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The Moral Costs of IVF Research

The Vatican's March 10 condemnation of artificial methods of reproduction, including in vitro fertilization (IVF), is certain to be the cause of considerable controversy both within and without the scientific community, and among Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The pronouncement by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith says that "uncontrollable application of such techniques could lead to unforeseeable and damaging consequences for civil society." In addition to outlawing artificial

By | April 6, 1987

The Vatican's March 10 condemnation of artificial methods of reproduction, including in vitro fertilization (IVF), is certain to be the cause of considerable controversy both within and without the scientific community, and among Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The pronouncement by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith says that "uncontrollable application of such techniques could lead to unforeseeable and damaging consequences for civil society." In addition to outlawing artificial insemination for church members, the Vatican calls for new legislation regulating research with embryos, saying that "the law cannot tolerate … that human beings, even at the embryonic stage, should be treated as objects of experimentation."

It would be easy to dismiss the statement as another example of the church retreating from the advance of science, in this case a medical advance that has made it possible for thousands of infertile couples to have children. But the document embodies the moral concerns that many observers have regarding the use of embryos as experimental material. It is a document that Australia, with its burgeoning IVF industry, should study well.

Victoria, Australia, is already quite far along the path to the regulation of IVE In 1984, the Victorian Parliament passed the Infertility (Medical Procedures) Act, with most provisions coming into effect in August 1986. The Act specifies that all proposals for research on human embryos be cleared by a government-appointed committee, and provides for criminal penalties—including jail terms of up to four years—for researchers conducting unauthorized experiments or stepping beyond the committee's recommendation.

In certain cases, the law permits research with "spare" embryos left over from patients enrolled in an IVF program, but it completely prohibits studies using embryos produced specifically for research purposes. Thus, quite a number of experiments at the forefront of IVF research have been banned. For example, attempts to combat male infertility by injecting dysfunctional sperm into ripe eggs are prohibited, as is the commonly used test for male infertility in which human sperm are allowed to fertilize the eggs of hamsters or rats. Also, research on the freezing of human ova is hampered since the resultant embryos have to be tested extensively to determine whether or not the freezing of the eggs damages the embryos in some way.

Scientists working with IVF in Victoria, including the world-famous team lead by Alan Trounson and Carl Wood at Monash University, are understandably dissatisfied with the law. They have repeatedly threatened to leave Australia and pursue their research overseas. This has raised the question of whether Australia can afford to be so rigid in its restriction of research on human embryos.

IVF research is the pinnacle of Australia's current research achievements; indeed, the Australian contribution ranks right at the top of the field. Preliminary data indicate that 17 percent of the world literature on IVF stems from Australia. This lead will probably be lost as a result of the new law.

Moreover, commercial benefits might be lost. Recently a high-tech company, IVF (Australia), was set up as the commercial counterpart of the Monash IVF team. This company engages in technology transfer— the techniques developed and perfected by Trounson, Wood and their colleagues are transferred to clinics in the United States owned by the Australian company. The university has obtained $300,000 as an initial down payment and collects royalties on an ongoing basis. The market is estimated to be $19 billion. But Victoria's restrictive law may knock the Monash team out of the technological lead, leaving the company without the latest technology to offer. For a high-tech company this is the death knell.

Balancing the Costs

But the law has its pluses as well as its minuses. There are, after all, costs involved in too little regulation. These costs fit in less well with the currently popular ideology of pushing scientific and technological developments and their commercialization to the limit. They are moral costs. They involve a belief, a gut feeling, that it is not right to produce human embryos just to be used as research material. It is that feeling which is reflected in the Vatican document.

It is never difficult for scientists to come up with justifications for experiments they want to conduct, particularly in the biomedical areas. For example, we have heard that research with human embryos is essential for developments leading to the prevention and cure of infertility, to improved contraception, and to the prevention of genetic disease. But when the journal Nature held a competition in 1985 to discover the best proposal for a research program involving human embryos, no reasonable contenders were forthcoming.

Indeed, several embryologists have openly criticized such research. Mike Rayner of Oxford University has said that many scientists are in fact skeptical about the advisability of conducting research with human embryos but are quiet "for fear of seeming to support restrictions on their colleagues' work." He stressed that scientists have a vested interest in promoting their own research and that they will exaggerate its benefits to further their own ends.

In France, the leading P/F researcher, Jacques Testart, has decided to withdraw his team from the race. He has announced publicly that he is most worried about what he calls "future perversions of IVF." In particular, he is highly critical of genetic screening and sex determination of the embryo produced by IVF, arguing that "with genetic progress the way is open for eugenics."

There are fundamental problems involved in treating human embryos as research material. We all know the attitude of researchers and technicians to common laboratory material such as rat liver. Human embryos are not rat liver, and the only reliable mechanism for ensuring that they are not treated as such is through government legislation and licensing.

To be sure, there are costs involved in such restrictions, costs such as those now being paid in Victoria. But there is also a price to pay in going ahead with unrestricted embryo experimentation. On balance, at this stage of our social, political and economic development we have more to gain than to lose by opting for regulation and restriction. It clearly is too early to tell what effect the Vatican's decision may have on IVF research in Australia or elsewhere. But I hope that mechanisms can be developed to ensure that legislation such as that in force in Victoria becomes applicable to IVF research wherever it is carried out.

Bartels is at the School of History and Philosophy of Science, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. This article is adapted from a talk during the annual Congress of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science in January 1987.

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