Parenthood and the ability to conceive can be seen as a basic human right. It’s a social expectation to have a family of ones own that is reinforced by family, friends and society. Reproduction is one of the 7 fundamental life processes of vertebrates. It is natural human instinct to have an innate need or desire to produce offspring and be involved in the contribution of continuity of life. So it’s no wonder that highly involved technologies have been developed to facilitate reproduction for individuals and couples who are unable to do so naturally.
In the last two decades, there has been a rapid increase in medical technologies to assist reproduction for infertile couples, same sex couples and even single people. Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART) is the collective term for a group of medical procedures designed to assist conception that would otherwise not have been possible. This can be done by bringing the egg and the sperm closer together, or increasing the actual number of egg and/or sperm.
ART includes such technologies as Artificial Insemination (AI), In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF), Gamete Intrafallopian Transfer (GIFT), Zygote Intrafallopian Transfer (ZIFT), Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection (ICSI) and Assisted Hatching – Embryo Micromanipulation (Hinman, 2008, 4) . Such medical technologies form solutions to the problem of failing to conceive a child naturally and bring the joys of nurturing and parenthood to many, however technology comes at a cost and ART poses many moral and ethical issues to society. This essay will discuss both the advantages and disadvantages of ART.
The liberty to procreate how and when one chooses is the obvious ultimate advantage of ART. Infertility is a common problem among women in today’s society, which can be put down to a multitude of factors. One of the most common of those factors is smoking and this situation is exacerbated by obesity and age. Early menopause is associated with not only tobacco consumption but also coffee consumption and other lifestyle factors. Studies have shown that women are choosing to delay marriage and have children much later in life in pursuit of careers.
Women are most fertile between the ages of twenty five and twenty nine, after this age fertility starts to decline and rapidly falls after age thirty five. It has been suggested that women’s choice to marry, and start families later in life could be influenced by beliefs about the success of reproductive technologies. Although prime reproductive age is mid twenties and thereafter women’s bodies decline in their ability to reproduce, there are many women, and men, who are simply infertile for reasons largely unknown.
Although a childless life is chosen by some, for many, having that human right to produce and parent a child taken from them, experience a profound sense of loss and unimaginable grief. Infertility causes mild to extreme psychological distress and many couples experience feelings of guilt, inadequacy and failure as a result of an inability to conceive. Sometimes a couple may even keep their situation a secret from family and friends to avoid potential embarrassment. This exacerbates their feelings of grief and helplessness even further (McConchie, 1999, 1).
It is the procedures of Assisted Reproductive Technologies that provide couples with real hope for a child in times when children by adoption are next to impossible. Even though IVF and other reproductive technologies have a very low success rate, and very high financial and personal costs, many infertile couples are more than eager to explore the opportunity for reproduction that ART could possibly provide. Even if conception fails, couples will often feel a sense of fulfilment that they have explored every avenue.
ART has an advantage over natural conception in that women can choose which embryo gets implanted and bought to term. This window of opportunity eliminates the risk of having to abort the pregnancy later on due to genetic defects – an incredibly painful experience for a woman. A significant advantage of ART is that it allows women the opportunity to have partial roles in reproduction. Robertson states that “while many women will want to rear their own biologic offspring, some women may find partial roles as egg and embryo donors and surrogates to be meaningful options that best fit into their life plans” (Robertson, 1985. 193).
Although ART has an enormous impact on the lives of individuals who would otherwise have been unable to have children, there are many ethical issues specific to IVF technology. ART as treatments for infertility pose the question as to what is the role of medicine. Medicine and medical technology serve the purpose to treat and cure diseases. So if ART are infertility treatments, then infertility must be a biological disease. Some may argue that a person’s inability to conceive is not really a disease as having children is not really a biological necessity. Furthermore being infertile does not make a person sick or unhealthy.
If it is a disease, then people can go their whole lives not realising they have it and remain unaffected by it. It is only when an individual chooses to exercise the choice of having a child (Shannon, 1988. ). If infertility can be classed a biological disease, then we need to look at what ways it is being treated. ART does in no way treat or cure infertility, it just satisfies the desires of people to have children. If reproduction by IVF, for example, is successful, the couple in question will be just as infertile after the treatment as they were before (Shannon, 1988. 156-157).
Public health care funding is a finite resource and high cost technical treatments such as ART need to be prioritised. Right to ART programs, which are extremely costly, are denying other health care consumers other basic health care rights. Another issue of concern is the fact that ART is simply not available to all. Upper and Middle classes are the only populations who have access to publicly funded high cost reproductive treatments. Not only are ART very expensive they also have a very low success rate. McConchie (1999, 6) states that “clinics average only 20-40% live birth success rates.
However these success rates are most likely this high due to the implantation of multiple embryos and selective abortion which is very problematic ethically. Following ethical guidelines that protect human life from conception would probably make the percentage much lower. ” The psychological mind-set of those seeking the services of such reproductive treatments makes them vulnerable to misconception and perhaps unrealistic expectations. It is the desperation and helplessness which can cause them to overlook the risks and likely outcomes.
These are all significant implications of ART, however there are much broader moral and ethical issues affecting society. Artificially producing children raises many social and ethical questions of consideration. The major one is the question of when life begins and who has the right to decide if and when that life should or should not continue to live. Embryo freezing is becoming more and more common as women delay marriage and childbearing. What happens, however, to those extra embryos once they are no longer needed? What happens to the embryos if the genetic parents die or cannot be traced?
Embryos that are no longer needed, or those that possess undesirable traits or genetic defects are discarded and destroyed. We may then ask, what is the moral and ethical status of the embryo? Many hold firm belief that life begins at conception and that that embryo has rights like any other human being. Some may challenge this and argue that a cluster of cells, while living, in itself is not a human. The frozen blastocyst is not conscious, has no soul, it doesn’t even have the basic rudiments of a nervous system. Artificial Reproduction can seem like a dehumanizing process of manufacturing products – babies.
Religion largely plays a role in the ethics of ART. The religious view is that reproduction should only occur out of an act of love between two people. When Lawler (1988, 168) talks about IVF he states that “when a new human life comes to be out of an act of love between two persons who will forever be parents, and responsible to the child – a child not made, but begotten, not a product that its makers may manipulate, but an offspring that is their equal – the entire context suggests an attitude and a moral stance different from that which arises when human life is originated in the context of production, manufacturing, and quality control.
The question of whether we should use reproductive technologies to create life because it meets many human needs and desires in spite of the fact that it opposes social morality goes much deeper. In Lawler’s (1988, 172) words “it is a question of the meaning of human values, what it means to be a person, what love and sexuality are, and how (and if) they should be related to the originating of life. ”
ART is a medical technology that has many advantages as well as serious implications for society. It provides relief to the suffering of those who cannot experience the joy of having their own children in a world where adoption is simply not an option. The urge to have children can be so great for people who are infertile, that they may fail to fully understand the implications of this technology. This technology comes at a much greater cost to society however.
It raises serious ethical and moral dilemmas focused on basic human values. Lawler (1988, 175) concludes that “the longing of people to have children is real, and the concern of scientists to help is praiseworthy. But morality is largely a matter or means. And we have a duty to reflect more seriously on the morality of generating human life, before intolerable harm is done to too many people’s lives. “