The birth of Louise Brown in 1978 marked a profound change in the history of human reproduction. For the first time a human being was born whose conception had taken place outside the womb. It is hard to overstate the importance of this event for the entire global debate on medical ethics. Many people reacted instinctively against IVF, not always for very good reasons. A common objection at the time were that the technology was in some sense “unnatural”. By itself, this is not a particularly convincing critique. However, conception outside the womb does raise substantial and profound ethical dilemmas.
Many people are not even aware that there are moral objections to IVF. Even many of those who oppose abortion do not object to IVF, perhaps because it is seen as generating life rather than taking it. This is true to some extent. There are certainly people alive today who would never have been conceived were it not for in vitro fertilisation, and each one of these people, like every other human being, is uniquely valuable. Yet IVF, as a process, is inherently wasteful of human life. This does not mean that we think that those born following IVF have any less value or significance. It does not follow that simply because we feel that a person was conceived by an unethical method we do not value them. We do not, for instance, hold this attitude to those born as a result of rape.
As well as involving the discarding of many human embryos, the creation of life in the laboratory also raises questions about identity and family, and the commoditisation of human life. For instance, should we able to design our babies? It is increasingly common for embryos created by IVF and other ARTs to be screened for various diseases and characteristics before implantation. Individual embryos carrying undesirable traits, such as genetic disabilities and diseases are eliminated, in a process called “Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis”. Life objects very strongly to the practice of screening out carriers of particular condition.
We also have concerns about the impossible ethical dilemmas that are raised by separating sex and reproduction.
Some examples of such dilemmas include the following:
i. Natalie Evans and her partner created embryos and had them frozen before she was treated for ovarian cancer, so that they could be implanted afterwards. However, the couple subsequently broke up, and while Ms Evans still wanted to implant the embryos and have children, her ex-partner did not want them, and asked for them to be destroyed.
ii. A number of deaf couples have asked to be allowed to select embryos with a deafness gene – i.e. deliberately choosing to have a deaf child.
iii. Same-sex couples who have used donor eggs or sperm, or surrogate wombs to obtain a child have become involved in disputes with the biological parents, or with each other, about who is the “real” parent.
It is very difficult to come up with a clear answer to these problems, and harder still to say that any answer is clearly the right one. We would argue that this total lack of ethical clarity is a clear sign that something is amiss in our attitudes and procedures.
As the feminist writer Germaine Greer has written, in her book ‘The Whole Woman’,
“The relentless advance of reproductive technology has now split motherhood into three compartments, genetic motherhood, gestational motherhood and parental motherhood….Nobody really knows whether a genetic mother has more entitlement to claim a child than the woman who grew and nourished it in her womb or the woman who rears and nourishes it outside the womb.”
Ms Greer is an interesting example of a feminist who, while supporting abortion, has spoken out against those who view it as a good thing.
One particularly shocking phenomenon is the abortion of children created through the kind of techniques discussed above. In the UK, an average of around one hundred children a year are aborted after being conceived through ARTs.
This represents about 1% of all children conceived by these methods annually. The figure includes what is euphemistically called “selective reduction”, i.e. aborting one of the children in a multiple pregnancy. There is a strong likelihood that among those eighty or so, there are cases in which both the IVF and the abortion were funded by the NHS, that is to say by taxpayers’ money.
The 1967 Abortion Act was intended to provide a humane framework for a limited number of abortions in difficult cases. Forty years later, we have reached the absurd situation where the state will pay thousands of pounds for a course of IVF (or as many as three courses in some Local Health Authorities), and yet still enable or even fund the destruction of the human being produced by that IVF.
Most of the media did not bother to react. Why? Because for the principled pro-choicer, there is really nothing wrong here. Pro-choice arguments are predicated on the assumption that the value of unborn life is defined almost entirely by the attitude of the mother in whose womb the child is situated. The fact that this attitude might change from day to day or from hour to hour is neither here nor there.
This is just one more stop on a journey that we have been on since the Abortion Act in 1967 and the first IVF babies a decade later. Human life is no longer uniquely and irreplaceably precious, a “gift” to be accepted unconditionally. For too many people, human life has become something that they accept on their own terms or not at all, something that they demand to be given at a time of their choosing.
Only a strong pro-life ethic is capable of holding the line against the commodification of human life. The weak, confused utilitarianism that is the main justification for our permissive attitude to abortion and IVF has little power to prevent or limit attacks on the dignity of the individual.