Ethical questions about IVF

This is Derek. I’m trying to write some too for the blog as we talk about our story. For this post, I’m going to discuss some of the ethical issues within IVF and infertility. I’ve put this into a question/answer format to answer questions that either people have asked us, we’ve asked ourselves, or our friends who have gone through IVF were asked by other people. I hope this makes it a little easier to see various objections to the process ethically, and kind of walks you through how we arrived at the decision we did.

IVF is incredibly expensive, so why don’t you just spend the money on adoption? Why don’t you just adopt?

I put this first because, honestly, we wrestled over this question more than any other. It hits close to home because Megan and I are passionate about adoption. We actively support and work with a special needs orphanage in China, and we think adoption is something Christians in the world should be more active in. IVF is also incredibly expensive and costs about the same amount as a new car. Is it justifiable for us to spend so much money on something unnecessary when there are plenty of other kids in the world that need parents? Should we spend money on something medically unnecessary when that money could be spent on adoption? First off, it’s absurd to think that only infertile couples should be asked this question. We rarely think about adoption before buying a car, or buying a new house, or getting the kitchen remodeled. Infertile couples do not solely carry the burden of adoption or the weight of financial decisions in lieu of adoption. “Why don’t you just adopt?” is a question that can be asked before any major purchase. Many object to the cost of IVF while failing to look at their own finances. It’s an easy way to pass the buck onto someone who we don’t understand. This is something we often do to the “other.” Any question that begins with “Why don’t you…” is often a failure to empathize or understand a person’s background. Secondly, I can’t explain how much infertility hurts, and how strong the desire for biological children is. We really wanted to explore all of our options, and after three years of trying, we needed to take this path to its end whether that was biological children or not. While we were working with the fertility clinic, we also were actively pursuing adoption through various programs in the Atlanta area. However, we decided we really wanted to explore our options for biological children until we ran out of them. We decided we would give one round of IVF, and then stop. But at least then we could have closure, and wouldn’t have to play the what if game.

Doesn’t IVF create a lot of embryos which in turn causes the death of many unborn babies?

I get this concern, however it’s primarily based out of a misunderstanding of biology. In “normal” pregnancies, women regularly miscarry around 20% of the time. On top of that, it is estimated that around 30 to 50% of the time eggs which are fertilized naturally miscarry before even implanting in the woman’s uterus. This is why even fertile couples don’t get pregnant the first time a woman ovulates and has sex. This is why no doctor will consider you infertile until a year of actively trying (which is incredibly). Sometimes (obviously not all the time) when a woman’s period is late it’s because an egg was fertilized but didn’t make it past the first couple of days. There’s a natural dying off of fertilized eggs because of natural factors at play. We see a lot of the same tendencies and percentages at play in fertilizing eggs during IVF. Also, I find it interesting that the same people that would like to decry IVF creating life through embryos dying do not hold funerals for miscarriages. We obviously see a difference between a baby and an embryo in the way we as a society treat losing each. Miscarriage is incredibly painful, losing a child more so. While all life is sacred (embryonic or not) and should be treated with incredible dignity and respect, there is also a difference in our treatment of these two and should be.

Is IVF playing God?

The rationale goes that we should accept what God gives us and that IVF is taking life into our own hands and trying to replace God. I would push back against this. We regularly do not accept the hand given to us. I reject the fact that I am near blind without corrective lenses, so I wear glasses. Oliver was sick last week, and we gave him antibiotics. We play God every time we treat a disease or have life saving surgery. We give prosthetics to people who were born without the legs or arms. Aren’t we playing God every time we heal a disease or correct a birth deformity? IVF is simply curing the disease of infertility. IVF brings life to this world and undoes the damage of inferility in people’s live. It’s a beautiful thing and participating in the work of God restoring creation.

What about the left over embryos?

Before you sign up for IVF there is a enormous packet to fill out with what to do with the embryos. You can destroy them, give them to research, or anonymously donate them to another couple. We chose to adopt them out to another couple if we didn’t use all of ours. I was actually really excited about the option of donating unwanted embryos to couples who were struggling with infertility. Part of me was excited to help other couples in need, but the other part of me was excited to imagine every little ginger I see from now on as possibly my kid. Sounds weirder as I type it than it is in my head. However, many object to IVF but don’t realize adoption is an option. There is no need to discard any viable embryos created during the IVF process.

Is implanting so many embryos dangerous and does it cause multiple pregnancies? Will the doctors need to abort one for the others to survive?

You can always implant one embryo and in fact our fertility doctor demanded it for our first attempt. For the second attempt our doctor did not want us to do two embryos, but he understood and eventually after signing a waiver allowed us to implant both of them. Implanting 3 – 4 embryos at a time is something that is highly discouraged today, and was something more common when the percentage of success was much lower. The rates are so much better now that doctors want most couples to do one and at max two. At no point did any fertility doctor suggest we should abort one. Our high risk OB did offer that as a possibility, but we declined and she seemed pleased about that. She wasn’t pushy, and it was definitely not expected or encouraged just simply offered as a medical option, and after that day it was never mentioned again.

There are numerous other issues surrounding infertility such as suffering and the why behind painful issues like it. There’s even more advanced issues such as Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD). Hopefully I can write on here about some of those in the future. I think Christians need to start having conversations about reproductive technologies and bioethics.  The world is changing and creating questions that the Church is ill-equipped to handle currently. I believe we as a Church must move past the stigma of infertility in order to be able to grapple with these bio-ethical dilemmas that both this generation and the next will be forced to answer.

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