In vitro fertilization, stem cell research share moral issues

June 04, 2005|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - All the years of fertility drugs, low-tech intra-uterine insemination and higher-tech in vitro fertilization finally gave Pamela Madsen and her husband, Kai, exactly what they wanted: a family with two healthy children, Tyler, now 16, and Spencer, now 12.

But their journey into assisted reproduction also produced something they hadn't talked about or even thought about - four surplus embryos.

The embryos are still in deep freeze in a fertility center in New York, like an estimated 400,000 others across the nation that have been frozen and stored since the late 1970s.

As Congress debates expanding President Bush's policy on embryonic stem cell research, those on both sides of the volatile issue have noted that many of the ethical and moral issues troubling to opponents of embryonic stem cell research are also inherent in IVF - a process that Bush and much of the Christian conservative community support.

Just as embryonic stem cell research leads to the destruction of embryos, IVF, as it is practiced in the United States, leads to the loss of embryos that will never be implanted.

"There is a certain level of inconsistency in supporting IVF but opposing the use of embryos to gain stem cell lines," says Tom Mayo, director of the Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility at Southern Methodist University. "As long as there is in vitro fertilization, you will have some number of embryos that will either remain cryo-preserved forever, or until they start to come apart or are simply disposed of."

For his part, Bush has avoided that charge of inconsistency by saying he merely opposes using taxpayer money for embryonic stem cell research. Although he describes it as "destroying life," he has not called for a ban on such research.

But other opponents have not made such distinctions between public and private financing of the research. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Republican, described embryonic stem cell research as "the dismemberment of living, distinct human beings for the purposes of medical experimentation."

Asked recently whether he would support tighter regulations on embryo creation through IVF, he said he would prefer to see doctors come up with their own codes of conduct but wanted to look at the issue of what happens to frozen embryos that are discarded by fertility labs.

According to a 2003 study by the Rand Corp., patients have designated about 2 percent of the 400,000 embryos in frozen storage for discard, about 2 percent for donation to other couples, about 3 percent for donation to private research and about 88 percent for future "family building."

But many of those "family building" cases turn out to be indefinite storage, like the Madsens' embryos. "We were, like everybody else, just trying to conceive," says Pamela Madsen, a former kindergarten teacher in the Bronx who leads the American Fertility Association.

For years the Madsens disagreed over what to do with the embryos. Pamela felt an emotional attachment to them and wanted to try for another child. Her husband felt no such bond and didn't want a bigger family. So, like many couples who cannot agree on what to do with embryos they no longer need, they did nothing.

"Many parents decide not to decide. That's why we have so many in the freezer," says Richard M. Doerflinger, deputy director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The Roman Catholic Church sees IVF through the same morally troubling lens as embryonic stem cell research and believes that it should be banned. Since 1987, the Vatican has opposed IVF on the grounds that "a child should arise out of an act of love between a husband and wife," Doerflinger says.

"That norm is violated by a process that substitutes for a man and woman with a lab procedure," he adds. "It's more like manufacturing a product. It's a technician who does the act of conception."

But, like the church's policy against contraception, it is "less well understood" - and less followed - by many Catholics, Doerflinger says.

In Italy, which is largely Catholic, new regulations that greatly restrict fertility procedures have been protested by many and will be put to a referendum - over the objections of Pope Benedict XVI and Italian bishops - June 12 and 13.

The rules set forth last year are the strictest regulations on medically assisted fertility in Europe and give embryos the same legal rights as fully developed human beings.

Under the regulations, the days-old cells cannot be frozen, screened for abnormalities or used for scientific purposes such as stem cell research. Those turning to IVF - only married heterosexual couples, under the Italian law - are permitted to create only three embryos at a time, and all three, no matter how viable they appear, must be implanted into the woman at the same time.

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