Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Ethics of In Vitro Fertilization

I've begun my bookstore and library talks on A Perilous Conception with remarks to the effect that in vitro fertilization used to be a hot topic, the subject of considerable debate between scientists and liberal ethicists on one side, and religious leaders and conservative ethicists on the other side. I've shown my audiences the cover of the June 13, 1969 issue of Life Magazine, which asked, "When new methods of human reproduction become available - Can traditional family life survive? Will marital infidelity increase? Will children and parents still love each other? Would you be willing to have a 'test-tube" baby?"

Now, more than thirty-three years after the birth of Louise Joy Brown, it's become clear that fertilization in a plastic dish, rather than in a fallopian tube, carries no excess risk for offspring, parents, or society. Today, in vitro fertilization is an accepted standard medical procedure.

But not everyone's convinced. Monday morning's newspapers carried Newt Gingrich's call "for a commission to study the ethical issues relating to in vitro fertilization clinics, where...large numbers of embryos are created."

So, back we go to Square One. Forty years ago, the ethics of in vitro fertilization were extensively discussed and argued, and the issues were resolved to the satisfaction of the great majority of the American public. But Gingrich's proposal has nothing to do with the question of whether IVF babies are at higher risk for physical or mental abnormalities, or whether the mothers might be damaged by the procedure, or whether there might be adverse societal fallout. The presidential candidate is trying to court voters who believe human-ness begins not at fetal viability, nor with a beating heart, nor with organ differentiation, nor at embryonic implantation, but at fertilization. To this bloc, he holds out the hope of exerting official control over the handling of the eight-cell embryos created during the IVF process.

So, hello again, Roe v Wade. Easy to see the coming end-run, another attempt to legislate the will of a minority of the population past a ruling by the United States Supreme Court.

But Gingrich's self-serving gesture to the far right has the ring of a cracked bell. I wonder what would be the political stances and religious convictions of the members of his commission. This candidate has complained loud and long about the intrusion of government into our everyday lives, but he seems to think it'd be just fine for the government to dictate his-size-fits-all reproductive choices. He might do well to consider the beliefs and feelings of the ten percent of American couples who find themselves infertile. Do the math, Newt. They also vote.

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