Monday 28 October 2013

Some brief Christian reflections to mark the birth of 5 million children by IVF

Over 5 million children have been born through IVFThe figure comes from a study, the first of its kind, into IVF statistics from countries around the world.

According to Bioedge, Researchers scoured government archives for information about how many women had used the procedure since its introduction and estimated that 900,000 children had been born after IVF in China alone.

Of all children in the world born by IVF, an astounding one-third of these children have been born in the past six years.

A lot of this has to do with increased success rates. IVF has enabled babies to be born to couples who would not otherwise have been able to conceive.

But on the other hand IVF has also opened what many regard as a Pandora ’s Box of genetic engineering, cloning, pre-implantation diagnosis, embryonic stem cell harvest and animal-human hybrids. 

The demand has also been fuelled by the rising levels of infertility which are exacerbated both by sexually transmitted disease (leading to tubal damage) and women delaying attempting to have children until such time as their natural fertility starts to drop off. Women wrongly assume that IVF is a good fallback solution when in fact the success rates are 40-50% for the under-35s, dropping to 20% for the under-40s and just 5% for women aged up to 43.

There are over two million infertile couples in the UK (one in seven) and infertility can carry real stigma. Infertility can result from defects in the production, release or transport of egg or sperm and successful treatment depends on accurate diagnosis. The range of treatments and their speed of development is bewildering, and not all couples need IVF: other common treatments include artificial insemination (AI), intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) and gamete intra-fallopian transfer (GIFT).

In IVF (in vitro fertilisation), sperm and eggs are brought together in a petri dish, and resulting embryos are then transferred into the womb. There is a high failure rate (75-85% per cycle overall) and the treatment costs of £2,500 per cycle will exhaust the resources of many of the couples who are unable to get NHS treatment. As highlighted just last week a couple is likely to have spent something of the order of £15,000 for the three cycles it is likely to have taken should they be fortunate enough to become pregnant. IVF heartbreak is real.

The emotional roller coaster of raised hope and dashed expectation is another important cost to be counted; but I believe the most important decisions Christians need to make involve honouring embryonic life and upholding the marriage bond. We should not seek a child at any cost (Romans 3:8).

Some IVF programmes involve the production of spare embryos, which are then used for research, disposed of, or frozen for future use. Freezing compromises embryo survival and there is a high chance that frozen embryos will never be used. Other programmes involve screening out embryos or fetuses with congenital disease either before implantation or later in pregnancy.

Our society thinks that because human embryos are small, weak and physically insignificant they are expendable. But this is at odds with the God’s loving grace, which sees even the weakest of human beings as precious, and worthy of wonder, love, respect and protection.

The other key question to consider is whether the use of donated eggs or sperm somehow violates the marriage relationship. Clearly using donor gametes does not involve sex outside marriage nor the cheating nor lust aspects of an adulterous relationship.

But marriage is a spiritual, emotional and physical union in which two become one and donor eggs or sperm inevitably introduce a third person that will be genetically related to the child, but play no part in their upbringing. And the child will be biologically related only to one, or perhaps neither of his or her parents.

So my own guidance is that prospective parents considering IVF should carefully count the economic and emotional cost and seek treatments that both respect the human embryo and also honour the marriage bond.

Some infertile Christian couples will go on to conceive, either naturally or with ethical infertility treatment, after a period of waiting. But this does not happen for all, and God in his wisdom has left some couples childless despite good treatment and patient prayer. 

Perhaps this is to ensure that there are couples with a strong desire to be parents, who can either adopt children, serve others’ children in some way or be freed up for some other special purpose which God has for them.

These comments are based on a longer article in Nucleus, which can be accessed here

Those wanting a more in depth review of the issues can’t do much better than Fertility and Faith by Brendan McCarthy (IVP, 1997, ISBN: 0851111807)

The Evangelical Alliance Home for Good campaign on adoption and fostering is well worth supporting. 

See also 'A new IVF milestone' by Philippa Taylor


  1. Peter, how do you feel about the economical side of IVF, rather than the embryological side? It seems absurd to me that we spend public money on fulfilling the desires of couples (not least when a significant proportion have made past decisions that have contributed to their infertility as you mention) when there are many children already in existence who need a loving home.

    IVF is not the full extent of the cost either; these pregnancies have worse outcomes and are therefore treated as "high risk", with extra scans, early induction and so on. Not to mention the added risks if the mother is older, as she is more likely to be. Also, there is the possibility of being admitted with OHSS, a dangerous and yet entirely iatrogenic condition which requires intensive monitoring and daily blood tests.

    The use of egg donors and sometimes both egg and sperm donors baffles me too; these ladies are paying purely for the privilege of experiencing the potentially dangerous state of pregnancy.

    I very much sympathise with those who find they cannot conceive naturally but personally I feel that IVF is not a good use of resources, privately but even more so with public money. I certainly hope that if my wife and I struggle to conceive we will thank God for the opportunity to adopt, in fact I hope that we are able to have both natural and adopted children. I would urge Christians to think very carefully about this, because those who provide IVF services will not council you about the ethical implications - they want your money.

  2. Thank you for this article. It deserves to be widely read.

  3. Your sympathy for childless couples is underwhelming.

    As for adoption, I suspect no-one knows better than *you*, Peter, that it isn't actually a choice in the UK, as babies are being aborted in such large numbers.

    Overseas adoption is an option, but it's stressful and expensive.

  4. If five million have been born, I dread to think how many have been washed down the sink.


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