A New Assault on the Smallest Humans?

By Richard Doerflinger

August 5, 1988

At a July 14 congressional hearing, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced that HHS Secretary Otis Bowen plans to re-establish the process for approving federally-funded experiments on human in vitro fertilization (IVF).

Congressman Chris Smith and Henry Hyde were quick to oppose this decision, as was Msgr. Daniel F. Hoye, General Secretary of the U.S. Catholic Conference.

This opposition may provoke some questions. Isn't it strange that those who are outspoken in defense of life should oppose a procedure ostensibly designed to generate new life?

The answer to both questions is no, because deliberate or negligent discarding of vast numbers of human embryos is integral to the IVF procedure. Moreover, proposed experiments on "spare" embryos pose new and devastating threats to human life and dignity.

In 1979 a federal Ethics Advisory Board acknowledge the "uncertain risks" of IVF as well as the "dangers of abuse" such as experimental manipulation of human embryos; but it said IVF research is "ethically acceptable" because early embryos did not have the rights of human persons. HEW Secretary Patricia Harris nevertheless decided not to fund the research, in part because she received thousands of letters against it from citizens concerned about the risks to the human embryo.

Since 1979 these risks have been better documented. A 1984 study found that out of 14, 585 embryos conceived in 62 European IVF centers, only 4% survived to live birth. A 1987 study by America's most successful IVF clinic in Norfolk, Virginia found that only 5% of 4500 embryos survived. "Judging solely by statistics like these," says Congressman Hyde, "one could hardly call IVF an effective procedure for producing children—one is tempted to call it a fairly efficient procedure for preventing children from being born fully alive, with a 95% success rate!"

Because survival for any one embryo is so unlikely, many IVF centers give women fertility drugs to produce many eggs per reproductive cycle and then transfer as many as five or six embryos into a womb at a time. Embryos that appear defective are discarded. Still, the chance of achieving a pregnancy in each cycle is probably less than 20 percent.

Occasionally, a multiple pregnancy results, with significant risks to mother and children. According to the April 21 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, this is sometimes resolved through "selective reduction" of the pregnancy. Ultrasound is used to guide the needle into the heart of an unwanted child and deliver a lethal dose of potassium chloride, to enhance the survival chances of the one or two children that are wanted.

But the abuses inherent in current IVF practice are as nothing compared with the proposed future developments. IVF researchers at the July 14 hearing said they are particularly anxious to perfect a technique called "embryo biopsy." Here a couple that may carry defective genes is encouraged to procreate through IVF. Each embryo is allowed to reach the blastocyst stage in the laboratory, and a cell or two is scraped off for a complete genetic profile; imperfect embryos are thrown away before transfer to the womb. Advocates say this would save families and society from the burden of caring for many handicapped children, without the physical and emotional trauma of amniocentesis and abortion. One might say, without the trauma of seriously contemplating what one is doing.

Other proposals at this hearing included: perfecting long-term "embryo-freezing" methods, offering an IVF-conceived woman the dubious benefit of being able to give birth to her own twin sister' gestating human embryos in apes, to evade the growing legal barriers against using human "surrogate mothers"; observing how various drugs interfere with sperm-egg interaction in the Petri dish; and achieving pregnancy in human males, described as a boon to homosexual couples wanting a child of their own. Aside from the question whether any of the end results could be called human progress, each project would entail wasting numerous embryos used as "raw material" for the pursuit of knowledge.

All of which helps to explain why Msgr. Hoye says this kind of research "does not conform to the Administration's stated policy of respect for human life from the moment of conception."

Mr. Doerflinger is Associate Director for the Policy Development at the U.S. Catholic bishops' Office for Pro-Life Activities.