During a two-day meeting in the last week of February, the Food and Drug Administration debated regulating a new technique that combines DNA from three people that would, in theory, create children free of certain inherited diseases.
Scientists say these genetically modified embryos, made with the DNA from two biological mothers and one biological father, would potentially allow mothers who carry DNA mutations for conditions like blindness and epilepsy to have children without passing on these defects.
The technique — nicknamed “three-parent in vitro fertilization” — is the latest in a long line of controversial scientific procedures regarding fertility and reproduction.
“Skyrocketing infertility rates and the accompanying explosion in reproductive technology are revolutionizing the American family and changing the way we think about parenthood, childbirth, and life itself.”
That unsettling quotation is from the inside jacket of the 2007 book by Liza Mundy, “Everything Conceivable: How Assisted Reproduction is Changing Men, Women and the World” (Alfred A. Knopf, $17.95). Assisted reproduction refers to creating babies by using one or a combination of technologies that include creating embryos in a lab with in vitro fertilization (IVF), using eggs and sperm from donors, and hiring surrogate mothers.
‘A gift received’
In some instances, infertility is self-inflicted, as many couples use contraception to delay childbearing during their most fertile years and then later expect technology to produce a baby on demand. Also, the use of contraception encourages sex with many partners, and this leads to more exposure to sexually transmitted diseases that can reduce or destroy fertility. Studies have shown, too, that abortion can lead to infertility.
Janet Smith, a professor of moral theology who holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair in Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, told Our Sunday Visitor that society previously believed sexual intercourse belonged in marriage and, as a result, children were to be conceived only with one’s spouse. However, the prevalence of contraception helped sever the link between sex, love, marriage and parenthood, she said.
“The contraceptive mentality that leads us to believe we should be dictating when we have children and how many we have now dominates,” Smith said. “Women are now freezing their eggs so they can get pregnant later in life through technology. Babies are seen as an experience to have rather than a gift to receive.”
This concept of a baby as a commodity that can be manufactured on demand rather than a gift received through the love of a husband and wife has become acceptable to many.
However, few realize the huge moral and social problems involved in this technology. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches artificial reproduction methods infringe on rights of children by separating them from their biological parents and distorts the natural concepts of parenthood and family (CCC Nos. 2376, 2377).
A thriving fertility industry in this country that takes in more than $3 billion annually is, according to experts, largely federally unregulated and does little to no screening of potential “parents,” unlike the legal adoption process that requires stringent scrutiny.
Fertility clinics will provide donor sperm to a woman (called heterologous artificial insemination) or will create embryos through IVF and implant the embryo(s) in a surrogate or the intended “social” mother, all governed by contracts among the parties involved.
The Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology, which claims to have 90 percent of U.S. fertility clinics as members, reported last month that more than 1.5 percent of babies born in the United States in 2012 were conceived by IVF. The society said its 379 affiliated clinics provided 165,172 IVF procedures in 2012, resulting in 61,740 babies, a new record high. The numbers do not include babies born from heterologous artificial insemination.
Another piece of data not reported was how many of the babies were conceived with sperm or eggs from anonymous donors, but experts estimate that between 30,000 and 60,000 babies born each year have one or both donor parents.
The repercussions of this fertility phenomenon, which deliberately separates children from their biological parents, recently have grabbed media attention.
In the 2013 film “Delivery Man,” the lead character discovers he fathered more than 500 children through sperm donation 20 years earlier, and now more than 100 of his offspring want to find him. An MTV series in 2013, “Generation Cryo,” followed a 17-year-old as she searched for her half-siblings and their donor father. The 2010 movie “The Kids Are All Right” had a similar theme.
As it turns out, the kids are not all right. A 2010 study of donor-conceived children, “My Daddy’s Name is Donor” by Elizabeth Marquardt, Norval Glenn and Karen Clark, concluded that reproductive technology was advancing uninhibited without research on the effect on the children produced. They found biological and adopted children fared much better than donor-conceived children.
“On average, young adults conceived through sperm donation are hurting more, are more confused, and feel more isolated from their families,” the study states. “They fare worse than their peers raised by biological parents on important outcomes such as depression, delinquency and substance abuse. Nearly two-thirds agree, ‘My sperm donor is half of who I am.’”
Jennifer Lahl, president of the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network, has produced a trilogy of films exploring the damage caused by assisted reproductive technology. “Eggsploitation” documents the damage done to women by egg donation; “Breeders: A Sub-class of Women” deals with surrogate mothers; and “Anonymous Father’s Day” highlights many of the problems associated with the practice of anonymous gamete donation.
In the latter film, four donor-conceived individuals discuss feelings of loss, abandonment, anger and the deep desire to know their biological fathers and half-siblings.
One person, who discovered he has between 500 and 1,000 half-siblings, spoke of the “genealogical bewilderment” that unites those who are donor-conceived. Some speak of the “yuck factor” in their conception.
Loss of identity
Alana Newman, one of those featured in “Anonymous Father’s Day,” has become the public face of many who are donor-conceived through her Anonymous Us Project. Anonymous Us is an online community, found at AnonymousUs.org, where anyone involved in the gamete donor process may post his or her story, well, anonymously. (Excerpts from these personal accounts are shared throughout this story.)
Newman told Our Sunday Visitor that her own experience of not knowing her donor father caused her great personal difficulties and alienation from her family. In response, she created a community where people like her could tell their stories. Many are poignant, relating identity crises, a sense of shame over the way they were conceived, a deep loss from not knowing half of their biological history and family, and concern about the exchange of money that brought them into being.
Moral theologian Smith said because contraception severed the link between sex, love, marriage and parenthood, some women have sex with men they don’t love, don’t intend to marry and don’t intend to have children with. Thus, when they want a baby, they think it’s no problem to conceive a child with the sperm of a man they don’t know.
“All of this contributes to the lack of connectedness in our culture,” she continued. “Being raised in single parenthood households, in households wracked by divorce, being made through artificial technology — all this leads to generations of children who do not have strong family influences and formation in being raised. Those ties are the ones that make us strongest and most secure.
“We are raising generations of badly formed and psychologically wounded young people. They will find it very difficult to face the challenges ahead,” Smith said.
Newman also is very concerned about the potential for abuse of donor-conceived children, and the statistics show children are more likely to be abused by a non-biologically related male in the household. She said she had interviewed fertility clinic managers who admitted they rarely, if ever, turned away a client who wanted to get a baby.
Newman added that she also worries about the donors, especially the women who develop health problems and even infertility because they must undergo hormone treatments to hyper-stimulate the ovaries and then have surgical retrieval of their eggs. And there are plenty of egg and sperm donors who have written about their regrets on the Anonymous Us website, including the regret that they will never know their own offspring.
One sperm donor wrote on the Anonymous Us Project website:
“To all donor-conceived children I’m sorry. I needed the money and I thought I was making your parents happy. I thought you would be loved and wanted. But not by me. ... I now realize I was wrong. This whole system is wrong. Please forgive me, but I am not your father, nor did I ever intend to be.”
Some clinics limit the number of children that can be fathered by one donor, but some don’t. Even with limits, proliferation of clinics in this country and even international trade in sperm mean that one man could potentially father hundreds of children who will never know him.
A Sept. 5, 2011, New York Times article reported on a social worker who found more than 150 half-siblings to her donor-conceived son. The article cited the very real concern that genes for inherited diseases could proliferate widely when large numbers of children have the same donor father, as donor and embryo screening is not possible for all inherited diseases.
Furthermore, some children of anonymous donors worry they risk incest if they fall in love with a half-sibling who is unknown to them. The Donor Sibling Registry was created to help related people connect, but it is strictly voluntary.
This “revolutionary” way of forming a family has produced not only a moral quagmire but a legal nightmare. Margaret Brinig, who holds the Fritz Duda Family Chair in Law at the University of Notre Dame School of Law, told OSV the fertility industry is lightly regulated. Federal regulations cover what diseases a donor is to be tested for, but beyond that, it is up to the states, where regulations vary widely.
For example, some states do not allow hiring surrogate mothers, while others, like California, do. This naturally attracts clients from countries around the world that do not allow surrogacy.
The American Society for Reproductive Medicine issues guidelines for these procedures, Brinig said, but they are just guidelines. In any case, for some procedures, no doctor is even involved, and sometimes transactions take place informally between acquaintances.
Generally, Brinig said, states hold a biological father responsible for support of his child, so that is another reason donors prefer to be anonymous, and most fertility clinics provide a contract guaranteeing the donor’s name will never be revealed.
More critical than the financial issue, however, is the sticky question of parenthood. Brinig described a case (Buzzanca v. Buzzanca) in which a married couple used a surrogate mother and donor sperm and egg.
Before the baby was even born, the couple split up, and the husband declared he had no children and would not provide support. Likewise, the surrogate denied she was the parent of the child. The wife sued, and the court ruled the baby had no legal parents.
An appeals court later ruled that the intended parents were legally responsible for the upbringing of the child.
“It’s just a mess,” Brinig said. “Once you go down this path, there is no terrific solution.”
Even many married infertile couples prefer to use anonymous donors for IVF rather than adopt, Brinig continued, because with anonymous donors, there are no birth parents to deal with.
One of her big fears with the explosion of this reproductive technology, Brinig added, is that existing children who need adoptive homes might not find them.
“Once technology gets to the point where everybody can sort of manufacture their own children, nobody is looking out for those [adoptable] kids, many of whom desperately need a home,” she added. “I worry a lot about the kids.”
Indeed, all of these difficult medical, legal, psychological, ethical and personal problems wrapped up in assisted reproductive technology do seem to be “revolutionizing the American family,” as the quotation near the beginning of this article states.
Mark J. Cherry, the Dr. Patricia A. Hayes Professor in Applied Ethics and Professor of Philosophy at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, told OSV that “there is a significant cultural movement dedicated to recasting the family as no more than a social construction — to pretending as if there is no deep reality to the family, other than what we construct in a social fashion.”
Cherry said this phenomenon can be seen in TV shows depicting a group of postmodern friends with no deep moral beliefs and have no biological connection, but who live together and call themselves a family.
“Political support for the normalization of reproduction with donor gametes, homosexual marriage and other post-traditional forms of the family claims that there are no real or important differences between a socially constructed family — however it is structured — and the traditional biological family,” Cherry added. “This debate is a central part of what we are seeing in the cultural wars around us: that the nuclear family — the traditional understanding of a man, his wife, their biological and adopted children — should no longer be thought of as the social and moral norm.”
In order to combat this reality, he said, “traditional Christians must stand against such a cultural shift and defend the traditional Christian family.”
Ann Carey writes from Indiana.
From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
“Techniques that entail the dissociation of husband and wife, by the intrusion of a person other than the couple (donation of sperm or ovum, surrogate uterus), are gravely immoral. These techniques (heterologous artificial insemination and fertilization) infringe the child’s right to be born of a father and mother known to him and bound to each other by marriage. They betray the spouses’ ‘right to become a father and a mother only through each other’” (No. 2376).
From Donum Vitae, the 1987 Instruction from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation:
“Recourse to the gametes of a third person, in order to have sperm or ovum available, constitutes a violation of the reciprocal commitment of the spouses and a grave lack in regard to that essential property of marriage which is its unity. Heterologous artificial fertilization violates the rights of the child; it deprives him of his filial relationship with his parental origins and can hinder the maturing of his personal identity. Furthermore, it offends the common vocation of the spouses who are called to fatherhood and motherhood: it objectively deprives conjugal fruitfulness of its unity and integrity; it brings about and manifests a rupture between genetic parenthood, gestational parenthood and responsibility for upbringing. Such damage to the personal relationships within the family has repercussions on civil society: what threatens the unity and stability of the family is a source of dissension, disorder and injustice in the whole of social life” (No. 37).
From Dignitas Personae, the 2008 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Instruction on Certain Bioethical Questions:
“The Church recognizes the legitimacy of the desire for a child and understands the suffering of couples struggling with problems of fertility. Such a desire, however, should not override the dignity of every human life to the point of absolute supremacy. The desire for a child cannot justify the ‘production’ of offspring, just as the desire not to have a child cannot justify the abandonment or destruction of a child once he or she has been conceived” (No. 16).