What Is In Vitro Fertilization

Article ID: DD135 | By: Scott B. Rae

The following is an excerpt from article DD135 from the Christian Research Journal. The full pdf can be viewed by following the link below the excerpt.


WHAT IS IN VITRO FERTILIZATION (IVF)

On July 25, 1978, Louise Brown was born. She was the first child ever born through the use of in vitro fertilization; that is, she was the first “test-tube” baby. A British gynecologist, Dr. Patrick Steptoe, and a physiologist, Dr. Robert Edwards, successfully joined egg and sperm outside the body, then implanted the embryo in the mother. Nine months later, Louise Brown was born and was heralded as a miracle baby around the world. In vitro fertilization simply means fertilization “in glass,” as in the glass container of a test tube or petri dish used in a laboratory. The procedure involves extraction of a number of eggs from the woman. To do this she is usually given a drug that enables her to “superovulate,” or to produce more eggs in one cycle than she normally does. The eggs are then surgically removed and fertilized outside the body in the laboratory, normally using the sperm of the woman’s husband. Since the procedure is so expensive ($10,000 — the extraction of the eggs being the most expensive part of the process), all of the eggs are fertilized in the lab. In this way if none of the fertilized embryos are successfully implanted, reimplantation can occur without much additional cost or lost time, since to extract the eggs would involve waiting until at least the woman’s next cycle. Normally, more than one embryo is implanted in the woman’s uterus, since it is uncertain how many, if any at all, will be implanted successfully. The actual number implanted depends on various factors relating to the condition of the eggs and the health of the woman. It is not unusual to have some if not all of the embryos spontaneously miscarry. If more than one embryo does successfully implant, then the couple may end up with more children than they originally intended. Twins and even triplets are not uncommon for couples who use IVF. Lest one think that IVF is successful more often than not, however, the average success rate is less than 10 percent of the fertilized embryos actually implanting and developing into a child. In order to keep the procedure as cost-effective as possible, embryos are frozen in storage to be used later if the first attempt fails. In some cases, however, more embryos successfully implant than the woman is able to carry without endangering her health and at times even endangering her life.

What is In Vitro Fertilization- Concerns about IVF

Both of the above possibilities (embryos in storage and having more children in utero than the woman can safely carry) raise significant legal and moral issues about IVF. For example, what happens if, during the time in which the embryos are in storage, the couple divorces and a “custody” battle ensues over the unused embryos? A case like this was recently resolved in court in Tennessee. A couple who had utilized IVF later were divorced and the woman wanted to use the embryos to have a child. Her ex-husband refused, claiming that he did not want his progeny running around without his knowledge even of their existence. They went to court to have their dispute arbitrated. The court ruled in favor of the ex-husband, holding that one’s procreative liberty also gives one the freedom not to procreate, and thus the embryos could not be used without the man’s consent. What to do with frozen embryos if they are not needed raises significant moral issues. The alternatives would appear to be to keep the embryos in storage indefinitely (at a cost of around $150/year), to destroy them, to allow the couple to donate them to another infertile couple, or to use them for experimental purposes. Since, as most Christians believe, the right to life is acquired at conception, destroying embryos or using them in experiments is problematic. Destroying embryos outside the body is the moral equivalent of abortion, and science cannot experiment on someone with basic human rights without that person’s consent, particularly since experimentation on the embryo would result in its destruction. Storing the embryos indefinitely only postpones dealing with this issue. That leaves donation of the embryos as the only viable alternative. Yet this is problematic too since it involves a separation of the biological and social roles of parenthood that is a significant part of the biblical teaching on the family. It might be possible, however, to view embryo donation in a way that is parallel to adoption — as a preimplantation adoption in which the couple who contributed the genetic materials to form the embryo consent to give up parental rights to their child before implantation instead of after the child’s birth. This would require a significant change in the adoption laws of many states, since they frequently do not recognize any consent to adoption as valid and legal until a period of time after the child’s birth. These difficulties should cause Christians to think twice before utilizing IVF. A second problem arises not from the failures of implantation, but from its successes. As noted above, more embryos are routinely implanted than will survive in the uterus. But occasionally a woman is left with more developing embryos than she can carry to term without risk to her health and life. In these cases, the woman and her husband and her doctor have very difficult decisions to make. When this happens the doctor will normally recommend what is called selective termination of one or more of the developing embryos. This is done not for convenience’ sake, but out of a genuine concern for the life of the mother. Not only does this involve trading one life or more (the developing child[ren]), but the doctor is faced with the decision of which one(s) to terminate and how to make that decision. If the mother’s life is clearly at risk in carrying all the unborn children to term, then it would appear justified to terminate one or more of the fetuses in order to save the life of the mother. This is analogous to cases in which abortion is justifiable when carrying the pregnancy to term would put the mother’s life at grave risk. However, the agony of making such painful decisions must surely be considered prior to utilizing IVF to alleviate infertility. To avoid these dilemmas, a couple using IVF should request that only the number of eggs be fertilized that the couple will actually have implanted. In addition, they should request that only the number of embryos be implanted that the woman could carry safely should all of them successfully be implanted.