IVF Revisited

This post is in response to a comment I received on my “Biblical Bioethics” post a few days ago.  Fiona indicated that not all in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments create multiple embryonic lives, and therefore it is unwarranted to speak out against IVF in general.

To start out with, I would like to acknowledge that Fiona is correct – and some clarification is warranted.  Not all IVFs are created equal, as it were.  There is a particular IVF procedure known as intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), in which a single sperm is injected directly into a single egg.  Doctors can know within 24 hours if the egg has been successfully fertilized and is developing appropriately.  This procedure does not necessarily entail the creation of multiple embryonic human lives.  While I still feel that we need to as Christians consider many different ramifications in the application of technology and science to our bodies, if ICSI does not create and destroy human lives to achieve pregnancy, a major concern of mine has been eliminated!  I’m glad to know that this option exists!
However, my preliminary research indicates that ICSI is a fairly new procedure, and is typically reserved for situations where there is a concern regarding the viability of the father’s sperm.  I’m guessing that this procedure is more expensive based on the extra work that needs to be done.  
Traditional IVF harvests multiple eggs, fertilizes multiple eggs, then waits to determine which eggs appear the healthiest.  The healthiest one or more embryonic lives are then introduced into the mother’s uterus to see if they will successfully attach to the uterine wall and continue development naturally.  Outside of the US, most countries have a limit on how many embryonic babies can be introduced into the uterus, since multiple pregnancies can result.  In the US, there is no real limit – as was discovered with the recent Octomom news event.  
It should be noted that this process of determining the healthiest embryonic babies is misleading.  Those embryonic babies deemed less robust or ‘viable’ are not in any way abnormal or deformed.  If they were introduced into the uterus and attached themselves properly, they would develop into equally normal children as the other more robust embryonic lives.  They are, rather, arbitrarily designated as less likely to implant than the stronger or more robust embryonic babies.  The effect of this arbitrary distinction, however, is to begin the psychological and emotional process of weeding out certain embryonic babies.  Only the most ‘robust’ embryonic babies are introduced to the uterus, because of the assumption that they are more likely to successfully attach.
How many embryonic lives are created in anticipation of implantation varies a great deal on the number of mature eggs harvested and the viability of the father’s sperm.  It’s not uncommon to have 4-6 embryonic lives created, with only a couple being introduced into the uterus for attachment and development.  I’m sure there are times when there are more created, as well as times when there are fewer created.
What happens to those embryonic babies deemed less robust?  Already the terminology has begun to treat them as somehow less than human (as though referring to them simply as embryos or fertilized eggs wasn’t already dehumanizing enough!).  There are really only two options for dealing with the excess embyronic lives that are created in IVF:  they can either be deep frozen through liquid nitrogen, or they can be immediately destroyed.  Even if they are frozen, some do not survive the freezing process.  Others won’t survive the thawing process.  Others could be lost due to equipment failure or human error.  To say that they are simply stored as future siblings – while technically possible – is not really an adequate description of their condition.  While this may happen sometimes, it can’t be counted on due to the unpredictability of the freezing and thawing process.  
A relatively recent initiative is to offer up frozen embryonic lives for adoption.  However, one article I read indicated that only 2% of all excess embryonic lives are offered up for adoption.  And adoption is at best a make-shift way of dealing with a problem.  It doesn’t remedy the problem itself.  In any event, most embryonic lives are either frozen indefinitely, or destroyed immediately.  Both of these options deprive these embryonic lives of life itself.  
IVF is an expensive process – on average between $10,000 – $15,000 per IVF cycle in the United States.  This means that if your first attempt at IVF doesn’t work, you have to pay another $10,000-$15,000 to try again.  Hence the pressure on harvesting multiple eggs, fertilizing multiple eggs, and attempting to implant the embryonic lives most likely to result in a healthy pregnancy.  Sheer economics alone is going to drive people to try and ensure that it takes as few cycles as possible to achieve pregnancy.  Granted, not everyone is constrained by finances, and therefore might opt for more selective processes such as ICSI that do not necessitate the creation & destruction of human life.  But again, this would appear to be the vast minority of IVF situations.
So thank you, Fiona, for encouraging me to be more specific in my assessment and description of IVF!
Also, I want to emphasize that the desire to have biological children can be a very, very strong one, with intense emotional and psychological – as well as spiritual – repercussions.  I am adopted – and am grateful that my birth parents put me up for adoption, and that my parents nurtured and raised me.  I’m a strong advocate for adoption in situations where couples can’t conceive naturally.  Yes, adoption is also very expensive and can take a long time.  But I obviously think it’s a fantastic alternative to facing some of the moral and theological quandries which assistive fertilizationn techniques involve.
I’ll also say that as the father of three children, I can’t fully empathize and understand the frustration and hurt of not being able to conceive children without assistive techniques.  That doesn’t make me hypocritical, or make the points I’ve made irrelevant, but I try to come to these sorts of discussions honestly as well.  
I am called to two courses of action when discussing these (or any other!) issues with people.  First off, I am called to love them as fellow creations of God.  I am called to sit with them in their sorrow and questioning and frustration – not to judge them or to offer glib sound bites about the will of God or other popular pop Christian slogans.  I need to love them and respect their desire to have children of their own.  
I am also called to try and convey to them my understanding of God’s will in our lives.  And while the Bible doesn’t speak specifically to the issue of IVF, it does speak to the sanctity of human life, and to the idea that it is not our privilege to determine who is human enough to be allowed to live, and who is not human enough to warrant that sort of consideration.  An embryonic life doesn’t look much like you and I.  However, at one time, you and I looked a *lot* like that embryonic life.  It isn’t the number of cells in our body that makes us human.  I need to witness in love and patience to these truths to the best of my ability – assisted by brothers and sisters in the faith blessed with more tact, or deeper understanding or knowledge than I may have.  
And then I’m to re-enter
the first stage again, of empathizing and loving and supporting.  And it’s this first and last stage that many Christians have a hard time with.  It’s easy to spout off doctrine or applied doctrine, to wag our fingers at others and tell them what they ought or ought not do.   To judge and condemn others.   It’s much harder to listen to them.  To hear their pain.  To pray with them.  To intercede in prayer on their behalf. This is the hard work – and the great joy – of Biblical Christianity.  The bond that unites us all to our Creator Father through our redemptive Lord and Brother Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit.  That bond is strong enough to carry us through whatever we struggle with, whatever we long for, whatever we desire – knowing that the God who Created us has never abandoned us.

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