Embryo Research and In Vitro Fertilization

Public Comment: NIH Human Embryo Research Panel

Richard M. Doerflinger
Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities
National Conference of Catholic Bishops

February 2, 1994

My name is Richard Doerflinger, and I am Associate Director for Policy Development at the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, National Conference of Catholic Bishops. I am here to express the Catholic bishops' concern that government decisions on human experimentation be guided by a clear commitment to the dignity of human life at every stage of existence.1

Concerns of this kind are sometimes dismissed with the slogan, "Let's keep politics out of science." All too often this slogan really means: "Let's keep ethical concern for the human subject out of our research." The Nuremberg trials showed in horrifying detail the logical implications of such a narrow view of the researcher's duties. Our own country is not without sin in this regard, as evidenced by abuses ranging from the Tuskegee syphilis experiments to the Cold War radiation experiments on unsuspecting retarded children.

Such abuses have also been committed in the area of fetal research. Reports of grisly experiments on the living victims of late-term abortions prompted Congress's first moratorium on federally funded fetal research in 1973, and led to the regulations which now govern such research (45 CFR "46.201 ff.). Later abuses, which employed a federal "waiver" clause to authorize harmful experiments on the children of low-income black and Hispanic women planning to undergo elective abortions, prompted Congress to tighten these regulations further in 1985.2 The general standard reflected in current regulations is that the human fetal subject, whether intended for live birth or abortion, must not be subjected to any significant risk of harm unless that is necessary to serve the health needs of that child or his/her mother.3 These regulations apply to the embryo beginning with implantation in the womb, so clear guidelines for the embryo before implantation are lacking.

Federal regulations, and the name of this panel, indicate that we are dealing with research on human subjects.4 That is an excellent starting point for this panel's deliberations. At every stage after fertilization, the human embryo is a living, thriving, developing member of the human species, deserving human respect.

The federal Ethics Advisory Board which last addressed the question of in vitro fertilization and embryo research, in 1979, came to no firm conclusion on whether human embryo experiments are justified. It concluded that some experiments in this area should not be pursued; and after concluding that some other experiments would be "ethically defensible but still legitimately controverted," it declined to recommend whether the government should fund them.5 The Board did conclude that "the human embryo is entitled to profound respect," but reached no consensus on whether such respect encompasses "the full legal and moral rights attributed to persons."6 Since that time, the federal government has declined to fund experiments in this area due to their controversial nature.

More recent attempts to draw a morally significant dividing line between the early embryo and other stages of human development have been unconvincing, and often seem to be driven by researchers' own interest in having a useful research subject for dangerous experiments. We share the conclusion of the Australian Parliament's committee that conducted an extensive study of this issue: "No one event succeeding fertilization is such that it can bear the weight that some would attach to it" for the purpose of justifying harmful experiments prior to that event.7 Unscientific and prejudicial terms such as "pre-embryo" should be avoided in the panel's discussions and recommendations.8

We have seen no proof that the early human embryo is somehow radically and qualitatively different from all later stages of fetal development. In the absence of such proof, this member of the human species should be treated with the same respect accorded any human subject who cannot give consent for himself or herself: Experiments should be permitted only if they will serve the health needs of that particular subject, or pose no significant risk of harm or death to him or her. Current federal regulations generally accord such protection to the human embryo beginning with implantation; a consistent ethical concern for human life will encompass this same human being prior to implantation as well, whether found in the mother's body or in the laboratory.

Human in vitro fertilization (IVF) itself, especially as currently practiced, fails the test of concern for human life. Death rates for embryos produced through this process range as high as 96%.9 Success rates in achieving a live birth are so often misrepresented, and so low in reality, that Congress has acted to require more honest reporting on such matters from the IVF industry; the Clinton Administration has deemed the procedure too costly and ineffective to include under "comprehensive benefits" in its proposed health care reform plan. Embryos not accidentally lost or deliberately discarded in IVF programs are sometimes subjected to freezing or to harmful experiments. Due to low success rates, several embryos are often transferred to the womb at one time; and in cases where two or more do begin to grow and develop unexpectedly, "selective reduction" is sometimes used to abort some developing children while others are allowed to develop further. Particularly abhorrent is research into techniques such as "embryo biopsy"; these are harmful experiments in themselves, and their only goal is to destroy more swiftly and effectively any human embryos which fail to measure up to someone's standard for genetic perfection.10

Besides being concerned for the dignity of nascent human life, we are also deeply concerned about the integrity of marriage and family. When a child produced in the laboratory may have no parent in the ordinary sense (as in cloning), or as many as five (genetic parents, gestational mother, and "social" parents); when prenatal girls may be harvested for their ovaries so they can be "mothers" though never allowed to be born themselves;11 when researchers can seriously consider gestating human embryos in "alternate" sites such as "surrogate men" and "non-human primates"12 — in such cases, human parenthood and human dignity have been degraded. Such abuses should be rejected in federally funded research. At a time when a broad consensus is developing about the need for strong two-parent families as basic units of our society, our government must not subsidize programs or procedures that blur the very meaning of parenthood.

See Appendix, "Selected Sources on the Status of the Early Human Embryo"


1 These concerns are most fully expressed in: Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation (March 10, 1987). See 16 Origins (March 19, 1987), pp. 697-711.

2 The waiver clause, 45 CFR ?46. 211, was used to test a potentially risky prenatal diagnostic device on low-income women planning to have abortions; the experiment found that the device itself did sometimes induce an abortion. Congress later responded by demanding that federal protection from experimental risk be "the same for fetuses which are intended to be aborted and fetuses which are intended to be carried to term" (NIH Reauthorization Act of 1985, 42 U.S.C. ?289g). It also banned any use of the "waiver" clause for three years; this ban was later extended another two years.

3 45 CFR ??46.206 (a)(2), 46.208 (a) and 46.209 (a).

4 Since 1975, regulations on ethical scrutiny of the risk posed by in vitro fertilization experiments to the embryo (45 CFR ??46.204 (e) and 46.205) have always fallen under Part 46, "Protection of Human Subjects."

5 HEW Support of Human In Vitro Fertilization and Embryo Transfer: Report of the Ethics Advisory Board, Federal Register, Vol. 44, No. 118 (June 18, 1979), pp. 35033-58 at 35055-58.

6 Id., p. 35056.

7 Senate Select Committee on the Human Embryo Experimentation Bill 1985, Human Embryo Experimentation in Australia (Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra 1986), p. 26, para. 3.9.

8 See Eugene F. Diamond, M.D., "Games People Play With Abortion Data," in Linacre Quarterly (November 1991), pp. 35-8, and sources cited in the attached Appendix.

9 In one international study, out of 14,585 fertilizations in 62 in vitro fertilization centers, only 4 percent resulted in a live birth. See Greg Erlandson, "Vatican Concerned About High Death Rate of Embryos in Labs," National Catholic News Service, March 12, 1987 (reporting on a study presented at the Third World Congress on In Vitro Fertilization and Embryo Transfer held in Helsinki, Finland in 1984). Also see: R. McGuire, "Charge Baby Biz Programs Still 'Oversold and Overrated'," Medical Tribune, January 21, 1988, pp. 1 and 17; "Wide Disparity in IVF Practices," Medical Tribune, September 18, 1985 (out of 54 IVF clinics registered with the American Fertility Society, 52 percent had never had a live birth); "Advises Telling IVF Patients the Truth About Rates of Pregnancy," Ob. Gyn. News, March 1-14, 1987 (chance of a live birth from each in vitro cycle is 5-7%).

10 A. Newman, "Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis of Blastomeres Holds Promise, but Is Costly and Complex," Ob. Gyn. News, Feb. 1, 1993, p. 3.

11 See: Melanie Phillips, "Babies straight from the womb of moral torpor," The Washington Times, January 23, 1994, p. B3; Ellen Goodman, "'Fetus Farming'," The Washington Post, January 8, 1994. British health secretary Virginia Bottomley has announced that such "womb-robbing" in humans would be against the law in Great Britain: "Britain Rules Out 'Womb-Robbing' Fertility Treatment," Reuters wire service, Jan. 4, 1994.

12 These are among the kinds of experiments listed in testimony urging renewed federal funding for in vitro fertilization research: Testimony of Professor Lee Silver (Princeton University) before the Human Resources and Intergovernmental Relations Subcommittee of the House Government Operations Committee, July 14, 1988.