Careers, money and the environment are a number of intertwined factors that affect fertility. Pressured by financial considerations, some couples might choose to delay starting a family. Women who relegate having a baby to the backburner might suddenly find themselves staring at the ticking biological clock when they become ready.
Fortunately, there are options. Often, the problem is low, not complete, infertility. In such cases, in vitro fertilization could be a viable option. During this process, a woman’s egg and a man’s sperm are combined in a petri dish and the resulting embryo is implanted back into the woman’s uterus. When IVF is carried out for this purpose — to help low-fertility couples conceive — I believe most people would agree there are very few ethical dilemmas involved. After all, IVF utilized in these types of circumstances is no different than using Viagra. It simply facilitates reproduction that would otherwise be difficult.
Ethical dilemmas begin to arise when a) one member of the couple is completely infertile, and, therefore, a single egg or sperm donor is needed for the IVF procedure, b) both members of the couple are homosexual, and therefore need a single egg or sperm donor or c) both members of the couple are infertile and therefore need a sperm donor and an egg donor. When donors are involved, it complicates the ethical nature of IVF, for couples could selectively choose their sperm or egg donor and thus selectively choose the traits of their child. Many argue that this process of selecting the traits of their children is a form of eugenics and should not be allowed. Many also argue that there are thousands of children who need to be adopted and that these children should be adopted before new babies are “manufactured.”
While these arguments are perfectly valid, what many people do not realize is that there is a critical difference that separates circumstances “a” and “b” from circumstance “c.” In circumstances “a” and “b,” the resulting child is genetically related to one of the parents, while in circumstance “c,” the resulting child is not genetically related to either one of the parents. In my opinion, this single distinction makes circumstances “a” and “b” ethically permissible and makes circumstance “c” ethically impermissible.
I think most people would agree that there is something wholly special about having a child that is genetically yours, of seeing some qualities of yourself in your child. I do not think it is fair to deny homosexual or half-infertile couples this unique experience. It is certainly true that the couples described in circumstances “a” and “b” would be able to selectively choose the donor, but I believe this is ethically permissible if the child is related to one of the members of the couple. After all, do people not selectively choose their spouse or partner? Even through reproduction by ordinary means, we have some say in the genetic make-up of our child by selecting the person we choose to have that child with.
However, if both members of the couple were infertile and required both a sperm and an egg donor, the couple would be creating a baby entirely unrelated to either of them. The baby would be no different from one they could adopt from an adoption center. In this case, the sole advantage of creating a child through IVF versus adopting a child would be the ability to choose the characteristics of the child. Creating a genetically unrelated baby in this circumstance would be a relatively selfish act, since there are thousands of unrelated babies who need to be adopted.
One must also keep in mind that IVF, like adoption, is an expensive procedure, and this process is only viable for upper-class couples. If these completely infertile upper-class couples were to have genetically superior children, would this not widen the ever-growing gap between the rich and the poor? The genetic quality of the upper class would steadily increase over the generations, while the genetic quality of the middle and lower classes would remain of “average” quality. One might argue that this situation could hold true for homosexual and half-infertile upper class couples as well, since they, too, get to select a donor. However, unlike completely infertile couples, these couples only select half of their child’s genetic makeup, since they only select one donor. Thus, for homosexual and half-infertile couples, this genetic quality effect would not be as strong.
The effects on the resulting child must also be taken into consideration. If a completely infertile couple were to pay a large amount of money for a genetically ideal child, there would be a tremendous amount of pressure on that child to live up to their preconceived expectations.
As new technologies like IVF become available, it is vital that their moral implications be taken into consideration. It is always critical that we ask ourselves the question: Just because we can, should we? While many of these technologies do wonderful things like enable low-fertility couples to have children, these same technologies could also be used to carry out more ethically questionable things like designing genetically ideal babies.
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