By Sr. Beatriz Liaño, S.H.M.
A few years back, I was confronted with a very complicated situation. In the parish where I collaborated, there was a woman who had a certain leadership role that began the process of trying to have a baby by using assisted reproduction technology (ART). She was a well-known person and her decision created a lot of confusion in the parish community.
I know that many times people may act out of ignorance, without malice, and that they make decisions with good intentions. However, sometimes these intentions are very mistaken. Just because someone is active in the parish does not necessarily mean that he or she is well formed in matters of morals. For this reason, I decided to speak with her, not trying to be the judge of anyone, but looking for her good. I went up to her and asked her if she was really aware of what she was doing. Her answer, very bluntly, was, “Yes, but I want to be a mother.” I tried to reason with her: “But do you realize that in order to have a child, you’re going to kill several other children of yours?” I based my comment on medical facts that confirm that in order for a child to be born using ART, in the best of cases, an average of twenty-four embryos would have to be used (cf. Antonio Pardo, “La fecundación in vitro”). I am going to translate this so that it can be correctly understood: Twenty-four human beings die in the process so that one can be born. Then, she repeated her line: “Yes, but I want to be a mother.” I was shocked by her answer. With a few words I suggested, “But if you want to be a mother, why not adopt instead of doing this?” She answered, “Look, Sister, with my psychological history, I’m not capable of adopting a child and I want to be a mother.” She turned around and left. One more question was left on my lips: “If you’re not psychologically able to adopt, are you able to have a child in a laboratory?”.
I never forgot that conversation because it made me aware of the large amount of ethical problems that have arisen surrounding ART. I am aware of the suffering and the sense of frustration that a couple may have upon discovering that they are sterile. However, we are not owners of life, and children are a gift, not a right. It is clear that research aimed at reducing human sterility is to be encouraged (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church #2375), with the condition that it be placed “at the service of the human person, of his inalienable rights and his true and integral good according to the design and will of God” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instr. Donum vitae, intro. 2). However, artificial fertility is not the way, because artificial fertility gravely harms human dignity. With this, I am not saying that children born from these techniques are worthless human beings. No. What is unworthy of a human being is precisely being conceived in this way. “Only intimate and loving sexual union between a man and woman – if it is unconditional – can constitute the worthy cause of the existence of a human being. Such a union and unconditional requirement are absent in In vitro fertilization.” This quote is not from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but from a biologist , Emilio García Sánchez, who knows about laboratories and test tubes very well (cf. Emilio García Sánchez, “Is In Vitro Fertilization an Act of Human Love? A Proposal for Ethical Review”).
There are probably a lot of people who are not able to rightly value the affirmation that I just made: “Artificial fertility gravely harms human dignity.” We are developing techniques without stopping to think about their consequences, but there are indeed consequences. In the first place, [there are consequences] on a moral level, which are obviously the most serious ones. But in the face of the loss of the sense of sin, which is reigning in our society, perhaps there are those who put more value on the consequences in terms of the health of babies born through assisted reproduction technology (ART). Well, the health risks for the babies are many and serious. This is information that no one wants to share too much of; information that is covered up and colored over so that it does not seem so serious. However, it is scientific information which we cannot close our eyes to, even though that is the intention of those who have made of a sterile person’s suffering a great business for themselves.
Someone may ask if the health problems found in children conceived through ART are caused by the technique itself or because of the reasons that make their parents infertile. The answer is that one thing just as much as the other causes damage in embryos. The problems are many and multiple. We pretend to be gods but we are not, and the consequences of our actions are out of our hands. After nearly forty years of experience with ART, with more than enough time to study the results of the techniques in order to better their deficiencies, the results of the studies are more than troublesome. Problems are detected before birth, problems are detected after birth, and problems arise only after long years have passed. The statistics speak for themselves, and in this case, there is no fear that they have been altered.
What kind of illnesses can we find in what are commonly referred to as “test tube babies”? Well, nearly all the same ones we could find in children conceived in a natural way, only in much higher proportions. A work published in “The New England Journal of Medicine” includes a study of more than 300,000 children, 6,163 of whom were conceived through assisted reproduction. It clearly shows that the risk of being born with some kind of defect is greater (8.3%) with any of the assisted reproductive techniques than when conceived [naturally] (5.8 %). There are also significant differences depending on the particular assisted reproductive technique that is used: With In vitro fertilization (IVF), the rate of babies born with some kind of defect was 7.2%, while that with intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) was 9.9%. Specifically, we find:
- Many cardiac problems: A three times higher risk of congenital heart defects is calculated.
-8.8% of ART children suffer from chromosomal alterations, compared to 4.2% in children born naturally.
- Treatment by ICSI provides a risk of chromosomal anormalities more than three times higher than that of those conceived naturally.
- Low birth weight, which generates hypertension that affects neurological development. This occurs both in those born of single pregnancies and those of multiple pregnancies.
-Increased risk of cerebral palsy, higher prevalence in mental retardation and severe ocular dysfunction associated with this disease, as well as autism spectrum disorders.
- Congenital deformities: The risk factor is 9.85% for gastrointestinal, 2.30% for cardiovascular and 1.54% for musculoskeletal defects.
- Deformities of the male genital tract associated with paternal male sterility, which were generated by ICSI; the risk is greater than 5% compared to less than 1% of those conceived naturally.
- Congenital defects classified as “blastogenesis defects” occur in the first 4 weeks of embryo development. They cause defects in the neural tube, the abdominal wall, esophageal atresia and anal atresia. They do not have a genetic cause. They are present in 1 out of every 160 pregnancies of ART compared to 1 in 400 of those born naturally, which suggests that they are due to the change of the natural environment to the environment in which the embryo develops with ART.
- There are some syndromes that are very rare in the general population but which, however, have frequently been seen in children born after assisted reproduction techniques. For example, the Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome is characterized by premature birth, abnormally long tongue, umbilical hernia, neonatal hypoglycemia and predisposition to tumors, most commonly the Wilms tumor.
- Higher risk of suffering from the retinoblastoma childhood tumor . A meta-analysis has detected an increased risk of can- Assisted Reproduction: What About the Health of the Baby? cer in children conceived using ART.
- There are health problems that appear later on and are thus not detectable by systematic studies that analyze health at birth, or in the short term of the life of the born. Some early defects prevail throughout life such as asthma and allergic diseases, changes in blood pressure, increased triglycerides, high fasting glucose, increased peripheral adipose tissue and increased incidence of the primary subclinical form of hypothyroidism. Adolescent girls conceived through IVF have hormonal imbalances. These changes could lead to a predisposition to diseases such as type II diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease.
To study this topic in depth is an attempt to do something that goes beyond the limits of this article, given the variety of possible cases both in terms of the causes of sterility of the biological parents, as well as the type of technique used and many other factors. Doctors Natalia López Moratalla, Alejandra Huerta Zepeda and Dolores Bueno López have prepared a valuable study: “Health Risks for Children Born from Assisted Reproduction Technology: The Tip of the Iceberg,” which has been published by the Spanish Association of Bioethics and Medical Ethics. For those who are looking for more information, I would refer to this document which can be accessed on the Internet.
I would just like to add one more point which is literally taken from the document I cited above: “These ‘In vitro’ events occur during the most critical period in the development of the embryo to be born, around [the time of] nidation… It is important to have this fact in mind: the means modifies the material genetic state, thus epigenetically regulating the genetic expression.” Let us reason with our head instead of simply aspiring to see the desire to be a father or mother satisfied. If the simple fact of a woman rejecting the creature she carries in her womb causes complicated psychological wounds for the baby, won’t being conceived in a cold test tube instead of within the warmth and protection of the maternal womb cause every kind of wound and aftermath for babies?
I insist that I know firsthand the suffering of those who, desiring to have children, face sterility month after month. But I remind them of the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church dedicated to this topic: “The Gospel show that physical sterility is not an absolute evil. Spouses who still suffer from infertility after exhausting legitimate medical procedures should unite themselves with the Lord’s Cross, the source of all spiritual fecundity. They can give expression to their generosity by adopting abandoned children or performing demanding services for others” (CCC #2379). Sterility can be the path to discovering a specific vocation from God that previously was undiscovered. The correct question, therefore, is not “Why?” but instead, “For what purpose?” Sterility is not a failure; it’s an opportunity.
© HM Magazine Nº206 January-February 2019