Just prior to the recent Senate vote on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, Liza Mundy, Washington Post reporter and the author of Everything Conceivable: How Assisted Reproduction Is Changing Men, Women, and the World, espoused the view that infertility is a separate reason for destructive experiments on embryonic humans. (“A Debate’s Tiny Casualties: Multiple Births Raise a Key Issue for Embryo Research,” Washington Post, June 5, 2007, p. A17.) While the embryonic stem cell debate has revolved around curing diseases that affect adults and children, her stated motivation is compassion for children born as a result of fertilization outside the womb (in vitro fertilization or IVF) and who are ill because they were born via IVF unnecessarily as twins or triplets or quadruplets. These are the “tiny casualties” of the debate. Who can argue with compassion for ill children? But let’s parse her logic.
She starts with infertility. “[O]ne in seven couples struggles with infertility,” she writes. She implies that all infertile people seeking IVF are couples — married or unmarried — when in fact some portion are single women and, as she stated on the May 15 “Diane Riehm Show,” some are gay men who have donor eggs fertilized with their sperm through IVF and some of the resulting embryos are transferred to surrogate mothers. She neither defines infertility nor tells us whether the definition or the percentage of afflicted people has changed over time nor whether the percentage is projected to increase in the future. She does not mention the various causes of infertility. One cause is the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) the transmission of which is fully and easily preventable. Arguably, the infertility of a woman resulting from her advanced age is normal and should not qualify as infertility, but Ms. Mundy does not discuss this. Nor in this brief op-ed piece does she discuss the option of not having children or of adoption.
Next, she discusses only one method of dealing with infertility, IVF. She does not mention what percentage of infertile people opt for IVF because they are not able to deal successfully with infertility through such means as surgery or drugs or changes in lifestyle.
Then she deals with multiple embryo transfer after IVF. “[D]octors in the nation’s 400 IVF clinics routinely transfer two, three or more embryos [fertilized through IVF] into a woman’s uterus at a time. They do this because they have no reliable way of telling which embryo has the crucial ability to develop into a fetus.” Ms. Mundy neither informs us of any disadvantages to using single, over multiple, embryo transfer, nor that some countries prohibit multiple embryo transfers. She does tell us how many people choose single embryo transfer. She does tell us that many will choose multiple embryo transfer and “are happy to embrace the prospect of multiples, welcoming an instant multi-child family.”
Next, she states that “[o]ne factor among several in the rise of multiple births is” IVF due to multiple embryo transfer. She does not identify the other factors or the weight to be assigned to IVF. (For example, using her figures, if there were no IVF twins, the number of twins between 1980 and 2004 would still have increased 65%.) She does not tell us how many decline the option of aborting all but one embryo after transfer (what is termed “selective reduction”) for which there are of course risks to mother and intended survivors, an option Ms. Mundy discussed on the May 15 “Diane Riehm Show.” She does say that more than half of the 50,000 children born in the United States annually through IVF are “part of a set.” This would be, then, some 25,000 children.
But not all of these 25,000 children born annually in the United States are the subject of her concern — only those born with low birth weights and various disorders, and then, only when this occurs from being born as a member of a multiple set. Ms. Mundy opens her op-ed piece by referring to the “stunning escalation” in, an “epidemic of,” multiple births in the United States over the past 30 years that “not coincidentally” occurred with a rise in “premature births, infants born with low birth weights and disorders — such as cerebral palsy — that can occur when a premature baby’s brain is insufficiently developed.” And later in her piece she provides some statistics showing the relationship between birth as a member of a multiple set and these health problems, but she doesn’t give us numbers, from a survey or through calculation, as to how many of the 25,000 children born via IVF in multiple sets have these health problems.
It should be observed that her proposal would not help avoid the birth of children with low birth weights and various disorders who were not conceived via IVF. And, although Ms. Mundy refers to mothers who, giving birth to sets of children, suffer increased rates of postpartum hemorrhage, infection and death, increasing our knowledge of what embryos will be viable will not help the mothers who had conceived their children without IVF.
IN SUM, HER LOGIC IS THAT (1) large numbers of people are infertile; (2) for some of these, having a genetically-related child may not be possible without IVF; (3) doctors use multiple embryo transfer rather than single embryo transfer because they cannot predict which embryos would be viable; (4) because multiple embryo transfer is used, half of all children born via IVF are multiple births; (5) multiple births produce children who are more likely than children born singly to be premature and have low birth weights and various disorders. If scientists can experiment on embryos, they will be able to predict the viability of embryos, and can utilize single embryo transfer, thereby avoiding multiple embryo transfers and multiple births.
Ms. Mundy blames the Congress for our lack of knowledge of what embryos are likely to be viable. She refers to the 1996 Dickey-Wicker Amendment that prohibits the federal funding of research involving the creation or destruction of embryos. She fails to discuss knowledge to be gained through state or private funding or foreign research. She fails to discuss why federal taxpayers must be compelled to pay for her proposed research, why her proposed research has any greater priority than other federal expenditures of whatever type, including health research on the heart, cancer or Alzheimer’s or on the causes of infertility, or car safety or environmental health, or how much money would be required over how much time. It’s the principle. She doesn’t like the ban.
Ms. Mundy ends her argument where many would begin — not with the laudable morality of learning more to enhance the health of infants and their mothers — but with the morality of experimenting on embryonic human beings that results in their demise (a fact she never mentions) and the morality of compelling taxpayers to fund it. “Embryos do deserve special moral status,” she tells us. How special? Not very special because “the other group [of what? human beings?] that lacks a voice in this debate” also have a special moral status, she says. These are the “children who owe their lives…to the science that made them.” Actually, she does not mean that the children now born using IVF will be helped; she means the children born in the future using IVF.
Let’s be clear what Ms. Mundy proposes. First, she wants federal taxpayers to be required to pay for the experimentation on, and destruction of, embryonic humans. Second, the purpose of this activity is to gain knowledge to help doctors score embryos for viability and health. An embryo with the highest score will be transferred into the womb — as a single embryo transfer — so a multiple birth will not occur. The embryos with lower scores will be frozen or destroyed. These are in vitro abortions. Since the enhanced knowledge of embryology will not help the losers, it is not therapeutic to them; it is eugenic. So, there are two groups of embryos who will be destroyed: those experimented on and those destroyed as not deemed sufficiently viable.
She states that the UK law that limits experimentation on embryos only for their first 14 days of existence (and then to be destroyed if they have not already been) “seems reasonable and worth emulating,” but she does not say why this is reasonable. Would scientific need ever be trumped by the special moral status of the embryo? Once scientists have learned everything they can from 14-day old embryos, why not raise the limit to 30 days or even to full-term prior to live birth?
A TELLING PHRASE OF MS. MUNDY is her description of IVF as the science that makes children. If science makes these embryos, then science should be allowed to unmake them, to study them, to destroy them. During the existence, I dare say life, of the embryos subject to research, they will be slaves. Slavery is not necessarily based on race. White people have had white slaves and black people have had black slaves. It is a condition — a condition of involuntary servitude. In its own words, the 13th Amendment does not ban the enslavement of persons; it bans slavery — without stating who or what could be a slave. (“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude… shall exist within the United States…”) Obviously, only human beings can be slaves; we refer for instance to some animals as beasts of burden, not as slaves. Nonetheless, we should not expect that would we would first describe a class of human beings as persons and then ban that class’ slavery. If we viewed them as persons, we would not enslave them. Slaveholding societies across time and space have enslaved only the humans they did not perceive as persons. And they did not understand this to be inconsistent with the possibility that some members of the same class could be free. So, the fact that we do not (yet) grant personhood under the federal Constitution to embryonic humans is not a reason to reject the notion that they can be slaves. Embryonic humans are individuals of the species Homo sapiens and can, therefore, be slaves — even while their sibling embryos, even their identical twin embryos, can be transferred into a womb and be born free.
At this point we should observe that slavery in America evolved into the institution it became in 1861. It did not descend upon us from England in one fell swoop. It began with the first slave. It moved from colony to colony. The customs, and then the laws, of who could be enslaved and who could not be, of the differences between indentured servants and slaves, of who could be freed and who could not be, of whether children of slave men or slave women were slaves, of whether slaves could be sexually or physically assaulted — all of this evolved. If a new slavery were to enter our society, we would not expect it to occur other than in small beginnings.
Ms. Mundy states we do not know “whether embryos are affected by the media in which they are cultured, and the long-term impact of the increasingly invasive lab techniques that IVF now often involves.” Thus, once sold or donated to researchers, embryonic humans will be totally under the control of the researchers who will study them with dyes and drugs, remove cells, split open cells, and ultimately kill them. They will be slaves.
Once federally funded, eventually there would be no reason for Congress to debate limiting the purposes of such research or limiting the conditions of such research. There would be no principle upon which to oppose growing embryos, even to full term, for their organs for the morally laudatory goal of transplanting them to the sick.
Accordingly, not only do I reject Ms. Mundy’s proposal, I propose in its stead that Congress enact legislation implementing the 13th Amendment’s ban on slavery as Section 2 of the 13th Amendment allows. Congress should not limit itself to its current ban on federal funding of this slavery under the Dickey-Wicker Amendment but should impose a broader ban, a ban on the slavery itself, a ban on the creation of human embryos for any purpose other than their own lives.