Fertilization in vitro
In Ted Honderich (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxford, 1995, p. 275
Several distinct ethical objections have been made to the use of IVF. Initially, there was concern about the risk that the children born as a result of this procedure would be abnormal. Now that there are tens of thousands of children who were conceived outside the body, these fears can be seen to be unjustified. On the other hand, objections on the basis of the cost of the procedure remain serious, especially where the resources are drawn from a limited national health budget. Because the rate of births per cycle of treatment remains low, generally around 15 per cent, the cost of each child produced is considerable. In addition, there is a human cost for those couples whose hopes of overcoming infertility are raised by reading headlines about IVF, but find that they do not achieve a pregnancy. Many reasonably ask if adoption, including overseas adoption, would not be a better solution to the needs of infertile couples.
The Roman Catholic Church objects to fertilization in vitro on several grounds. These include the fact that to obtain the sperm requires masturbation, which in the eyes of the Church is inherently sinful, even when it is the only way to bring children to a marriage. The Church objects to the division that the technique introduces between procreation and the sexual act, believing that this weakens the marital relationship. Finally, the Church condemns the loss of embryonic human life involved both in research directed towards improving IVF, and in the procedure itself.
The development of artificial reproduction has met with a mixed response from feminists, some anticipating its coming as a means of liberating women from biological inequality, while others see it as one more form of male domination over women's bodies. They see women being used as subjects of medical experimentation, and suggest that the end-result may be to remove women's control over pregnancy and childbirth.
During the 1980s fertilization in vitro ceased to be an experimental technique, and became a standard treatment for some forms of infertility. The ethical debate then moved on to further applications of IVF. The existence of a viable human embryo outside the human body provides an opportunity for various forms of interference. These include: using the embryo for research purposes; freezing the embryo for long-term storage (raising the possibility that the couple may divorce or die); donating the embryo to another infertile couple; contracting with another woman to gestate the embryo and return it to the genetic parents; and screening the embryo to determine its genetic characteristics (including its sex) before deciding whether to proceed with implantation.
In many countries, government commissions have considered fertilization in vitro. Philosophers such as Mary Warnock and Jonathan Glover have played key roles in these commissions, which have generally approved the practice of IVF under specified conditions.
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation (Rome, 1987).
Jonathan Glover and others, Fertility and the Family (London, 1989).
Report of the Committee of Enquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology (The Warnock Report) (London, 1984).
Peter Singer and Deane Wells, The Reproduction Revolution (Oxford, 1984).