Special Report

In Vitro Defects

New studies suggest it is not good for children to begin their lives in petri dishes.

By 2.5.03

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In vitro fertilization, controversial in the 1970s, has had a "happy ending," says New York Times contributor Robin Marantz Henig. Really? It hasn't ended happily for the tens of thousands of human embryos killed or frozen in test-tube experiments, and it isn't ending happily for the test-tube survivors born with genetic defects.

The Los Angeles Times reported in late January that a "pair of studies in the last three months have linked in vitro fertilization" and other "assisted reproductive technology" to a "fourfold to sixfold increased risk for a condition known as Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome, an overgrowth disorder typified by children with enlarged tongues and other organs. Other reports within the last year have spotted a possible increase in Angelman syndrome, in which children have a spectrum of problems including speech impairment and mental retardation."

The studies support exactly what the dismissed moralists of the 1970s argued: it is not good for children to begin their lives in petri dishes. The authors of the studies "suspect that culturing eggs and embryos in the lab may be behind the heightened risks," reports the Times.

"Researchers Richard Schultz and Marisa Bartolomei at the University of Pennsylvania have found that small differences in the amount of salt or amino acids used in the culture can cause certain genes in the embryo to behave aberrantly -- turning on when they should be off, or off when they should be on."

Traditional moralists predicted that moving reproduction from marriage to science would undermine the dignity and sanctity of human life. But these studies suggest a physical price is also paid for moving reproduction into an unnatural setting. Abnormalities are appearing in children conceived under abnormal circumstances.

Which stands to reason: When scientists imitate nature in a lab, they do so imperfectly. They are playing God, but without the wisdom of God.

In a grim irony, the practice of culturing multiple embryos in an attempt to find the least defective one may itself be causing defects. This practice has meant that embryos are exposed to the abnormal conditions of a lab for a longer period of time, creating more opportunity for "subtle genetic errors" to creep in.

"Traditionally, embryos are implanted in the mother after a day or so in culture, when the embryo has divided only a few times. In the last few years, more clinics have been growing eggs for about five days to produce an embryo known as a blastocyst -- in an effort to select the best and sturdiest embryos and increase the chances of a successful pregnancy," reports the Times.

"'This could potentially be exposing the embryos even more to conditions that could have a long-term health impact,' said John Eppig, senior staff scientist at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine."

Discarded embryos, frozen embryos, deformed embryos, children who are afflicted with genetic disorders because they were cultured in a lab -- boy what a "happy ending."

Henig says that "most predictions" about in vitro fertilization -- "that the child's unnatural start would lead to genetic complications we couldn't even imagine. That making a barren couple fertile in this artificial way was an act of hubris for which the couple, the scientists and society would have to pay. That in animals, hundreds of attempts were needed before the first success, so any human investigation would require hundreds of failures and hundreds of potential embryos tossed down the laboratory sink. That the experimental animals born this way suffered a chromosomal abnormality or aged prematurely or contracted cancer, even if they seemed normal at birth" -- didn't "pan out."

Wrong. They all panned out. As America hurtles towards cloning, dragging with it an ever-expanding class of laboratory cripples, the critics of overweening, godless science look more prescient every day.

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About the Author
George Neumayr, a contributing editor to The American Spectator, is co-author, with Phyllis Schlafly, of the new book, No Higher Power: Obama's War on Religious Freedom.