Fertility research looking at eggs in aborted fetuses

January 03, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

LONDON -- Another controversy over fertilization techniques erupted in Britain yesterday amid reports that a method of producing test-tube babies using eggs from aborted fetuses is on the horizon.

Researchers said the technique, which has sparked intense ethical debate, may be able to produce a human baby within three years if the British Medical Association's ethics committee gives it the go-ahead as expected next month.

The technique, pioneered by Dr. Roger Gosden at Edinburgh MedicalSchool, would retrieve eggs from aborted female fetuses, fertilize them and place them in women who are unable to conceive because of early menopause or illness. Dr. Gosden has had positive results in the procedure using laboratory mice.

The latest developments in fertility come after a 59-year-old woman gave birth to twins in a London clinic after undergoing artificial fertilization in Rome. Many doctors and officials argued that women past menopause are unsuitable to become mothers because of the vast age difference between them and their offspring.

Last week, a British fertility clinic was embroiled in another controversy over implanting a white woman's egg into a black woman, after reports that the woman and her husband, a man of mixed race, merely wanted to ensure the color of their child.

In the latest case, the thought of creating infants from the eggs of females who have never been born has caused some controversy in the medical and political worlds.

David Alton, a Liberal Democrat member of Parliament, called the new technique "reminiscent of grave-robbing."

"This consumerist approach to the creation of life puts it on a par with an American fast-food outlet," he said.

A report on the research in the Sunday Express newspaper also raised the specter of "fetus farming," in which women would conceive babies, have abortions and sell their fetuses for cash.

But Stuart Campbell, head of obstetrics at King's College Hospital in London, said, "Nonmedical moralists who sound off don't see the desperation of infertile couples."

The government's in-vitro fertility watchdog group, the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, is studying the research.

Dr. Gosden claims that experiments in mice show that eggs from fetuses can be successfully implanted into infertile animals.

The researchers say that the ovaries of a human female fetus can have up to 5 million eggs; the number of eggs gradually diminishes after birth, and by age 50 most women have less than 1,000, British news reports said.

Under the technique, eggs retrieved from a fetus would be fertilized with sperm in a laboratory, then implanted in the womb of an infertile woman, enabling her to bear a child.

"I am certain the technique can be transferred to humans," Dr. Gosden told the Sunday Express. "It can be used for thousands of young women who have premature menopause, women cancer patients who have become infertile through radiation treatments, and even older women who have had their menopause.

"With ethical permission, the first human baby using the procedure could be born within three years."

Some observers said the technique raises legal questions, such as what would happen if a woman decided she had a legal right to her fetus' fertilized egg in another woman's body.

"We are creating some nightmare scenarios in the next century, said psychiatrist Anthony Clare. "People will be growing up whose mothers were aborted fetuses. I'd be very interested to know what the mothers intend to tell their children when they grow up. They would have to say their mother was disposed of."

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