Is it ethical to conceive those precious bundles of joy in a Petri dish?
Last month, the Battle of Ideas Festival, in London, organised a debate on “Making Babies in the Lab: The Morality of Reproductive Technologies”. This is the contribution of Dr Mehmet Çiftçi, a researcher at the Anscombe Bioethics Centre.
Anyone who has become a parent, an aunt, or an uncle, knows that having children is a beautiful thing. It’s easy then to sympathise with the pain of those who cannot have children due to infertility.
But feeling compassion for infertile couples is not enough to tell us whether it is ethical to use artificial reproductive technologies. To answer that question, we should first ask ourselves whether these technologies are good for the children that are made by them, whether they serve the needs of children — or if they merely fulfil the desires of adults.
Children are vulnerable; they can’t advocate for their needs or defend their rights. It’s therefore up to us to ensure that we do not prioritise the desires of adults at the expense of children’s needs. When choosing how to bring a child into this world, we should be willing to adjust our plans to what they need, rather than compromising on what is best for them just to suit what we want. Because no matter how strongly you may wish to be a parent, at the end of the day you do not have the right to have a child, by whatever means necessary, for the same reason that no one has the right to another person.
When you look at it that way, you may begin to doubt whether we should be making babies in a lab at all. For example, think about the creation of children by IVF using donated sperm or eggs or even a donated embryo. This process cuts off the connection between children and one or two of their biological parents, often meaning that they suffer from what psychologists call “genealogical bewilderment”. They struggle to form a sense of who they are, because they do not know whose they are.
This can happen to children who are adopted as well. But the difference is that adoption is a way to make the best of a terrible situation where the biological parents cannot look after their child for some serious reason. On the other hand, with IVF we knowingly and willingly choose to deprive a child of contact with their biological roots.
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One of the few studies to investigate the costs of creating children this way has found that donor-conceived kids experience profound struggles with their identities, have family relationships that more often suffer confusion and tension, as well as divorce and instability; they are more likely to struggle with addiction, depression, and delinquency than children raised by their biological parents.
This is not even to mention the other problems of IVF. It often demands the creation of more embryos than are needed, to increase the chances of becoming pregnant with the baby that you want, which means that in the process many embryos have their short lives ended when they are no longer deemed necessary; or they are discarded if there are signs that they would develop a disability.
Dr Mehmet Çiftçi, I don’t have time to mention also the risks to the health of the gestational mother, to the egg donor, and to the child conceived via IVF.
None of these problems that I have mentioned exist whenever technology is used to find and treat the underlying diseases that prevent a couple from conceiving, which is a good and wonderful use of technology that deserves more funding and support.
But, by contrast, artificial reproductive technologies do not cure anything. All they offer is a way to make a lot of money from an adult’s desire for a child, at the callous expense of human life, and often at the expense of children’s need to know and be brought up by their biological parents.
Dr Mehmet Çiftçi is the Public Bioethics Fellow at the Anscombe Bioethics Centre in the UK. He read moral theology at the University of Oxford, completing first the MPhil at Blackfriars Hall, followed by the DPhil at Trinity College. He later undertook a post-doctoral fellowship at St Michael’s College in the University of Toronto.
Image credit: Bigstock
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