Scientific advancement and religious beliefs have always had a tortured relationship captured best by Thomas Jefferson ‘priests of the different religious sects, who dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of day-light’. IVF, a very significant medical advancement is one of the most controversial and heavily regulated practices in the world, and, since its conception in the late 1970s, it has blossomed into a 17-billion-dollar industry worldwide.
Why is this a religious issue? Since its own birth, IVF has raised many ethical and religious questions such as: when does life begin, and if it is at insemination, then is the whole IVF practice ‘baby murdering’? Does the use of donor eggs constitute adultery? Is the creation of a life playing god? Is the selection of an embryo, for birth into the world, based on its sex or genetic characteristics, an immoral act?
IVF and abortion occupy a very similar moral ‘space’ as both are entwined in the creation or destruction of life, outside of what many people would regard as the normal course of human affairs.
The arguments in both cases boils down to two major ethical arguments: is abortion and IVF in some sense ‘playing God’ and at what point does a human life actually begin IVF playing God and where does a life begin.
As it happens, the public seem to take a quite different view of abortion to IVF. 50% of all people believe that IVF isn’t a moral issue at all while 12% believe that it is morally unacceptable.
(70% of people who object to the use of IVF do because of religious affiliation.) However, people are obviously much more open to idea of IVF then many other controversial medical procedures in general (figure 1).However, this may due to a lack of knowledge on the topic, as 49% of people think abortion is morally wrong but IVF often involves the discarding of embryos which is effectively an abortion. There are so many questions surrounding the industry but still it has helped to create 7million lives that would have never existed without this technology.
Before the depths of ethical debate can begin first it is important to understand the history that created this argument began. On the 25th of July 1978 3 minutes before midnight a child was born by a caesarean section in the Royal Oldham hospital in England named Louise . All babies must be conceived but Louise’s conception was unlike another before her she was conceived outside of her mother’s body by a process called in vitro fertilisation (IVF). Her birth fuelled an outpouring of scientific research which was accompanied by some public outrage against the scientists who many believed to be ‘playing god’. Some took it as far as to say that Louise was born without a soul, since she was inseminated outside of her mothers’ body. Fast forward 40 years and 200,000 babies have been born through IVF in the United States alone but, due to its ‘stigma and cost’ only 5% of couples who suffer from infertility seek it out. (Nivin Todd, 2017) (Sanders, 2018)
It is true that most religious organisations have now begun to accept IVF as a respected practice but it is still condemned by the highest levels of the Catholic church, as of course is abortion. This condemnation is down to the strong belief that only god has the right to give and take a life seen in JOB 1:21 ‘the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away’. This quotation supports the Catholic opinion on the sanctity of life and that life itself begins right at the moment of conception. After the birth of the first IVF child Louise Brown Cardinal Albino Luciani, who later became Pope John Paul I blessed both the parents and the child and wished them a happy life.
Nine years later, in fact, the Vatican issued guidance through the ‘Donum Vitae’ (the gift of life) a document describing which biomedical practice it deemed to be moral and which are deemed immoral. Donum Vitae stated that, for people who were trying to get pregnant via sexual intercourse, that fertility drugs and surgery to remove blockages that adversely affect pregnancy are all morally acceptable. On the contrary, any process that replaced sex with technology is immoral. Richard M. Doerflinger, who served for 36 years for the Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that ‘The birth of a baby is always a reason for joy. But the question was, what did they do to get there, and what does that mean?’. The church draws the line between the two methods because they believe that only though a physical expression of love within a marriage is ‘godly’ and that only that can produce a child who is loved unconditionally. IVF is of course a technology solution where the parents are absent throughout the entire process of the conception of a child and so their will and desires are all absent from the conception. (Cha, 2018)
Many other religious groups, however, do not share this moral view. In fact they welcome it as they take the view that it is helping to cure an unhealthy reproductive system and it is written in scripture that the use of doctors is not a problem of faith, as seen in a letter by saint Paul in Timothy 5:23 ‘ the use of doctors and medicine in order to help our bodies function in a healthy way doesn’t seem to be a problem in scripture nor an issue of faith’. This makes sense even outside of a religious context as make people believe that the true point of life is to pass on your genetic characteristics to your children. Some say that it is a basic ‘human right’ to have as many children as you want- whether that is ethically correct is another point entirely-, but is supports the view that everyone should be able to have children in their life time and that denying the use of IVF could be considered a violation of their basic human rights.
All the Christian churches take issue when reproductive aid it’s the major factor motivating if treatment, but manipulating the gender and eye colour of their child is as ‘this is when pride and discontentment can become the driving force and must be kept in check rather than redefining it as ‘better’ science or ‘modern’ medicine’ (Ambrose, 2015)
The primary moral objection to IVF comes from the routine creation and destruction of embryos. Many people, including the church in general, places this destruction on a par with the evils of abortion and euthanasia, as they believe that life starts as of conception. This ties in with attitudes towards the morality of abortions, as figure1 shows that 49% percent of people say that having an abortion is morally wrong. However, 37% of these people support IVF as a treatment, perhaps unknowing that it often goes hand in hand with the destruction ‘life’.
During the initial stage of IVF, the women’s eggs are harvested after a hyper stimulation of the ovaries and normally 1 in 4 eggs will be viable, and so if 20 eggs are harvested, then the couple may end with 4-6 embryos. The problems start when they only want less children than the embryos created, and then what happens to the other embryos? In many countries there are now laws that dictate how long embryos can be stored or how many can be made. In the UK the normal limit on how long an embryo can be stored for is ten years, however, under certain circumstances, they can be kept for up to 55 years. After the 10-year period has expired the embryos can either be donated to another couple, who are struggling with infertility, or they can be donated to medical research, but they are rarely destroyed. (Human fertilisation and embryology authority, n.d.).
However, in Italy the laws on IVF treatment are very restrictive due to the country’s strong catholic nature. They have a mandatory three embryo limit. This limits the effectiveness of the treatment that Italian couples can receive as there are so many points at which the treatment can fail at that this embryo limit reduces that likelihood for a successful treatment. Furthermore, they have a law that strictly prevent the cryopreservation of an embryo. This means that all embryos recovered must be implanted in the mother’s uterus. This also increases the risk to a mother during the pregnancy and means that the number of complex procedures required also increase, due to the risk of carrying multiple babies simultaneously.
These laws were passed to protect the rights of every newly created embryo which in itself is a commendable goal. However, it sits in direct contrast to law passed by the Italian government that allows for the abortion of first trimester pregnancies and for the abortion of pregnancies later then this is there is a severe risk to the mother. Forcing the clinics to insert all created embryos resulting in up to triplets increases the risk to the mother greatly and results in high mandatory abortions in later stage pregnancy. There are many concerns that these two laws as the new IVF laws rapidly reduce the ability of the doctors to create a successful pregnancy and that the government classes embryos created by IVF and by traditional methods as different and subject to different laws. This introduces a level of inconsistency with regards to the assisted reproductive technologies on the market. (Benagiano G, 2004).
The process of gender selection sparks a further ethical debate about the morality of IVF procedures. While the process of preconception gender selection is banned in the UK by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, it is still legal in the United Sates and a high percent of the prospective parents wish to choose. This process is made possible by sperm selection, as all eggs carry the x chromosome, however, a sperm cell may contain either a x or y chromosome, and that will dictate the sex of the baby. Therefore, the selection of the sperm based on which chromosomes they carry, allows for the selection of the gender.
The motives for gender selection are very important. After the introduction of the one child policy in China, which was designed to control the totality of the Chinese population, female children were regularly killed or put up for adoption. If there was a widespread choice given to people to select the gender of their children, this could lead to a gender imbalance in the population and this could have dire consequences. The potential evolutionary harms of gender selection could also be drastic. If the number of members of one sex were reduced then the evadible genetic material in the gene pool would reduce meaning that negative traits would be more likely to be passed down to successive generations
Gender selection at the individual level, of course, raises the ‘playing God’ question but also brings with it other related moral and practical concerns. On the face of it, it does not appear that gender selection should be a ‘moral right’ as there is no inherent need to select the sex of a child and the natural order of birth has been successful. Gender selection cannot be proved to improve the quality of life of the parents in any way.
Also, the fairness of the gender selection process must be considered as the process of sperm sorting is an extremely expensive process. If it was legal for all people, then it would not realistically be available for all people to use as the financial strain on the average person would be far too great. Sperm sorting isn’t an exact science either, as in 10-15% of cases it isn’t successful. If the parents did not get their preferred gender would this lead to an increase in the abortion rate and this re-raises that ethical question.
If a utilitarian perspective is taken, then a complete ban on sperm selection might be inappropriate, as for a small amount of cases selection will affect the baby’s health. If the father had a sex-linked genetic disorder on the y chromosome then any son, he had would also carry that same disorder. Therefore, sperm selection would allow for that baby to born free of genetic disease and so from a utilitarian perspective the good created by the sperm selection outweighs the moral objection to the process
Genetic testing is very commonplace in IVF treatment. It involves the biopsy of an embryo and is often used to test for chromosomal abnormalities, typically looking for Down’s syndrome or Edwards’s syndrome. These tests are very useful to help parents to gain an understanding about what the risks of having that child entail. The vast majority of people agree with this process, but their opinions change when discussing genetic engineering on these embryos. This process could have enormous benefits for future generations as it would allow for near eradication of hereditary genetic as by the process of germ line genetic treatments all modification to the genome would be passed down.
A group of Chinese scientists used genetic engineering to modify human embryos and has sparked an ethical debate about where such practices should be conducted in humans in particular in human embryos. However, many scientists and countries support the use of human embryos in research and so for most people it does appear to be an issue about the use of human embryos but more to with this particular type of research. Of course, many religious groups and people who believe that life begins at the moment of conception strongly object to the use of human embryos.
So why is genetic engineering such a controversial subject? it seems that most peoples’ concerns come from uncertainty. It is true that genetic engineering has come on a long way and with the introduction of new technologies such as CRISPER that the process and become more accurate and reliable but there is still the element of uncertainty about both the purpose and potential effects of such engineering. This creates a moral debate about whether it is right to experiment with things that will have such a permanent effect. Although the upsides of these procedures could be massive, they could also cause massive unforeseen side effects.
Further issues arise if it is possible for the human genome to be edited it becomes a slippery slope which could end up with IVF clinics becoming more like ‘build-a-bear workshops’ than fertility treatment. If it is possible to remove a Huntington’s gene from an embryo then it means it is possible to give them blue eyes and blonde hair. This is a scary thought as it is starting to sound a lot like a brave new world (or indeed one that Hitler might like to have created). (Chan, n.d.)
Where will the lines be drawn in the future as is this completely unethical or are, we just speeding up evolution? For many religious groups this is no longer acceptable as it has moved from fixing a reproductive problem to vanity and desire. At the individual level IVF allows for couples who are struggling with reproductive problems to experience the joys of having a child.