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- Amnon Goldworth, PhD*
TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
Is there a difference between being human and being a person?
Are there other ethical problems with the use of in vitro fertilization beyond those identified in this article?
Should an infertile couple be allowed to take the risk of harming their offspring if it is not known whether a serious harm is involved or it is known that a serious harm is involved?
Are there ways of possibly wronging the community by the use of in vitro fertilization other than financially?
Does the physician have an ethical if not a legal obligation to provide in vitro fertilization to infertile couples?
After the Flood, “God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them,‘ Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth.’” (Genesis 9:1) Humankind, notwithstanding war, famine, and disease, has heeded this call with natural exuberance and global consequences that challenge the planet’s resources today.
Over the many centuries since God’s injunction, children have been born by natural means. However, among the estimated 40 million couples of childbearing age who live in the United States, 8.5% are involuntarily infertile. Obviously, many more infertile couples around the world can be added to this more than 3 million in the United States. For these couples, in vitro fertilization (IVF) offers new promise.
This promise is not without its critics. Social pressure, especially on women, is at the heart of much of the drive for biologic parenthood. Nevertheless, the fact that many infertile couples are willing to spend thousands of dollars and risk the physical and mental demands of IVF rather than adopt a child suggests a strong emotional need for biologic offspring that is not influenced by social pressures.
The IVF Procedure
Unlike in vivo fertilization, IVF requires the intervention of a medical team. This intervention begins by taking a history of the couple. This is followed by physical and laboratory examinations that include a test for the sperm count of the male partner and a pelvic examination, cervical culturing, and staining of cervical secretions for the presence of Chlamydia for the female partner.
Once these tests are completed, fertility drugs are administered to the woman to stimulate her ovarian follicles to produce as many healthy eggs as possible. This is necessary because a single fertilized egg or pre-embryo has only a small chance of survival. Eggs are retrieved 27 to 36 hours by a specific stimulation technique such as ultrasonographically guided aspiration or laparoscopy, and as many eggs as possible are obtained per single retrieval attempt.
The harvested eggs are inseminated by a sample of semen that contains sperm of good quality and are prepared by washing to induce capacitation. Each harvested egg has a 60% to 70% chance of being fertilized. Once cleavage occurs, the pre-embryos are transferred to the woman’s uterus.
Sperm of poor quality reduces the chances for a couple to have sufficient embryos available for assisted fertilization. This problem has been addressed with intracytoplasmic sperm injection, in which a single captured sperm is injected directly into the egg.
The Ethical Landscape
Bernard Williams has observed that“ we have a conception of the ethical that understandably relates to us and our actions the demands, claims, desires, and especially the lives of other people….” Four distinguishable ethical problems are involved with IVF: 1) the relationship of the physician and the infertile couple to the pre-embryo, 2) the relationship of the physician to the infertile couple and the affected offspring, 3) the relationship of the infertile couple to the expected offspring, and 4) the relationship of the physician and the infertile couple to the general community.
My conception of ethically permissible behavior is based on the view that any decision is ethically permitted if it is voluntary and does not cause gratuitous harm to others. This is congruent with the early ethical stricture in medicine, Primum non nocere, “First, do no harm.” However, our perception of harm must be qualified. A living being can be harmed without being harmed in a moral sense. I harm a mosquito when I swat it, but I do not harm it in a moral sense unless I assign a moral absolute value to the mosquito’s well-being. To be harmed in a moral sense is to be wronged. Thus, my concern is with behavior that does or does not wrong another.
The Ethical Issues
ISSUE 1: THE POSSIBLE WRONG DONE TO THE PRE-EMBRYO
The number of pre-embryos that are transferred to the woman’s uterus is determined by the chances of fertilization, and this varies with the woman’s age. A sufficient number of pre-embryos are needed to increase the likelihood of pregnancy. Those that are not needed usually are frozen.
Embryos that are not transferred to a woman’s uterus ultimately may be used for research purposes or destroyed. Embryos in the uterus may be destroyed by selective pregnancy reduction. In these instances, further embryonic development has been halted by the action of a physician with the likely consent of the couple. Can the destroyed embryo be said to have been wronged? The answer to this question is contingent on the perceived ontologic status of the embryo. If the embryo is viewed as a human being with the rights normally associated with personhood, arresting its development will be considered a wrong because it constitutes an act of murder. On the other hand, if the embryo is perceived as a bit of protoplasm, neither freezing nor destroying it is inherently unethical.
Considering the human pre-embryo or embryo to be protoplasm overlooks the fact that it differs from every cell in a woman’s body and can be identified as human by its DNA. Thus, science supports the view that human life begins at conception. Some conclude from this that the pre-embryo is a person who possesses rights from the moment of conception.
However, personhood is a social construct that is shaped not only by an understanding of objective nature but also by community needs and values. It is not surprising that different concepts of personhood have been adopted at different times and places. Aristotle indicated that ensoulment (personhood) occurs 40 days after conception for the male fetus and 80 days after conception for the female fetus. Muslims believe that personhood occurs 14 days after conception. From the 17th century onward, European common law recognized personhood only after quickening. Within this historical context, any attempt to decide when protoplasm is endowed with rights by merely resorting to a scientific examination of biologic processes is bound to fail.
A broadly accepted view in today’s world is that the human organism becomes a person at the moment of birth. A competing position is that personhood begins at the moment of conception. Adopting this latter view weighs against selective pregnancy reduction and research on embryos and might require that all embryos be implanted. The Catholic Church is the major proponent of the view that the life of a new human being begins at the moment the ovum is fertilized. According to Catholic teaching, viewing a human individual as a person dictates recognition of the rights of the pre-embryo as a person.
Is a pre-embryo a person from the moment the ovum is fertilized? According to Thomas Shannon (1997), the answer is no. He states that not until totipotency gives way to specialized cellular development, which occurs approximately 3 weeks after formation of the zygote, can we correctly speak of the pre-embryo as an individual. Before this time, the pre-embryo is not an individual and, therefore, cannot be a person. Although science cannot provide a concept of personhood, it appears, in this context, to have provided a necessary condition for human individuality without which personhood is not possible. However, Shannon acknowledges that the biology of the pre-embryo will eventuate in an individual who is a person.
Focusing on the argument from totipotency results in the conclusion that human individuality and, therefore, human personhood does not begin until some weeks after the ovum is fertilized. If we emphasize the fact that the fertilized ovum normally will develop into a person, then the argument from potentiality may lead us to conclude, along with the Catholic Church, that the embryo is a person from the moment of conception. Because the existence of personhood bars us from abusing or killing a person, the logical conclusion is that pregnancy reduction and embryo research are immoral. The Church would like us to believe that personhood occurs at the moment of conception, and Shannon would like us to believe that prior to 3 weeks’ gestation, the pre-embryo falls short of being a person.
As already noted, personhood is a social construct based on community needs and interests as well as on biology. These needs and values find their expression in the way we see things. For example, one person looking at the softly rolling hills of California might react by “seeing” God as the invisible landscape architect who made the beautiful placements of the live oak trees, while another might “see” these placements as the effect of soil conditions, wind, and rain. William Werpehowski “sees” the human face in the pre-embryo when he says,“ Following fertilization, the human zygote is a genetically unique, individual human organism that in its immediate appearance displays to us the human countenance.” However, many do not “see” a human countenance in the pre-embryo. For them, personhood is conferred on human organisms with whom human interactions are possible or occur. We can cuddle a baby; we cannot cuddle a zygote. We coo at an infant and he or she responds by smiling; zygotes do not smile. An infant grasps a proffered finger; a zygote cannot. Babies have personalities and embryos do not. That is why babies are persons and embryos are not.
Prima Facie Demands
Nevertheless, some have argued that although a pre-embryo is not a person, it does have special status and, therefore, is to be treated with special respect. Richard McCormick cites these considerations to support his belief that “the potential of the pre-embryo for person-hood makes powerful prima facie demands on us not to interfere with that potential.”
A prima facie demand is one that cannot be interfered with unless it is overridden or trumped by more powerful ethical considerations. However, identification of a more powerful ethical consideration is determined partly by the perceived ontologic status of the pre-embryo. As McCormick has pointed out, there is broad moral and legal recognition that the pre-embryo is too primitive to have any interests or rights. Thus, its use in research or its elimination in pregnancy reduction, which either directly or indirectly satisfies the needs or interests of human beings, is a more powerful ethical consideration than treating the pre-embryo with special respect. Indeed, unless the pre-embryo is viewed as having rights from the moment of conception, interference in its development to benefit persons is warranted ethically. Unfortunately, any discussion about the special status of or special respect for the pre-embryo, which may have symbolic value, does not contribute to resolving the question of whether its destruction is a wrong.
ISSUE 2: THE POSSIBLE WRONG DONE TO THE INFERTILE COUPLE OR THE EXPECTED OFFSPRING BY THE PHYSICIAN IN USING IVF
The success of IVF depends on the number of embryos transferred to the uterus. Because the chance of survival of an embryo in conventional IVF is small, the more transfers made, the greater the chance of pregnancy. However, this increases the likelihood of multiple pregnancy, with the greatest chance occurring among women younger than age 35 and the least chance among those older than 40.
Multiple pregnancy presents a threat to the physical and mental health of the mother. She may suffer from high blood pressure or uterine bleeding or from complications associated with delivery by cesarean section. Accompanying these physical problems are possible emotional difficulties that might be experienced by both the pregnant woman and her male partner. In addition, the couple will have to bear the medical costs of IVF as well as the costs of medical care for their offspring should there be ongoing medical problems.
Because iatrogenesis commonly is associated with medical interventions, the appropriate question to ask is not simply whether an intervention produces harm, but whether the harm so produced is outweighed by acknowledged benefits. The willingness of infertile couples to undertake IVF is a sufficient sign that the perceived benefits to them outweigh the burdens of financial costs and physical and mental risks.
ISSUE 3: THE POSSIBLE WRONG DONE TO THE OFFSPRING BY THE INFERTILE COUPLE WHO USES IVF
Multiple pregnancies also present a threat to the well-being of the offspring. There are problems associated with low birthweight and with preterm birth. The few comparative studies that have been undertaken suggest that children born of IVF have a significantly greater risk for spina bifida and transposition of the great vessels and that some of the drugs administered to women to stimulate the production of eggs increase the risk of serious birth defects.
Given these results and the scanty evidence, some argue that those who use IVF have an obligation to prove that the technologies employed are safe and that IVF not be used until further evidence of its comparative safety is forthcoming. John Robertson has argued against this position by observing that the increased incidence of defects does “not justify banning the technique to protect the offspring, because without these techniques these children would not have been born at all.” He reasons that being alive is better than not existing and, therefore, the benefit of existence outweighs the harm of birth defects.
Interests in Existing
The previously used comparison for weighing the benefits and harm to the infertile couple is not legitimate in this context. As Cynthia Cohen noted, “The interests in existing argument assumes that children with an interest in existing are waiting in a spectral world of nonexistence where their situation is less desirable than it would be were they released into the world.” In other words, an individual has to exist to be better or worse off. Therefore, it is meaningless to attribute such existential states to what does not exist.
Safety of Technology
Although I reject Robertson’s approach, I also find that opposition to the use of IVF is not well-grounded. It sounds reasonable to reject use of a technology until there is evidence of its safety, but no technology is perfectly safe. Perhaps it is more reasonable to assure that the safety of the new technology approximates the safety of more conventional methods. Thus, IVF would be considered safe if the expected rate, for example, of pre-maturity was the community standard rather than being much higher.
Cohen commented, “It would be wrong to have children if it were known before conception that the means used to bring this about could inflict serious or devastating harm on those very children.” Of course, this also can be said of conception by coital means because serious or devastating harm may be inflicted in these circumstances as well. To knowingly conceive a child who will suffer serious disorders is to wrong that child. However, people do not do this knowingly. Statistics provide information about a given population, but not about any particular individual in that population. Thus, this admonition not to have children by IVF is not well supported.
Tansmitting a Serious Disorder
Suppose a couple who uses IVF unknowingly produce a child who suffers from a serious disorder? Has this couple wronged their child? Before answering this question, let us consider the transmission of Huntington chorea. We can identify clearly all those who transmit the disease (the parents of each of the disease’s victims), and we know the precise risk factor of developing the disease (50%), when the disease is likely to develop (between the ages of 30 and 40), and the fact that the disease terminates in death approximately 15 years after its onset. Opinions differ concerning the morality of fertile couples who have the genetic predisposition for Huntington chorea having children. Optimists point out that these children have a 50% chance of not having the disease and even those who do may enjoy approximately 30 years of healthy life. Pessimists believe that a 50% risk is too high and point to the terrible effects of the disease once it develops.
Notwithstanding these conflicting perspectives, there is agreement on both sides about which facts are material and many, if not all, of these provide accurate information. This exactness of relevant information in the case of Huntington chorea dissolves when applied to IVF. Someone in the population of IVF users will have a child or children who will suffer from a serious disease. As is sometimes the case with coital conception, however, neither can we identify the parents in question nor can we tell which child will be affected by a serious disease and what that disease will be. All that we can say at present is that there is some evidence to suggest an increase in the number of serious disorders in this population compared with the frequency of these disorders among coitally produced children. A reasonable conclusion from these observations is that a severely damaged child has been harmed as a result of IVF technology, but has not been wronged.
Nevertheless, Cynthia Cohen’s advice to infertile couples who are contemplating the use of IVF is well taken when she says, “Would be parents who consider resorting to the new reproductive technologies must be informed about the risks these technologies would present to the children as a result of their use, the means available for ameliorating deficits these children might experience, and what social support would be available should they lack the resources to address such defects on their own. Only then can they decide whether they ought to proceed with those technologies.”
ISSUE 4: THE POSSIBLE WRONG DONE TO THE COMMUNITY BY THE USE OF IVF ON THE PARTS OF THE PHYSICIAN AND THE INFERTILE COUPLE
Although the use of IVF may harm but not wrong the infertile couple or their offspring, the aggregate effect of IVF is an increase in harm compared with the effects of coital pregnancy. Does this indicate that the use of IVF wrongs the community? One might argue that the community is wronged because the financial resources needed to support the individuals who are made ill by IVF are best spent elsewhere. However, this does not take account the fact that distributive justice, albeit an important moral requirement, is in competition with other moral demands. These include the autonomy of the individual in attempting to overcome infertility, the obligation of the physician to try to rescue the sick infant, and the need for medical research to refine the technologies of IVF to eliminate or reduce the effects of illness and disease.
Society has adopted the rescue mentality even when such efforts are extremely expensive and, in terms of the number of individuals affected, could be used more effectively in other medical arenas. Interest in allocating scarce resources ultimately may foreclose on expensive technologies such as IVF. However, until that day arrives, it is difficult to support the contention that IVF wrongs society.
There are numerous problems concerning the implementation of IVF, including whether there is a right to this technology, whether such access should be funded by health insurance, and whether access should be limited to women of a specified age group. However, these problems take on meaning and importance only if IVF is perceived to be sanctioned ethically. This essay was an effort to demonstrate that it is sanctioned by arguing that neither the pre-embryo, the infertile couple, nor the community is wronged by the use of IVF.
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- Copyright © 1999 by the American Academy of Pediatrics