Politics & Policy

Manufacturing Life

The first IVF baby turns 25.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the first birth of human life created outside the human body. Louise Brown, the first baby conceived from in vitro fertilization, has 25 candles on her birthday cake and I’d certainly be happy to stand her a drink. Life, at any point, is beautiful.

July 25, 1978 also marks a definitive change in our understanding of sex. From the beginning of time, up until 1978, sex had something to do with the generation of children. Obviously, not all sex resulted in a baby. But sex was the only way to create a baby.

Interestingly, every move to separate the procreative and unitive aspects of sex has been based on the precept of “choice.” (Sound familiar?) Starting with Griswold v. Connecticut, parents had the right to choose to use contraceptive means to avoid having unwanted children. Then Roe v. Wade gave women the right to choose to not give birth to a child by terminating an already existing pregnancy.

Brown’s birth marked the dawn of an era when couples can now “choose” to become parents even when the natural means fails them. Unfortunately, inherent in this so-called right to have a child, is license to do so in any way possible, regardless of the consequences.

Since 1978, over one million children have started life in petri dishes, been successfully gestated, and born from women in the old-fashioned manner. Yet, for each of these births, many more human lives were created and discarded or destroyed: Anecdotal evidence suggests 2 – 8 embryos for each live birth. Given that assisted reproductive technologies, including IVF, are mostly unregulated in the United States, we can’t even accurately estimate the number.

According to a May 2003 report, approximately 400,000 frozen embryonic humans await the day when their parents want them. In March 2002, The New England Journal of Medicine published a troubling study which indicated that children born of IVF procedures are twice as likely to have or develop birth defects.

If a child has a serious disease and needs a sibling to provide donor cells of some type, the parents now have a right to choose to create other children solely for the purpose of serving the needs of the sick child. When pre-genetic diagnosis determines that some or all of the embryonic children of that couple are unsuitable as savior siblings for the sick child, the parents can choose to discard or destroy them.

Parents who want a child of a specific sex can do away with all the old wives’ tales and can choose the sex of the child before she’s created. On the basis of sex selection, they can also choose which embryos deserve continued life support, i.e. implantation.

Next? Perhaps parents will choose the color of their child’s eyes, her I.Q., and even whether she’ll have the body of Pamela Anderson or Kate Moss.

Meanwhile, the Washington Fertility Clinic boasts a 100-percent guarantee on IVF procedures…or your money back. In other words, parents aren’t paying for the fertility services. They’re paying for the baby. No baby, no money.

Ironically, and perhaps more than coincidentally, today also marks the 35th anniversary of the provocative encyclical Humanae Vitae. When Paul VI wrote that the unitive and procreative aspects of sex were inseparable, most people thought he was speaking exclusively about contraception. Twenty-five years ago, however, the petri dish also effectively separated these two aspects.

At the same time, the child has lost all sense of being a gift. She is no longer allowed to be herself. Rather, in ways that confound the worst scenarios of emotional and psychological abuse, she can only be what and when her parents choose. Her rights do not begin until long after conception, maybe even several months after her birth if Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer gets his way.

Reproductive liberty has come to mean the liberty of parents to determine everything (medically possible) about their child. It means nothing about the rights of that child to be created within the conjugal embrace of loving and committed parents. It means nothing about the rights of the child to be accepted even if she’s not perfect. Soon, it might mean that parents can return the child if she isn’t up to the specifications they desired (this is not absurd: think of wrongful-birth suits).

Louise Brown deserves a fabulous birthday bash. And while my offer to buy her a drink still stands, the celebration of her life shouldn’t mask the reality that we have come to live in an age in which the value of human life so often depends solely upon arbitrary characteristics — such as having the right type of genes or being a particular sex.

Pia de Solenni is a fellow at the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C.

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