In the last months of the administration of William Jefferson Clinton, there was an effort to use federal taxpayer dollars to fund research using stem cells taken from human embryos, destroying them in the process despite congressional rules prohibiting the use of taxpayer funds in the destruction of embryos. The Clinton administration cleverly asserted that taxpayer funds could still be spent legally for subsequent research using the stem cells so long as some other source of funds was used for the killing of the embryos.
The issue became an important part of the subsequent presidential campaign between Al Gore and George W. Bush, with Gore supporting that effort and Bush opposing it. After Bush was elected, he waited eight months, but finally issued an executive order forbidding the use of taxpayer dollars for such research (provided that the embryo had been destroyed, and stem cells taken, before the date of his executive order).
What many people do not recall is the source of this controversy. Why did the Clinton administration support this use of taxpayer funds? What made this particular use of tax dollars so tempting? Why not, for instance, appropriate more funds for fighting breast cancer? The answer was the “discovery” of “huge” numbers of human embryos, frozen in In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) clinics. No one knew the precise number – and no one knows to this day – but everyone agreed it was substantial. A Rand Corporation study several years ago estimated the number at 400,000. For reasons you will see below, I think that today it is closer to 750,000.
Everyone could agree on that because of the way IVF is practiced in this country. In order to “make” embryos in the IVF clinic, the IVF practitioner must combine sperm and ooctyes (i.e., “eggs”) in the laboratory. There is, of course, an abundance of sperm, and it is easy to get. It is much more difficult, however, to get eggs. A woman who wants to donate (or sell) an egg must undergo an invasive and dangerous surgical procedure.
To minimize the possibility that a second harvesting procedure will be necessary, a large number of eggs (forty or more) is “harvested.” As many as possible are fertilized with sperm, but many attempts fail. Still, it is not unusual to have twenty or so embryonic human beings produced in the end. Some of these are implanted in the woman/mother, but the rest are stored, to be used in the future, if the couple wants a second child.
And there’s the rub. Most of these couples will never return to the IVF clinic to claim their frozen embryos. This has resulted in the creation of hundreds of thousands of embryonic human beings who will likely remain forever frozen. This huge “surplus” of unwanted embryos created a dazzling temptation for scientific entrepreneurs and others. “If these embryos are destined for destruction anyway,” they reasoned, “why not make a good use of them, to find cures for diseases and disabilities?”
Observe the faulty moral logic – it is never just to kill one human being to help another. We may be coming to recognize the misleading scientific claims: no successful treatments have been developed to date using embryonic stem cells, while dozens have been developed using stem cells taken (without any bad effect) from adult human beings. But the allure of the stockpile of “potential research material” has proven all but irresistible to many politicians.
This temptation is unlikely to change – unless, that is, we can alter the underlying dynamic. That dynamic is an IVF industry that is almost completely unregulated, and which churns out thousands of “surplus” embryos annually. Much of America only recently became aware of this when a single woman in California recently gave birth to octuplets via IVF.
Some states have attempted to regulate the industry. For instance, the Georgia legislature has a bill pending that would do so. What does the bill propose? A limitation on the number of embryos that can be created – no more embryos may be created than will be initially transferred to the womb. And the number that can be transferred is limited to three.
You would think this would only be taken as common sense. And in fact, Georgia’s law would be much like those in Germany and Italy, which place such limits on IVF. Each country as a consequence has fewer than 100 frozen embryos to worry about. Moreover, those who support IVF and those who oppose it should be able to agree upon this limitation – the former because it would prevent ridiculous excesses such as the recent California case, and the latter because it would mitigate an unwise and immoral practice. For those for whom IVF is a moral way to treat infertility, the procedure would still be available. For those, such as Catholics, who believe the procedure is immoral, there would remain the possibility of increasing limitations in the future (to begin with, for instance, making the procedure available only to married couples).
Regulation of the IVF industry at the state and national level could be a win-win situation and will avoid ethical quandaries that every thinking person should see are best resolved by never getting into them in the first place. It’s not a complex notion, but is long overdue.