In vitro fertilisation and embryo-experimentation

Study notes on in vitro fertilisation

Test tube babies

In vitro fertilisation (IVF) is the creation of embryos by mixing sperm and ova in the laboratory. Embryos conceived in this way can be transferred to the womb of the woman who is to carry the child(ren); alternatively, they can be discarded, frozen or experimented upon. British legislation allows destructive experimentation on living human embryos up to two weeks after fertilisation.

The human cost of IVF

SPUC's basic objection to IVF is that it amounts to the manufacture of human beings. The practice of IVF assumes that our offspring may be produced in the laboratory, and that the role of the natural mother, in safeguarding with her own body the welfare of the embryo from conception, may legitimately be transferred to other people. IVF thus makes embryos vulnerable, exposing them to the risks of being discarded, frozen or experimented upon. Many thousands of human embryos have perished in the development and practice of IVF.

The majority of couples who enter IVF programmes (some 80% according to British figures) do not take home a baby. We are concerned that an unethical and highly unsuccessful procedure has been promoted at the expense of alternative treatments for infertility, for example, microsurgery to repair blocked fallopian tubes (which even IVF practitioners have admitted to be far more successful than IVF). Long-term research is lacking into the physical and psychological development of children conceived in IVF, and into the effects on couples for whom the procedure proves unsuccessful.

Although the plight of infertile couples has been the principal device for generating sympathy for IVF, the practice and promotion of the technique has encouraged a tendency to regard children as commodities rather than as a gift. The human right to found a family means that couples have the freedom to reproduce, but not an entitlement to produce children by any possible means. It is unjust to claim rights which deny the true rights of the child, particularly the right to life and the respect due to human beings from conception.

Experiments on humans

The use of human embryos in procedures which are not for the benefit of the embryos themselves breaches a fundamental principle of medical ethics. The World Medical Association's Declaration of Helsinki (revised 1975) states: "In research on man, the interests of science and society should never take precedence over considerations related to the well-being of the subject... The doctor can combine medical research with professional care, the objective being the acquisition of medical knowledge, only to the extent that medical research is justified by its diagnostic and therapeutic value for the patient."

Excluding the human embryo and foetus from this consideration cannot be justified either by scientific evidence (which, in fact, confirms the humanity of the embryo) or by appeal to technological advances which make embryo experiments possible. The use of technology must be made to conform to ethical principles, not vice versa.

Embryo freezing

The freezing and storage of embryos entails a serious failure in the respect due to human beings. It is deeply objectionable that embryos should deliberately be placed in a situation where their natural development is suspended, and their lives and future development endangered. Many embryos do not survive the processes of freezing and thawing.

Embryo freezing has also led to the problem of what is to be done with embryos whose parents cannot be traced or who cannot be transferred to their natural mother. There is no obvious right answer to this problem. Pro-life ethicists have discussed the alternatives of keeping the embryos frozen (perhaps indefinitely), allowing the transfer of embryos to "host mothers," or thawing the embryos and allowing them to die. SPUC submits that the problem must be dealt with at its root by banning embryo freezing.

Surrogate motherhood and the donation of sperm and ova

We consider that it is an affront to the dignity of the child when he or she is conceived in a surrogacy arrangement, whether this involves IVF or other means of conception (such as artificial insemination).

Unlike adoption, which is a humane solution to the inability of the natural parents to care for a child, surrogacy deliberately brings about a separation between genetic parenthood and the gestation and raising of the child. To complicate a child's identity in this way is seriously objectionable. It also demeans the surrogate mother and encourages a perception of children as a commodity. The same objection applies to the use of ova or sperm from donors.

We have opposed moves to undermine the legal principle of consent to the use of gametes, since the removal of a person's sperm or ova without their consent is an abuse of their bodily integrity, and could facilitate the production of large numbers of embryos for experimentation.