Orphaned at Conception

We must be the voice of the voiceless and demand respect and protection for the unborn, not just in abortion facilities, but in fertility clinics as well.


Earlier this year, Dr. Robert Sparrow published a paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics entitled "In Vitro Eugenics." In it, Sparrow explores the possibility of creating generations of human beings in the laboratory.

He explains that the stem cells from embryos could be used to make egg and sperm cells, which, in turn, could create more embryos.

This would bring human reproduction into the laboratory not just for one generation, but for generation after generation. Sparrow explains that these embryos would be "orphaned at conception." They "would have no genetic parents: There would be no living individual … who could be described as the genetic progenitor of such embryos."

Sparrow calls this new possibility in human reproduction "in vitro eugenics."

While this sounds like something that could only happen in science fiction, producing egg and sperm from stem cells is now a reality. Scientists have already accomplished this in mice and are discussing doing the same in humans.

Why would anyone want to create multiple human generations in a laboratory?

Sparrow suggests it could become a "method to bring into existence children with a desired genotype." In other words, it would be a way to create designer children. He writes:

"If it becomes possible to breed human beings in vitro, it will be possible to use all of the techniques of artificial selection to produce embryos with desirable genomes. In effect, scientists will be able to breed human beings with the same (or greater) degree of sophistication with which we currently breed plants and animals."

The average reader may think that "in vitro eugenics" will never become a reality. Concern for the health and safety of the children produced over multiple generations in a laboratory would certainly prevent anyone from ever trying this chilling technique.

Or would it? Sparrow dismisses the safety roadblocks by pointing out that the long-term health risks to the children conceived with in vitro fertilization (IVF) and other artificial reproductive technologies (ART) are still unknown, and yet these are routinely offered by fertility clinics all over the world. Sparrow argues it will likely be the same with "in vitro eugenics." He writes:

"Until a generation of children produced by IVF (or intracytoplasmic sperm injection or cytoplasmic transfer) have lived out their natural lifespan, we will not know whether IVF (or any of these other technologies) is safe — and we certainly did not know this at the time at which those technologies were first trialed. Thus, in vitro eugenics would not raise any issues we have not confronted before."

Unfortunately, Sparrow is right. Little concern has been given to the health and well-being of the unborn by the fertility industry. The norm has been to experiment with a new procedure to "see if it works" and then examine the risks and long-term health issues of the children later.

In a review of ART in the journal Reproductive Biomedicine, two fertility industry professionals point out that often techniques are implemented before they are thoroughly studied. Some are "not confirmed to be safe," and yet they are still offered.

Rachel Brown and Joyce Harper expose that, in the fertility industry, "new technology has rarely been robustly validated before clinical use, and developing scientific understanding of the available techniques has done little to alter their use." The authors conclude that discussions about the safety of such techniques "are urgently needed."

This disregard for the safety of the unborn in experimental procedures extends beyond the fertility industry and seems to be pervasive in society as well.

With every new fertility technique announced, there is much consideration given to parental desires and little, if any, concern about how this will affect the resulting children.

An excellent example is the case of Derya Sert, a 22-year-old Turkish woman who was born without a uterus. Doctors successfully transplanted a uterus from a cadaver. Embryos were created with IVF and transferred to Sert’s experimental womb. In April of this year, Sert was confirmed pregnant.

The response to this medical breakthrough was overwhelmingly positive, even though news reports were clear that, because of the experimental nature of the transplant and the anti-rejection drugs that Sert had to take, the child was at significant risk for birth defects and pre-term delivery.

Many people, including pro-lifers, applauded Sert’s doctors and likened this to a heart or kidney transplant. Even some Catholics commented that such a transplant would be morally acceptable if it were not for the IVF.

It is true that, unlike IVF, the Catholic Church has not come out against uterus transplants, but this does not mean this procedure is free from ethical concerns.

First, a uterus transplant is nothing like a heart or kidney transplant. Being born without a uterus is not life-threatening. And yet Sert underwent an invasive and potentially dangerous transplant for a non-life-threatening issue: the desire to experience pregnancy.

And what about the health and safety of the child? Sadly, Sert miscarried. Whether or not that was due to the transplanted uterus may never be known.

What is known is that this child was purposefully placed in an experimental womb and subjected to significant health risks, all for a non-life-threatening condition. If the pregnancy had continued, the baby could have suffered lifelong consequences.

The Catechism is clear that the unborn are to be respected, protected and cared for like any other person (2270, 2274). Let us not forget that the child was also a subject in this experiment.

Was he or she cared for with the respect deserving of every person? Or was this child treated as a regrettable but acceptable causality of experimental reproductive medicine?

Upon hearing of Sert’s miscarriage, many encouraged her to try again. Which begs the question: How many children need to be put at risk to perfect this procedure? How many "failures" are acceptable?

In truth, there are many medical advancements that we could have if we treated human research subjects unethically. In a perfect world, every woman with a missing or malfunctioning uterus could get a replacement, but realistically this cannot be pursued without experimenting on the unborn.

We must be the voice of the voiceless and demand respect and protection for the unborn, not just in abortion facilities, but in fertility clinics as well.

If we continue to place the health and safety of children beneath that of parental desires and continue to allow callous experimentation on the unborn, Sparrow’s designer children, "orphaned at conception," products of multiple generations in the lab, are sure to follow.

Rebecca Taylor is a

clinical laboratory specialist

in molecular biology.

She writes about bioethics on

her blog Mary Meets Dolly.