The five million figure is based on official figures up to 2008, plus three years of estimates. Whether or not this is completely accurate, it does serve to illustrate how IVF has, in the lifetime of Louise Brown, become a widely used and acceptable technique for overcoming infertility.
These new figures also tell us that about 1.5 million cycles of IVF, and similar techniques, are performed every year for every 350,000 or so babies born. There are many millions of cycles of IVF that do not result in a baby, but end in heartache, credit card bills and discarded embryos.
So while IVF has brought many precious new lives into being, and real happiness to millions of parents, the subtext not quite so rosy.
A new milestone like this offers an opportunity for reflection on its implications, both practical and ethical (although a blog requires such reflections to be brief).
First, two reflections on practical concerns. While celebrating the five million ‘successes’, warnings were also being sounded about much poorer success rates for older women and reminders that women should not delay childbirth, and view IVF as an ‘insurance policy’ that they can access at any stage. IVF is by no means a guarantee of success, despite sometimes being touted as such.
In fact, a woman in her early 40s only has about a one in ten chance of having a baby using IVF. This is highly relevant in a time when more and more women are delaying childbirth to concentrate on jobs and careers. As an aside here, however, we should be careful not to lay the blame solely at the feet of women, who often face little choice if their employers fail to offer flexible working, or who may jeopardise already poor employment prospects if they have a child, or who may not feel able to afford children or childcare in a weak economy, or who may not have a partner who will help raise a child. It is not necessarily a level playing field of choices for many women.
Second, IVF does generate physical risks for women and their babies as I have reported recently in another blog. The RCOG’s Scientific Advisory Committee also reviewed the risks of IVF, reporting that there is a higher rate of complication- increased risks of premature births in IVF twins (23%), low birth weight and congenital abnormalities. Around 3-5% of all babies are diagnosed with an abnormality, but IVF babies were around a third more likely to have a problem. Other research suggests that women who undergo infertility treatment are as much as 40% more likely to develop a serious complication in pregnancy, such pre-eclampsia or later in life, ovarian tumours.
Then there are the moral issues, some of which make many Christians uneasy about, or even totally hostile to, IVF. I shall highlight just two here.
IVF does not treat embryos with respect, or at least not until they are implanted in the womb. To put it more bluntly, they are subject to testing and discrimination, freezing and storage, and ultimately, for most, death. Official figures from the House of Lords in response to a question by Lord Alton last year revealed that on average 30 embryos are created for one IVF birth! Since 1991 over three million human embryos have been created by IVF but fewer than 100,000 were successfully implanted into women to result in live births. ‘Spare’ embryos – those who have survived the screening process – are usually regarded only as useful tools for research and testing.
The moral discussion goes beyond just the IVF technique itself to, in the words of John Stott, its ‘intrusion into the bonds of marriage and parenthood.’ All forms of gamete donation and surrogacy introduce a third party into this relationship. The fundamental inappropriateness of such arrangements is seen in the consequent muddle and secrecy between biological, and social parent(s) and the child, and the tensions which this is bound to cause.
Stott also expresses concern that IVF involves ‘an intrusion in to the process of procreation’ and ‘an intrusion into the integrity of the embryo’. More reflections on infertility treatments can be found in a Nucleus article here.
So, for every one of the five million parents now holding their longed for new IVF baby, we should not forget the sub text: the embryos that have been lost, destroyed or used for research; the other 80% or so of couples who failed in their attempts at IVF; the financial debts generated for the couple (up to £8,000 or more per cycle in the UK); and the adoptions that have not taken place (only 60 babies were adopted in the UK in 2010-11).
In a world that allows (indeed encourages) individuals almost complete freedom to pursue any number of different reproductive options, with little consideration of its effects on themselves or others, it will seem uncompassionate to suggest that Christians struggling with infertility even consider rejecting this to pursue alternative ways of fulfilling their deep and God-given desire for parenthood.
The Psalmist praises the God who ‘gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children’ (Psalm 113:9), and the Bible views childlessness as a painful, personal tragedy. It is understandable that fertility clinics have been set up around the world, and that so many techniques have been developed in order to help infertile couples to have children.
But IVF is not morally neutral and comes with costs that are not just financial. In a world where there are many sad, abused, abandoned and disabled children, could adoption or fostering, caring for the unwanted and rejected be a better, more godly and indeed compassionate way?
With prescient timing the The Times adoption campaign, which began in April last year, makes the front page of its newspaper today. Their campaign aim is to raise the profile and acceptability of adoption, to highlight the plight of very young children taken into care and to reform and speed up the adoption process. Let’s hope that this also proves to be a milestone, or at least a stepping stone, to improving attitudes to adoption in this country.