UK scientists announced that they will ask the rarely-says-no UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) for permission to implant an IVF embryo that is biologically related to three parents (two women and one man). The genetically modified embryo will be created by taking the mitochondrial DNA from a second (destroyed) embryo and replacing it for that of the first. The purpose is to prevent maternally passed genetic diseases. But health is always the justification for opening doors best kept closed. If it succeeds, the technology will not long remain limited to the few and far between. These things rarely do.
The three-parent child would not be possible without in vitro fertilization (IVF). IVF has unquestionably helped bring great joy to the barren and brought precious children into the world who otherwise would not exist. But that is far from the whole story. It has also unleashed a terrible hubris around human reproduction, mutating it into a form of manufacture, including such staples of industrialization as special orders for style, warehousing, quality control, harvesting natural resources to support the industry, and independent service contractors who facilitate productivity and efficiency.
The baby manufacturing industry also has an aggressive political lobbying arm, ever on the ready to castigate those who question the wisdom of the current laissez faire system as being cruelly insensitive to the pain of barren families. No wonder cowardly American politicians have yet to muster the true grit to enact even modest regulations.
Supporters of unregulated IVF promised us that the technology would be limited to married couples who could not otherwise have children. Those who raised concerns about the consequences and potential societal costs of removing reproduction from intimacy and placing it literally into the hands of laboratory technicians were castigated as alarmists—people whose fears were disproportionate to the very limited changes in reproduction that IVF would bring. The syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman put it this way in a column called “Making Babies,” published in the Austin American Statesman on January 17, 1980:
A fear of many protesting the opening of this [the first IVF] clinic is that doctors there will fertilize myriad eggs and discard the “extras” and the abnormal, as if they were no more meaningful than a dish of caviar. But this fear seems largely unwarranted.
Goodman then engaged in intentional reductionism of the question at hand, noting that an ethics committee gathered by the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University viewed IVF as “entirely a pro life activity.” Still, Goodman noted, the committee had concerns:
Should we, they ask, respond like a consumer society to the demands of the buyer? If we don’t stop here, where do we stop? The questions are cosmic. But the issue in front of us at this moment is quote specific: one clinic.
That was like saying the specific question at the start of an invasion is the presence of the first tank that crosses the border. Goodman then advocated the very public policy approach toward IVF that allowed the sector to become a free-for-all:
I think we should neither fund such a clinic at this time, nor prohibit it. We should, rather, monitor it, debate it, control it. We have put researchers on notice that we no longer accept every breakthrough and every advance as an unqualified good. Now we have to watch the development of this technology—willing to see it grow in the right direction and ready to say no.
It has been 31 years since Goodman wrote those words and we haven’t said no yet. To the contrary, the IVF industry has become an aggressive promoter of a virtually anything goes, procreative license. Consider:
- The human egg has become, pound for pound, the most valuable commodity on the face of the earth, with eugenically desirable (beautiful, brilliant) women paid tens of thousands of dollars for twenty microscopic eggs. The health consequences to these women are potentially very serious, as vividly exposed in the award winning CBC documentary, Eggsploitation.
- Embryos are indeed discarded as medical waste, in Goodman’s words, as if they are “no more meaningful than a dish of caviar.”
- Embryos are eugenically selected for implantation or discarding, with embryos not only selected out for health reasons, but also for superficial cosmetic purposes such as eye and hair color.
- Bioethicists and futurists look to the technology as a method to eventually “seize control of our own evolution” by genetically engineering our progeny, say, for greater intelligence.
- Hundreds of thousands of embryos have been stored and are now, with the advent of embryonic stem cell research, seen by biotechnological researchers as mere natural resources ripe for the harvest.
- Concomitantly, to further the objectification of human life, many bioethics and scientific groups have engaged in post-modern biological redefinitionism, for example, claiming that embryos only become real embryos after implantation. Before that, they are mere “balls of cells” that are no different from the cells we lose every morning when we brush our teeth.
- “Savior siblings” are being created for the purpose of generating stem cells and tissues that can medically treat existing children.
- In a deeply bitter irony, doctors commonly implant more embryos than are needed and abort the excess, a process euphemistically called “selective reduction.”
- Poor women in countries like India are biologically colonized, paid by the rich to gestate their babies. If the babies don’t meet desire, the children are abandoned by biological and birth parents to an orphanage.
- Surrogate birth mothers have become objectified, now known by the impersonal term “gestational carrier.”
- The IVF industry’s actions lead naturally to reproductive cloning, with some advocates already calling for it to be allowed once it is “safe.”
- And now, we have the prospect of embryos with three biological parents, the creation of which would be a blatant form of human experimentation since no one can know the long-term physical and psychological outcomes of such biological alchemy.
Ellen Goodman and her ilk have been proven utterly wrong about the limited nature of IVF and our willingness to meaningfully regulate the sector. But it is too late to matter. IVF, which started from small and compassionate beginnings—one clinic—has grown into a voracious and very profitable industry that refuses to say, finally, enough is enough. Indeed, at this point, it is hard to see any reproductive desire or technology about which contemporary Ellen Goodmans won’t say, “Now we have to watch the development of this technology—willing to see it grow in the right direction and ready to say no.”
CBC special consultant Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism and a lawyer for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide.