Thirty Years of “Test-Tube” Babies

Many, including the Catholic Church, still oppose in vitro fertilization on ethical grounds. However, as the recent birth of a baby to a 70-year-old woman shows, the real ethical issue is not IVF itself, but the limits of its use.

MELBOURNE – Louise Brown, the first person to be conceived outside a human body, turned 30 last year. The birth of a “test-tube baby,” as the headlines described in vitro fertilization was highly controversial at the time. Leon Kass, who subsequently served as chair of President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics, argued that the risk of producing an abnormal infant was too great for an attempt at IVF ever to be justified. Some religious leaders also condemned the use of modern scientific technology to replace sexual intercourse, even when it could not lead to conception.

Since then, some three million people have been conceived by IVF, enabling otherwise infertile couples to have the child they longed for. The risk of having an abnormal child through IVF has turned out to be no greater than when parents of a similar age conceive though sexual intercourse. However, because many IVF practitioners transfer two or three embryos at a time to improve the odds of a pregnancy occurring, twins and higher multiple births are more common, and carry some additional risk.

The Roman Catholic Church has not moved away from its opposition to IVF. In a recently released instruction, Dignitas Personae, the Church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith objects to IVF on several grounds, including the fact that many embryos are created in the process, and few survive. This outcome is not, however, very different from natural conception, for the majority of embryos conceived by sexual intercourse also fail to implant in the uterine wall, with the woman often not even knowing that she was ever “pregnant.”

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