition concerning the meaning of marriage, human sexuality and reproduction.



Lifenews Note:  Father John A. Leies, SM, STD, is a Contributing Writer of HLI America. He is president emeritus of St. Mary’s University and formerly served as head of the Theology Department there. A version of this article originally appeared in Today’s Catholic, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of San Antonio.