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Inside IVF | Regan King

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Human embryos are being made into jewellery by an Australian company. Baby Bee Hummingbirds turns unused embryos from In-vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment into keepsakes in a process the company's founder describes as "sacred art".

Regan King writes of the "epidemic of ignorance and confusion" concerning IVF and assesses the scientific and moral issues surrounding the treatment. "Christians believe that life begins at conception", he says.

There is an epidemic of ignorance and confusion within the Christian community when it comes to the Artificial Reproductive Technology (ART) known as In-vitro Fertilisation (IVF). Developed in 1978 in the UK, IVF has provided real hope of the ability to have children to many women. The procedure effects fertilisation through an egg being combined with sperm outside the body, in a glass dish. The fertilised egg is cultured for 2–6 days and is transferred to the woman's uterus, in hope of establishing a successful pregnancy. Over 5 million babies have been born as a result this innovation.

Medical concerns

New life is a wonderful thing and something to be celebrated. The joy that successful IVF courses can provide otherwise infertile couples is undeniable. That said, there are legitimate medical concerns linked to IVF that must be considered.

A recent study has shown that babies born via IVF are three times more likely to suffer from childhood cancers and tumours. [1] The Israeli study tracked more than 200,000 children from 1991 to 2013 and claims to be the first study to monitor IVF children until they reach adulthood. Earlier studies have indicated a greater risk of premature birth, stillbirth, and infant mortality. [2] The risk of birth defects in IVF children is 40-100 per cent higher than in the general population. Additionally, IVF children are four times the normal risk of developing rare genetic imprinting disorders. [3]

Medical concerns are not limited to the child conceived through IVF. One research project found that infertile women who had taken IVF fertility drugs had 2.7 times the risk of developing ovarian cancer of those who had never taken them. [4] Furthermore, failed IVF treatment produces a 19% higher risk of cardiovascular disease than in women who do have babies. [5] There is also greater risk of dangerous ectopic pregnancy.

On 4 May fertility clinics were accused of covering up the number of women who must receive medical attention due to the potentially fatal ovarian hyperstimulation. Between 700 to 800 women a year are taken to hospital with the condition but doctors have been found to consistently under-report. [6] This and all such medical concerns need to be thoroughly considered and taken into consideration prior to undergoing IVF treatment.

Moral concerns

As with any medical procedure, it is not surprising that IVF carries certain medical risks, some of which patients may not be fully aware. While medical concerns are necessary to consider, alongside these it is important to assess any moral and ethical implications.

On one hand, IVF can be a tool for exploitation. In the past two weeks, it was discovered that vulnerable and financially constrained women have been offered the normally expensive IVF treatment for free so long as they donate their eggs. [7] It has also been found that clinics have duped many women by exaggerating success rates of fertilization using previously frozen and stored eggs. One doctor spoke of a 65% success rate. Official figures say 15%. [8] Were this low figure to be publicised it would almost certainly hit IVF clinics financially.

The exploitative nature of some IVF clinics in these regards is inarguable. If only the moral concerns with IVF stopped here. Sadly, things get much more serious.

Christians believe that life begins at conception. This means that from fertilisation to birth the preborn child has the same right to life as anyone who has been born. And yet, many of us have never really considered what this means for our thoughts on IVF.

Let's be clear. The only difference in fertilisation through IVF and that which occurs through the natural sexual process is that with IVF the sperm fertilises the egg in a petri dish. A living person is conceived that can perhaps mature to birth and beyond as any other human. Between 1991 and 2012 1.7 million of these fertilised eggs - in varying stages of development - were discarded unused. [9] A further 23,480 were discarded after having been initially stored.

There need not be any doubt as to whether a legal case could be made for the embryo's humanity,  In 2005 a couple from Illinois, USA were given the right to file a wrongful-death lawsuit after a fertility clinic accidentally destroyed their frozen embryo. Judge Jeffrey Lawrence said the embryo was a “human being ...whether or not it is implanted in its mother's womb." [10]

On a more personal level, many parents recognise the reality of conceived life in unused embryos. An Australian company has capitalised on this by giving parents the option of converting their unused embryos into jewelry. You did not misread. Of the process at Baby Bee Hummingbirds. One customer had this to say of her experience with the company:

We had been on a six-year journey of IVF. It was painful, tormenting, a strain on our marriage and just plain hard. Finding this [Baby Bee Humingbirds] has brought me so much comfort and joy. I'm finally at peace and my journey complete. My embryos were my babies - frozen in time. When we completed our family, it wasn't in my heart to destroy them. Now they are forever with me in a beautiful keepsake. [11]

The same report where these words of a Ms Stafford were recorded says:

Now Ms Stafford has all of her babies with her every day – including seven embryos in her heart-shaped pendant worn close to her heart, always.

Pro-abortion advocates have been correct in highlighting pro-lifers' often inconsistent treatment of abortion and IVF. [12] In the first place, those seeking an abortion and those seeking IVF are treated differently by the relevant medical professionals. Abortion often requires multiple checks, questionnaires, and signing off on by at least two medical professionals. Following the IVF process, donating unused embryos for research (destructive) or simply allowing the embryos to be destroyed simply requires the signing of a form.

This is understandable in one regard. With abortion, the desire is to actively terminate life. With IVF, there is an initial active desire to see life begin. That does not negate the reality that this desire once fulfilled often ends in a non-malicious, often unthinking, but active choice to end the life of unused embryos. Life is still terminated - it is simply outside the womb in a more sterile and less gory way than abortion.

The pain caused by infertility is all too familiar for so many. IVF is presented as a kind of last hope for childless couples. The treatment is expensive and is sometimes crushingly unsuccessful. This makes the desire to collect multiple eggs for potential fertilisation seem like a wise action. While the medical risks should not be ignored, the moral concerns must be considered even more.

That said, there are many examples where people, rightly concerned with the ethical implications of the standard IVF procedure have requested that there be only an attempt to make and implant one to two embryos. While the risk of successful pregnancy in this type of scenario is lower than when multiple embryos are formed, this does remove ethical concerns and allows a clear conscience throughout the procedure.

Christian couples should not feel as though IVF is their only option for having a happy and healthy family. Having children through adoption is not only a valid way of having a family. It is also a beautiful reflection of the gospel of Jesus Christ where we are brought into God's family through adoption (Ephesians 1). In England alone, 70,440 children were in the care of local authorities on 31st March 2016. Many, if not most of these children are available for adoption. [13]

Alongside adoption, other fertility treatments exist that have success rates comparable to IVF. Natural Procreative Technology (NaProTechnology ) seeks to diagnose underlying causes of infertility and limit the factors that inhibit childbearing.   Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection (ICSI) follows the same procedure as IVF but sees the sperm directly injected into the egg, ensuring fertilisation.

If infertile, why not consider the available ethical options of NaProTechnology or adoption prior to or alongside the often morally complex methods of IVF? If IVF is the route you decide to take, do consider requesting that an attempt be made to form only one or two embryos for implantation as this will avoid the likely destruction or experimentation on surplus embryos formed. 

If you are a church leader or counsellor please consider holding a seminar or teaching day that addresses life issues. Do not be afraid to disciple people in tackling the tough and emotive subjects of abortion, IVF, and adoption. Do not be afraid to teach what is good and right before God from the pulpit. If Christians are not discipled in Christ's truth within the church they will continue to live as disciples of fallen and sinful world. If we are not teaching Christ's way to live in every way, we should not be surprised when people continue to live out the world's way.

A helpful treatment of this complex subject is in Christian Medical Fellowship's guide "Facing Infertility: Guidance for Christian couples considering IVF" by Jason Roach and Philippa Taylor.

[1] Wainstock T, Walfisch A, Shoham-Vardi I, et al. Fertility treatments and pediatric neoplasms of the offspring: results of a population-based cohort with a median follow-up of 10 years. Am J Obstet Gynecol 2017;216:314.e1-14.
[2] Dr NR Vulliemoz, Institute of Reproductive Sciences, Oxford, Mr E McVeigh FRCOG, Oxford and Dr J Kurinczuk MD MSc FFPH, National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit, Oxford, for The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, "In Vitro Fertilisation: Perinatal Risks and Early Childhood Outcomes" in Scientific Impact Paper No. 8, May 2012                                                 
[3] Eve Ahmed, Why children born by IVF may be more at risk of autism and childhood cancers in The Independent, 31 October 2006
[4] Sarah Knapton, "IVF women third more likely to develop ovarian cancer" in The Daily Telegraph, 20 Oct 2015
[5] Jacob A. Udell, MD MPH, Hong Lu, PhD, Donald A. Redelmeier, MD MSHSR, "Failure of fertility therapy and subsequent adverse cardiovascular events", CMAJ March 13, 2017 vol. 189 no. 10 doi: 10.1503/cmaj.160744
[6] Paul Bentleyand Sara Smyth "Drugs made my ovaries swell to five time their usual size': Fertility clinics accused of covering up potentially fatal side effects of IVF" in The Daily Mail, 4 May 2017
[7] Paul Bentley and  Sara Smyth, "Exploited by cash-for-eggs IVF clinics: Mail investigation finds desperate women are told to donate eggs for free treatment" in The Daily Mail, 1 May 2017
[8] Katherine Faulknerand Paul Bentley and Sara Smyth, "IVF clinics peddling false hope over egg freezing: Doctors caught on camera making wildly optimistic claims about the method's success" in The Daily Mail, 2 May 2017
[9] Andrew Hough, "1.7 million human embryos created for IVF thrown away" in The Daily Telegraph,  31 December 2012
[10] Sherry Colb, "Judge rules frozen embryos are people: Case could impact abortion providers, fertility clinics", for FindLaw column on CNN.COM, 23 February 2005
[11] Lisa Mayoh, "Couples are turning extra IVF embryos into jewellery" for KidSpot Australia, 3 May, 2017
[12] Margo Kaplan, "Fertility clinics destroy embryos all the time. Why are conservatives not after them?" in The Washington Post August 14, 2015
[13] "Adoption Facts and Figures" on 

Related Links: 
'Increasing concern' over questionable fertility treatment 
Regan King: Being anti-abortion is not enough 
Abigail Dodds: The Horror of Human Embryo Jewelry (Desiring God)  
IVF clinics threatened with action as investigation uncovers catalogue of abuses (SPUC)