Dilemmas of Birth

January 11, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston -- It's been 15 years since Louise Brown's birth was flashed across the globe in headlines announcing the arrival of the first ''test-tube baby.'' In retrospect, her conception in a petri dish from her mother's egg and father's sperm seems relatively natural.

Today, a man's sperm can meet a woman's egg for a one-night stand in a laboratory. The genetic offspring of these strangers can then be placed in a second woman's womb, and given to yet another couple for raising.

In the years between Baby Louise and Teen-ager Louise, we learned to subdivide the very word mother into functions: genetic mother, gestational mother, birth mother, social mother. We spawned an entire generation of ethical worries about reproductive science and human nature.

Now, from Europe, comes the next generation of these fertile questions. They have arrived, unexpectedly, carrying uncomfortable little identification tags that read ''retirement babies'' and ''fetus farming.''

In Italy and England, women who were infertile for the most natural of all reasons -- they had passed menopause -- have been impregnated as late in life as 59 and 62 years old. With the egg from a young woman and the sperm from a younger husband, with hormones pumped in and dollars freely spent, they have broken the biological barrier.

In Scotland, a researcher announced in a calm scientific voice that within a few years, we will be able to ''harvest'' eggs from an aborted female fetus. He raised the specter of children whose own genetic mothers were literally never born.

I don't think there are thousands of women eagerly waiting for the chance to cash in their Social Security checks for maternity clothes and diapers. Nor do I think that a woman who chooses to have an abortion would want her female fetus to become a mother. I cannot imagine that the same woman who decides not to be a birth mother, for example, would consent to becoming a birth grandmother.

But these cases raise deep anxieties about the choices that science now offers and human beings now have to make. And they are by no means the last nor most unsettling options.

Last week, for example, the French government proposed banning the use of donor eggs for the in vitro fertilization of post-menopausal women. But what if these eggs belonged to the women themselves? A few years ago, before soldiers went off to the Persian Gulf War, a number banked their sperm. If women want to beat the biological clock, will they deposit their eggs in some holding tank for future use?

The notion of taking eggs from aborted fetuses is grotesque. But how long is it before someone suggests filling the ''shortage'' of eggs in other ways. Will brain-dead or dying females become egg donors the way they are now kidney and liver donors. Will we harvest eggs to conceive our own grandchildren?

We need some ethical stop signs. One stop sign goes up at the idea of using fetal eggs at all. Another stop sign should go up at the sight of the dollar sign. In no way should eggs or sperm be bought and sold in the marketplace.

Will such stop signs make it harder for infertile couples to have children? Maybe so. Every step on this reproductive hi-tech-way, from in vitro fertilization to cloning has been defended as a way to help with the real pain of infertility.

But how much of a help is it? For every woman who eventually delivers a child, how many others are led further and further down paths of false hope that don't have to end now until death.

Even if this technology does produce a picture-perfect baby for some couples, it's fair to ask how much we should sacrifice in moral and scientific terms for that portrait. In the end, this may be the toughest ethical issue.

We live in a world that is bursting at the seams with children. We cannot count the unwanted and the underfed, those in need of families. In such a world, how much should be devoted to the problems of infertility?

Before Baby Louise began life in a petri dish, we depended on nature, the life cycles, the human body, to determine our limits. Now we must depend on the heart and the brain. At times, they seem like much less reliable organs.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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