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Human stories of IVF


Robert Edwards, inventor of IVFWomen will go to extraordinary lengths to have babies. A friend procured copper wire and got her husband to wind it around the base of their bed in the belief that it would help her to conceive. She is now the mother of three.

An acquaintance told me that her brother met an flight attendant on a flight, who tricked him into a love affair, and quietly disappeared once she had fallen pregnant. She reappeared years later, stricken with terminal cancer, revealing her secret and begging the father to raise his child. He and his now-wife agreed to do so.

I myself resorted to saying nine-day novenas to St Gerard, the patron saint of mothers and children, after a sage warning from my doctor that I had a 50 per cent chance of carrying a baby to term. His prognosis was spot on: my six pregnancies produced three babies.

Children are, as Kalil Gibran says, 'the sons and daughters of life's longing for itself': there is no suitable description for the primal urge so many of us feel to procreate, and no accounting for the strength of an instinct which cascades unchecked through the veins and settles in the deep well of the heart.

It's an instinct that makes a cruel mockery of the estimated 15 per cent of Australian couples who cannot have children. Infertility is an absence which no-one but the sufferer notices, a hole that can be filled only by a living, breathing baby. 'For those of us who remain childless, infertility is a lifelong disability,' says Sandra who, after 12 years of treatment, has accepted that she will never be a mum.

But not all infertile people are doomed to childlessness: millions of people around the world have benefited from in vitro fertilisation (IVF), a procedure so radical, so socially transformative, that its co-creator has just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine.

When British doctors Robert Edwards (pictured) and Patrick Steptoe created their first 'test-tube' embryo in late 1977, they were bringing hope not just to John and Lesley Brown — parents of the resulting baby, Louise Joy Brown — but to millions of men and women unable to conceive naturally. Today, IVF is used in around three per cent of all births in Australia, a figure comparable to that in other developed countries.

With news of the award, glasses are no doubt being raised by parents whose children would not exist but for the tenacity displayed by the 'maverick' doctors in the face of scientific and social dissent (Steptoe, who died in 1988, is not named as a joint winner of the award since the Nobel committee does not confer posthumous recognition).

But there are still those who rail against the conception of babies in laboratories rather than in the bedroom. To be sure, IVF, though groundbreaking, has also been the progenitor of ethically questionable outcomes: the destruction of redundant embryos, the creation of designer babies, the rise of 'rent-a-womb' tourism in countries like India, where poor women are paid to incubate embryos for wealthy foreigners.

The Vatican's top bioethics official, Monsignor Ignacio Carrasco de Paula says that, while Edwards 'began a new and important chapter in the field of human reproduction', without him there wouldn't be a thriving market in donor eggs nor freezers packed with doomed embryos.

'Edwards built a house but opened the wrong door,' he said, suggesting that the professor had not succeeded in solving the underlying causes of infertility.

Certainly, our society is prone to brushing aside the inconvenient consequences that sometimes stem from its decisions. But the beneficiaries of Edwards' intellectual largesse — people practised in deep reflection — will have applied more consideration than most to the consequences of their actions. 

'We were in much grief about the fact that we couldn't conceive on our own, and we considered the use of IVF very carefully,' says my friend, Anne*, the mother of twins.

'Recently we met a beautiful couple who were given an embryo, which would have been thrown away or used in medical research. Their little girl was six years old ... we couldn't bear the thought of her going without life. So we're now thinking about donating our embryos to couples who cannot conceive on their own, genetically.

'We have been given the opportunity to have a family through IVF, and now we feel we may be asked to think about passing this possibility on to other couples.'

In a perfect world, heart-rending decisions such as this wouldn't need to be taken. IVF wouldn't cause collateral damage, nor would it be put to ill-use. But in a perfect world, there would be no such thing as infertility.

In seeking to fill a mother's empty womb and empty arms, Edwards developed a solution, and in so doing confirmed what all innovators know: that progress doesn't occur in a neat and orderly vacuum, and nor should it be halted for fear of what it might produce.

While the Edwardses of this world are busy making their medical, legal and social breakthroughs, the rest of us might like to make our own contribution by preparing a world that is capable of balancing the benefits of modernity with a well-developed, universal probity. 

*Not her real name

Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a journalist working for Jesuit Communications. 

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, IVF, test tube babes, nobel prize, medicine, Robert Edwards



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Existing comments

The Catholic Church's stance on this has always puzzled me some, and I have the utmost respect and affection for the Church. But to be for life in every form, and against a means to allow life; is that consistent?

brian doyle | 07 October 2010  

An excellent article Catherine.

philip | 07 October 2010  

I agree. The Vatican should have stayed quiet. Their statement sounded begrudging and ungenerous. Paul Kelly made some excellent points in answering the longwinded and opinionated Geoffrey Robertson on Q and A Monday night. He or anyone else would find it difficult to defend the Vatican position on this matter.

Frank | 07 October 2010  

It is such a pity that the Church really has made a hash of almost all aspects of `sex stuff` over the last 50 years. The shame is that its wisdom in the many debates that are needed is essentially lost along with its credibility on these issues. If you will excuse the pun, it has rather thrown the baby out with the bathwater! Such is the lot of grumbly old men.

eugene | 07 October 2010  

The "Church " implies still that children are the main reason for couples to marry. Conception is not always the result of male/female intercourse. I guess the celibate clergy will NEVER understand the yearning for a child of one's own and the heartbreak when it doesn't eventuate in the normal way.

I often ask the question (in safe company) about why they expect us to believe the ultimate surrogacy _ Virgin Birth_ and so vehemently deny the opportunity of IVF and other reproductive technologies to couples. In this State there is always comment re reproductive technology and the fact that it isn't allowed in a Catholic hospital, yet it seems OK for the resultant baby to be born in the Catholic hospital.

Go figure!!

Rosemary Keenan Gwelup WA | 07 October 2010  

I think the Church's stance is entirely consistent. If you start from the premise that life begins at conception, then it follows that to destroy an embryo is to destroy a life. This is the argument used against abortion. So the question becomes "Is it morally acceptable to destroy a number of embryos (lives) in order to create one?" And I think the answer is No. Therefore, just as with abortion, I have significant problems with IVF.

When my wife and I decided that a second pregnancy would place considerable risk on her and on the baby, we adopted. I still don't understand why that is considered so rarely - it was amongst the best things we have ever done, bringing joy and happiness into our lives, our daughter's life and her birth mother's life. (And yes, we know her birth mother is happy. We have contact with her. As for our daughter, I think those who know her would say the same as I have said.)

Erik H | 07 October 2010  

I am in complete agreement with Erik. I can't understand why people can't see that to bring an embryo into the world and then not allow it to live is morally equivalent to abortion.

Gavan | 07 October 2010  

I read the words of Erik and Gavan and wonder in what world they live. Like many people who grew up Catholic (Roman) and even did some intensive study of theology I have long lost interest in what passes for moral reasoning out of the Vatican and its supporters. Even with social justice the words are within safe limits.

Brian Poidevin | 07 October 2010  

"Life commences at conception". No worries, life is the stuff of the cosmos. We happily kill and destroy all sorts and conditions of it, but somehow the life of the barely-begun embryo is more special. The reason why abortion and, it appears, IVF is to be rejected is because a single human life-type at whatever early stage is to be preferred over any other form of life. The absolutism behind such a proposition sits ill with the gyrations used to justify all other kinds of killing or destroying.

As I've said before, if someone really believes in an absolute sacredness of life, they won't even crush an ant; if it's only sacredness of human life they regard as absolute they probably must eschew all killing, yes, even in self-defence. Will all anti-IVF / abortion absolutists please acknowledge that they are really selective moralists like the rest of us?

Stephen Kellett | 07 October 2010  

I'm sorry, Brian. Where did my reasoning go wrong? If my premise is that human life begins at conception, then what is my error?

And Stephen, yes, I would not kill someone just to achieve some end that I decide is worthwhile. Maybe I am absolutist but I know where I stand as against the shifting and often sickening morality that many use: "everything is fine so long as I get my way."

By the way, I live in the same world you do. But I choose to live in it with a sense of integrity where my values are not going to be suborned to make life easy for myself. I have decided what I believe in and let that drive the way I deal with people. I don't shift with the wind.

And please don't assume that I agree with everything the Church says - I don't and the hypocrisy and the over-fascination with trying to control people's sex lives nauseates me. You see, I can hold that position because I base my position on what I believe in.

Erik H | 07 October 2010  

By virtue of its substantial union with a spiritual soul, the human body cannot be considered as a mere complex of tissues, organs and functions, nor can it be evaluated in the same way as the body of animals; rather it is a constitutive part of the person who manifests and expresses himself through it.

The problem with IVF as a means to pregnancy is that multiple injustices are perpetrated in every IVF procedure. Every IVF is preceded by an act of masturbation, either by the husband or the "donor." This action is intrinsically disordered morally, and damages the actor. It usually involves the use of pornographic images, which depersonalize both the viewer and those who produce the images. The masturbator himself is performing the sinful act, which, as St. Paul says, is a sin in his own body, in order to satisfy the demands of another person (or, worse, for compensation). The act of masturbation is by its very nature anti unitive. It therefore damages the marital union. Injustice, then, is an essential part of the masturbatory act oriented toward producing sperm for IVF.

Injustice happens whenever a person or collection of persons seizes on a power that is not due them. Ironically, the very concept of IVF is based on an erroneous assumption. As CDF says, "marriage does not confer on the spouses the right to have a child, but only the right to perform those natural acts which are per se ordered to procreation." David Bohr rightly notes that the "child always remains a gift of love, and can never be considered an object of ownership or an object to which one has a right."

This brings us to the gravest injustices perpetrated by IVF: the outcome of the fertilization itself is usually multiple blastocysts. Three ends are possible for these; and an injustice is involved in all three outcomes.

First, one or more of the blastocysts are judged suitable, placed into the uterus of the woman attempting conception, and some survive. The child who develops to full term and is delivered is, of course, the desired "consumer product." I use that term intentionally, to heighten our awareness of the injustice. Every child has a right to be conceived in an embrace of love between his mother and father. This child is denied that right. He will for all time be a "test-tube baby." He has been treated as a commodity.

Second, some blastocysts are judged unsuitable and are discarded (literally thrown into a biohazard container) or are placed in the uterus and are flushed out by the body's natural systems. These have even more clearly been treated as disposable commodities, as objects with no inherent human dignity. The culling of "problem" children is justified by avoiding the inconvenience of caring for more than one child at a time.

Thirdly, some blastocysts are deemed "in excess" and are frozen for future use. These tiny human beings are also treated as commodities to be warehoused, without human dignity. This, too, is dehumanizing, a profound injustice.

The various injustices perpetrated on the tiny children "manufactured" through IVF have been highlighted by a number of civil litigations. There are variations on the same theme — these embryos are property, not people. In divorce, one party wants to destroy the children; the other wants to keep them frozen or implant them to give them a full chance at life. A grieving widow wants to implant to bring children up for her dead husband; the rest of the family wants to destroy them. In many of these cases members of the press cluck their tongues over the foibles of the human beings involved. The real problem started with the IVF procedure that created these vulnerable humans in the first place. An action designed to foster human life has in fact furthered the agenda of the Culture of Death.

Of course, it is easy to understand the injustice done to the woman who will carry the child. She is treated like a baby factory. She is denied her husband's unitive, procreative embrace. (In fact, some protocols have prohibited sexual contact in the days or weeks before the IVF masturbation.) She is subject to a number of demeaning, medically unnecessary procedures. She has to live with the knowledge that of two to twenty children conceived from her eggs, most will be killed.

Trent | 08 October 2010  

Yes, IVF has produced many babies and given great joy to many families.

But good ends do not justify bad means. And IVF is a very bad means for treating the painful problem of infertility. (In fact, it doesn’t treat the problem at all, as the actual causes of the infertility are not addressed).

By destroying thousands upon thousands of embryos, IVF fosters the split personality approach to unborn life so common today… some embryos are precious and deserve our nurture and protection, the unlucky rest don’t.

And then there are the social consequences of IVF and related technologies that divorce the making of babies from sex.

Our society no longer sees a child as a gift, but a right. And of course it’s discriminatory to limit that “right” to married couples or heterosexual couples or even couples at all.

So I, as single woman, must also be given access to IVF and so must lesbian women and their partners. The right of the child to be born to a mother and father that they know and who knows them doesn’t come into consideration.

(I know parents split up, or die, or abandon their children and not everyone experiences the love of a mother and a father. But that’s always been considered a sadness, and not something we have elevated as a good – until now.)

The lesbian couple who sued because they got twins instead of the one they “ordered”, or the deaf women in the US who were looking for a deaf sperm donor to try to get their desired result – these are extreme examples of how babies have become commodities through these technologies.

But they point to an underlying current of thought that is sadly widespread.

Meg | 11 October 2010  

Excellent comments, Trent and Meg. The profundity of your observations and reasoning stands in stark relief to the superficial nature of the counter arguments put above.

HH | 12 October 2010  

A sensitive, well-written and thought-provoking article. I grapple with this issue too.

When we married, we discussed possible infertility and how this would affect our family plans. We thought we'd try to adopt, having seen family and close friends struggle to conceive. Failing that, we resolved to pursue education, travel and career, and help support our family and friends in their child-raising.
Fortunately our plans were moot difficulty, but I am aware that without having 'walked the road', our alternative plans are hypothetical.

I do understand the Church's teaching on this: these days, one can readily estrange sex from procreation (sex without babies, babies without sex) ... but the church must also be sensitive and careful to those experiencing the heartache of infertility and the longing of children. For many, there is a wish to impart themself, and at times couples can think an inability to conceive is divine disapproval. This is heart-wrenching.

Importantly, we should nonetheless make an effort to welcome into our parishes couples who have children conceived artificially, and those children themselves!

As a side issue, I did read an article a few years ago mentioning some research the pill can affect fertility ... I would be interested to know more if anyone else knows about this.

MBG | 12 October 2010  

It also needs to be pointed out that IVF relies heavily on the use of abortion to ensure that desperate parents do not end up with an IVF baby that is flawed in any way. Abortion is also used to reduce the number of embryos successfully implanted.

Cathy | 12 October 2010  

At the end of the day, it's not about the Vatican, it's not about the church, it's not, believe it or not... about comparing the life of an ant to the life of a human.. it's about whether you believe that abortion is wrong, disposal of embyros (for whatever reason, be it that they're just not needed due to surplus, that they didn't make the cut etc) is wrong, and that miracles actually do happen - miraculous conceptions to women other than Mary, and miracles that come in the form of adoption. Contrary to what the author suggests, sometimes the peace of Christ, which surpasses all human understanding, and embracing God's plans, can fill that empty womb. My brother and his wife tried for years, including IVF, to have children and finally gave up. Miraculously, they conceived 2 children - naturally, and now have 2 beautiful children. I remember reading an article once about a couple who met and fell in love, but the relationship, as they knew it, ended, when they found out that they were half brother and sister. I know somebody who donated one of her eggs to her sister who now has no time for "her" daughter. People just can't accept that God knows best. God performs miracles, and sometimes, we don't always get them in the way that we wanted.

JMS | 13 October 2010  

JMS, while I agree that it is about whether life is life, abortion is wrong, and so is the disposal of embyros, I don't agree that 'God has plans' (other than for us to seek and love God and love our fellow man - Catechism 1743, 2822-3). God has limited himself by giving us free will. Catholic teaching says we are not 'predestined' in our human lives, relationships and actions (see Catechism 1731-1738). I am pleased for your brother and his wife and I know of some similar stories. Yet caution is required in expressing the fatalistic view that 'if it's meant to be it will be'.

MBG | 13 October 2010