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Catholic and pro-life bioethicists questioned the choice of this year’s Nobel laureate in medicine: the inventor of in vitro fertilization.
BY Joan Frawley Desmond
WASHINGTON — Four million people are alive today thanks to the groundbreaking technique that Robert Edwards developed.
And yet, untold numbers of embryos have perished and hundreds of thousands languish in cryopreservation because of it.
It was announced Oct. 4 that Edwards, a British biologist and clinician, would receive the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his development of in vitro fertilization, with his physician colleague Patrick Steptoe.
Louise Brown — the world’s first “test-tube baby,” born in 1978 — publicly applauded Edwards’ achievement. But Catholic bioethicists and some researchers and clinicians challenged the Nobel Prize Committee’s decision to honor Edwards, noting that his innovation resulted in the destruction of millions of human embryos and ushered in a “brave new world” of anonymous sperm donors and “surrogate mothers.”
While the prize recognizes Edwards’ contribution to the science of human reproduction, it ignores the ethical consequences of his opening “the wrong door” in the fight against infertility, said the president of the Pontifical Academy for Life.
Msgr. Ignacio Carrasco de Paula said he recognized that Edwards “ushered in a new and important chapter in the field of human reproduction in which the best results are visible to everyone, beginning with Louise Brown.”
However, “without Edwards there wouldn’t be a market for oocytes (immature egg cells), without Edwards there wouldn’t be freezers full of embryos waiting to be transferred in utero or, more likely, to be used for research or to die abandoned and forgotten by everyone,” the monsignor said in a written statement released by the Vatican Press Office Oct. 4.
The written statement came after Msgr. Carrasco’s comments to the Italian news agency ANSA that the Nobel committee’s selection of Edwards was “completely out of place.”
Many commentators suggested that early ethical concerns regarding IVF centered on whether laboratory fertilization could produce healthy babies, which has largely been resolved. But critics argue that IVF raises a host of issues — moral, medical, cultural and financial — that still haven’t received adequate public scrutiny.
Elizabeth Marquardt, a social researcher and author based at the Institute for American Values, notes that news stories about IVF often focus on the fulfillment of parental dreams, while ignoring a host of inconvenient truths, including websites established by adult children yearning to meet sperm-donor fathers and half siblings.
“Today, those who continue to focus only on the point of view of parents, would-be parents and fertility industry professionals are making a choice to frame IVF and reproductive technologies as an issue of adult rights without regard for the needs of offspring (as children, and when they grow up),” said Marquardt.
Need for Regulation
Edwards’ scientific interests are not limited to reproduction. In a 2001 article in Nature, Edwards noted his early delight at the possibilities opened by the regenerative properties of embryonic stem cells. Decades ago, he reported, he encouraged colleagues at Cambridge University to pursue research with embryonic tissue.
More recently, after President George W. Bush placed limits on federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research, Edwards suggested that many political leaders in the U.S. and the U.K. had adopted a morally inconsistent stance — given the rapidly expanding field of reproductive technologies that drew little public attention from policymakers.
“Stem-cell ethics are minor when compared with the issues raised by gamete donation, surrogate pregnancy, embryo cryopreservation, research on early human embryos, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis and adult cloning,” wrote Edwards.
Yet, Edwards’ defensive posture acknowledged that even as the majority of scientists in his field appeared to have set aside ethical reservations, innovations in reproductive technologies continue to stir public unease.
At present, the public debate centers on lethal stem-cell research and the specter of human cloning — not IVF, which is largely unregulated in the United States.
“It is long past time there was limiting regulation in this field. It was unregulated IVF that led to the creation of hundreds of thousands of ‘excess’ human embryos in cryogenic storage in IVF clinics,” said William Saunders, senior vice president at Americans United for Life. “This tempted scientific entrepreneurs to try to find ways to ‘use this resource.’ This led, in turn, to the tragedy of human embryonic stem-cell research and the possible future specter of the mass production of human beings in the lab, through cloning, for the purpose of being destroyed for research.”
Dr. Thomas Hilgers, director of the Omaha-based Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction and developer of pro-life NaPro Technology, believes it is past time for physicians dealing with infertility to re-evaluate their tendency to promote IVF. Instead, he argues, they should treat the medical conditions that lead to infertility.
“IVF is a technology that destroys life to create life. It does not look for or address the underlying causes of infertility. On both counts, it’s the wrong approach and a lot of people have suffered as a result,” said Hilgers, an obstetrician, gynecologist and specialist in reproductive medicine and surgery.
More than three decades after Louise Brown’s birth on the 10th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, notes Hilgers, IVF procedures have yet to exceed a 30% success rate for achieving pregnancy.
Still, women are encouraged to pay tens of thousands of dollars for several cycles of treatment and undergo invasive medical procedures.
Media reports of Edwards’ Nobel Prize noted that the Catholic Church remains the primary opponent to IVF and other forms of assisted fertility treatments that create human life outside the marital act.
However, Michael Hanby, assistant professor of biotechnology and culture at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America, notes that the Church’s repudiation of IVF is not solely concerned with the death-dealing that often accompanies a procedure that routinely discards genetically defective embryos and freezes “spare” embryos.
Catholic sexual ethics arises from the Church’s understanding of who and what the human person is, a body-soul unity called to make a total self-gift in love, said Hanby.
“When the Church states that fertility treatment must respect the three fundamental goods of the right to life from conception, the integrity of marriage, and the unity between the conjugal act and its fruitfulness, it is this vision of the human person that underlies and unites these goods,” Hanby noted. “And it is our humanity that is ultimately put in jeopardy by IVF and associated technologies.”
By separating procreation from the conjugal act, Hanby concluded, “IVF divides and reduces the person; love becomes a mere affection or sentiment and the body a mere mechanism subordinate to the designs of the will. And the child conceived via IVF is necessarily treated from the very first not as a child — not as a person and gift with an inviolable being all his own — but as matter to be selected and worked upon.”
Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.