In Vitro Fertilization: The Great Debate

In Vitro Fertilization (IVF)

In 1978, the first “test-tube baby” was born. Since 1981, more than 5 million babies have been born thanks to infertility research and the science of In Vitro Fertilization (IVF). Since its infancy, IVF has been highly scrutinized, criticized and has stirred up plenty of moral controversy and debate. While the opposition has softened, with every advancement comes new resistance. To better understand the evolution of IVF, we’ve highlighted some of the benefits and drawbacks, as well as addressing the big questions.

1. Helping Couples Start A Family 

1 in 6 couples need medical help to have a baby. Millions around the world have realized their dream of having a baby through the process of IVF. It is becoming more and more common for women to start a family later in life. In the United States, the average age of new mothers is at an all-time high of 26 years. In 1970 it was 21.4. The average age of first time mothers in the UK is 28.5 years.

As women age, it is natural that fertility rates decrease. The proverbial “biological clock” begins to tick, and fertility rates decrease by 3-5% each year after age 30. After 40, fertility reduces to an even greater extent. Male infertility is also a major contributor. Nearly half of couples who cannot conceive experience infertility as a result of poor sperm quality. For couples who suffer from infertility, IVF is often the best and last solution to start a family. For many, what was once a dead-end road is now full of new possibility.

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2. Scientific & Medical Progress 

Another benefit of IVF comes from a scientific standpoint. IVF involves retrieving and fertilizing a woman’s eggs in a special laboratory before introducing the embryos to the uterus. By studying fertilization and early embryonic development outside the womb, scientists are learning more about the earliest stages of human life and possibly how to prevent certain birth defects. The mind behind the first IVF baby, 2010 Nobel Prize Winner, Laureate Robert Edwards, was extremely outspoken about the far-reaching medical and scientific benefits of IVF.

In 2003 he told the London Times: 

“[IVF] was a fantastic achievement, but it was about more than infertility. It was also about issues like stem cells and the ethics of human conception. I wanted to find out exactly who was in charge, whether it was God himself or whether it was scientists in the laboratory…Soon it will be a sin for parents to have a child that carries the heavy burden of genetic disease. We are entering a world where we have to consider the quality of our children.”

While Edwards was undoubtedly on one end of the spectrum, there is no arguing the scientific and medical ‘miracles’ IVF continues to pioneer. The Human Fertility & Embryology Authority (HFEA), also plays a large role in the development of reproductive medicine. In 2004, HFEA granted the first license to a clinic to screen embryos for diseases they might develop as adults.

3. Too Much Risk  

For those against IVF, objections began well before the first test tube baby, when no one even knew if the science would work. Critics feared the possibility of deformed babies and terminal illnesses. Even DNA co-discoverer, James Watson, warned Edwards, “You can only go ahead with your work if you accept the necessity of infanticide. There are going to be a lot of mistakes. What are we going to do with the mistakes?”

Today we can dismiss many of the most extreme concerns from half a century ago. However, like any medical procedure, IVF doesn’t come without some risk. We know that Multiple Births (Gestation), increases with IVF. If a transfer to the uterus includes more than one embryo, the risk of a pregnancy with multiple fetuses increases. Often this results in a higher risk of premature labor and low birth weight. Even if only one fetus develops, IVF slightly increases the risk of a premature delivery and low birth rate.

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4. Destroying The Traditional Family

Another popular concern was that IVF would ultimately destroy the nuclear family. Many believed that traditional marriage would be replaced by laboratory breeding, or something resembling a science fiction novel. The most conservative feared and opposed the creation of new, non-traditional families, while some feminists worried that the pressure on women to have children would increase. Others worried that so-called, “test tube babies” would be rejected as social outcasts. Biologist, Lee Silver argues:

“Here’s a technology which is almost always used to allow a married man and woman to have a child, to form a family…IVF facilitates a very, very traditional outcome, which is a mother and a father and children.”

Today this concern is diminishing, and so is the concept of ‘traditional’ altogether. With the aid of donor sperm and eggs, and sperm and egg banking (preservation), it is possible for same sex couples, and single women to have a baby. New, ‘alternative’ families are more common and accepted.

5. Playing God 

Not all IVF criticism hangs on bad outcomes. Others considered IVF innately wrong because it is ‘unnatural’. These critics have silenced over time, but many still argue that IVF scientists are attempting to “play God”. In a statement from the Vatican, the Catholic Church states, “Fecundation must be carried out according to nature and through reciprocal and responsible love between a man and a woman.” 

Recently, a technique called Pre-Implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) has been the topic of much debate. PGD allows scientists to test and correct genetic disorders while the embryos are outside of the body, before transfer to the uterus. IVF specialist at the University College Hospital London, Dr Paul Serhalat, addressed the issue:

“Of course some people feel uncomfortable when doctors start to interfere with nature and others wonder where it will end. Where does society draw the line-at the colour of a baby’s eyes?” 

As it stands, choosing the sex of a baby is against the law in the UK. However, it is legal in other countries, such as the United States. HFEA states that the use of PGD may only for certain severe or life-threatening disorders at a limited number of clinics. As of 2008, HFEA also banned sex selection for non-medical reasons.

6. The “New Normal” 

Each year, thousands of babies are born with the help of infertility treatment, such as IVF. Like all new technology or scientific advancements, people are often ‘skeptical’ at best, and fearful at worst. Today IVF is a mainstream medical procedure. Traditional couples, same sex couples, and single women all over the world are pursuing the dream of starting a family and for many, IVF is the best solution. To deny any human the possibility to procreate is a moral controversy in itself. 

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