Happy birthday, IVF babies

Today is the thirty-sixth birthday of Louise Brown, the first person ever to be born following in vitro fertilisation (IVF). Her conception was achieved through the pioneering research and clinical work of three people in particular – Robert Edwards, Jean Purdy and Patrick Steptoe.

Sadly, these three pioneers are no longer with us. Happily, their legacy is writ large. Since Louise Brown’s birth in 1978, a further five million babies have been born worldwide who were conceived through IVF.

Today is also the day when the UK’s Journal of Medical Ethics decided to publish a paper – by one Cristina Richie, an ethicist at Boston College in Massachusetts – entitled ‘What would an environmentally sustainable reproductive technology industry look like?’.

Richie attacks fertility treatment from an environmentalist perspective, proceeding from the baldly stated view that ‘retrenchment in all areas of life is the key to slowing down or halting carbon emissions that lead to climate change’. She observes that ‘for each child made through medical intervention a carbon legacy results’, and complains of the fertility sector that ‘an entire business continues unchecked with the sole purpose of creating more consuming humans’.

The year may only be half over, but this must surely be a contender for 2014’s most misanthropic journal article.

Richie concedes that assisted-reproductive technologies ‘are not a major culprit of local population growth, and are typically provided in countries with low birth rates’. Nonetheless, she argues that ‘the multiplying effect of procreation is a major source of CO2 emissions; therefore, the ecological implications of reproductive technologies must be considered in light of the effects of climate change’.

Two accompanying pieces published by the British Medical Journal are no less dour in their assessment of the consequences of human procreation, medically assisted or otherwise.

Bioethicist Iain Brassington lauds Richie for having dared to ask ‘whether facilitating reproduction is always a good thing’, his only complaint seemingly being that she doesn’t go far enough. ‘If I wanted to frack for shale gas under Manchester, there’d be questions about sustainability, and about whether we should be looking for more and cheaper hydrocarbons given what we know about the environment. So why not ask analogous questions about reproduction, its environmental impact, and its legacy to the future?’

Meanwhile, clinician and bioethicist Dominic Wilkinson is slightly less sanguine about Richie’s paper, expressing concern that ‘it is profoundly unjust to apply restrictions to reproduction only on those who are unable to conceive by natural means’. Rather than reject Richie’s characterisation of procreation as a problem, Dr Wilkinson argues that any restrictions on reproduction imposed by the authorities must be applied across the board.

‘If the state is going to interfere in couples’ decisions about whether to have children or the number of children that they have, it should do so fairly and equally’, he says. If anything exemplifies the shortcomings of the concepts of fairness and equality as they are deployed today, then surely it is this – a stance that can countenance the outrageous prospect of the state preventing people from having children, so long as this is done ‘fairly and equally’.

If this sort of loathsome bilge is what passes for ethics today, then my suggestion to those working in the fertility sector is that they take any accusations of being unethical as a badge of pride. Happy thirty-sixth birthday, Louise Brown, and here’s to the next five million (and more!) IVF babies.

Sandy Starr is communications officer at the Progress Educational Trust.

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