I wrote in this week’s Catholic Universe column about the unholy trinity of three parent embryos ushering in a Brave New World in terms of reproductive ethics and genetically modified human beings.
One of the many disturbing facets of these advances in technology is the way in which the media reports them through an uncritical filter, as if all scientific and technological progress is automatically a positive development requiring much jubilation, without considering the wider ethical and scientific issues at stake. So today we see the BBC hailing the advance which means that the cost of IVF may be able to be drastically reduced to a mere £170 meaning that not only will it become affordable and open up the market to thousands more infertile couples, but also rolled out to developing countries in Africa who currently do not have access to IVF technology.
Not once does the BBC attempt to acknowledge let alone unpack the ethical difficulties in IVF and I don’t mean the obvious objection that we all have as Catholics. According to figures from the HFEA, since 1991 3.5 million embryos have been created, of which only 6% have resulted in pregnancies. Even if one doesn’t agree with the scientific evidence that a fertilised egg with its own unique DNA constitutes human life, that’s still a staggering amount of wastage. What are the environmental effects of this technology, which as the BBC reports, requires a large amount of carbon dioxide to be manufactured as well as large amounts of energy. Is this really a responsible use of our resources, especially when we know that IVF does absolutely nothing to diagnose or treat the underlying problems that are causing the infertility, it merely sticks a costly sticking plaster over the problem. Where is the drive to create a holistic solution, one that works with the body to heal and cure whatever it is that is causing the issue, something that doesn’t involve hyperstimulating the ovaries with synthetic hormones, overriding the body’s natural endocrine system, painful and invasive egg harvesting and the creation and destruction of embryos in a laboratory on an industrial scale.
It’s also wishful thinking that by dropping a few alka-selter tablets or whatever one has in one’s kitchen cupboard to manufacture cheap carbon dioxide that the cost savings will automatically be passed onto the client. This is all very dependent on the goodwill and charitable inclinations of companies who are assumed to want to avail themselves of the technology, re-equip their labs (which will come at a cost) and slash their profit margins. Only a few weeks ago, it was announced that time-lapse imaging can potentially dramatically improve the chances of a successful IVF cycle. Presumably this will come at a cost, so it’s naive to think that we’ll all be able to have IVF for the price of a return Easyjet flight to Rome.
We see almost everything that’s wrong with benevolent patronising Western attitudes towards our brothers and sisters in developing countries in the idea that by making IVF cheaper it may then be given to poorer nations and people, who are obviously in dire need of being able to manufacture babies in a laboratory. How does this fit in with the popular narrative that actually what we need to do is introduce and promulgate contraception into poorer nations in order to stop women from breeding and having vast numbers of children whom they are unable to feed, clothe and shelter.
Have we seen countries such as Ghana, Uganda and Cape Town crying out for assisted reproduction technology – where is the demand? How does the ability to manufacture babies actually help solve the causes and symptoms of poverty? How does growing embryos in a petri dish solve the problems of corrupt governance, of war, of terrible infrastructure, lack of decent transportation, medical care, supplies equipment and so on?
It’s almost as if we want to stop people from natural reproduction and to encourage them to use manufactured methods of contraception, buying into the Western notion that it’s better to delay motherhood. With cheap IVF it doesn’t matter if one has missed the window of natural fertility via contraception, it can easily be overcome and any abnormalities that may result in a less than perfect human being, be easily engineered away. Because recourse to IVF is going to the first thing on the mind of a unmarried childless African woman living in conditions of poverty, or an ageing married couple working every hour God sends in the slums, who have been persuaded that contraception couched in the terms of ‘reproductive freedom’ is the most responsible option.
Increased contraception and cheap IVF empowers neither women nor children, but encourages unhappiness, short-term relationships, desperation and infertility. It does however present a never-ending supply of customers for the pharma industry, who would be the real losers if everyone stopped using contraception, and opens up newer untapped markets. Poorer women are now equally able to avail themselves of the exploitation and lies of an industry that seeks to commodify and commercialise sexual activity, turning a basic human right and a natural ability into a consumer industry, something that we all need to buy. This is what happens when you divorce sex from its procreative abilities, the ability to control whether or not to have a baby is taken out of your hands, presented as something out of your hands and therefore needing to be regulated and controlled by other people. Contraception has invited the state and capitalist industries into our bedrooms and reproductive decisions. We should not be looking to impose this on anyone else in the name of progress.