The Cult of Life at any Ghoulish Cost

Posted on January 17, 2014


Why do we accept, even celebrate, the most ghoulish medical procedures – so long as they have a whiff of a chance of producing an infant, even an unhealthy one?

For those who have read Frank Herbert’s Dune novels (original series published 1965-1985), you may recall the mysterious but universally loathed axlotl tanks, a closely guarded secret technology which enabled the Tleilaxu race to use the cells of the dead to create and modify clones called gholas.  As it eventually becomes clear, no one has ever seen a Tleilaxu female; and as one ghola regains his memories, he recalls “The axlotl tanks!  He remembered emerging time after time… in the unfocused blurs of the newborn, he saw a great mound of female flesh — monstrous in her almost immobile grossness … a maze of dark tubes linked her body to giant metal containers.”

On Monday, we looked at the case of Marlise Munoz, the Texas woman who died due to lack of oxygen following a pulmonary embolism; her 14-week  fetus suffered the same, and is likely damaged.  The Munoz family is trapped in a real-life horror story, forced, against their wishes, to keep her corpse fed and ventilated for the sake of an infant who – if born alive at all – will likely live a compromised life, forever dependent on others.

Marlise Munoz, against her family’s wishes, has been reduced to a close approximation of Frank Herbert’s repulsive axlotl tank.  And this is done thanks to a short-sighted law that values – no, worships, in a very real sense –  prenatal life, even non-viable, defective prenatal life, above all other life, and above all else.   It’s merely the latest manifestation of the increasingly Frankenstein-like cult of producing human babies at any cost, even at the perverse cost of destroying millions of human embryos.

When IVF produced its first child in 1978, it was hailed as a miracle for infertile couples.  And it has been a miracle for many, but there is an enormous  tradeoff that no one wants to talk about.  We looked at IVF statistics back in November 2012.  Hard numbers aren’t easy to come by, but we found that only 5 children are born for every 100 embryos created in the lab.  The other 95%?  38% perish in the womb, but 57% are just… never used.  As in, literally poured down a drain; destroyed.  With some 58,000 IVF births per year, that means that 1.1 million fertilized embryos perish every year, and of those, more than 660,000 are intentionally destroyed as unused excess.   Where is the conservative outrage about all those human lives, created only to be destroyed once their parents have what they wanted?  Two or three babies safely tucked in their cradles while their brothers and sisters literally go down a lab drain?  If it’s okay to toss hundreds of thousands of embryos down a drain every year, then why isn’t the Munoz family allowed to take their dead Marlise off life support?  How strange.

Another consideration with fertility treatments:  they are linked to a higher rate of birth defects.  As CNN noted in 2012, the rate of birth defects is about 7% with IVF (mostly due to parental genetics) and about 10% with intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) (partly due to parental genetics and partly to the procedure).  For ICSI, that’s a defect rate 77 times higher than for natural, unassisted conception!  That’s enormous!  If you were told that you had a 10% chance of death on the operating table, you might reconsider your surgery.  So why do parents accept a 10% chance of inflicting a birth defect on their children?  Are we really that intent on having our own biological children?  Maybe we need to step back and consider that infertility is nature’s way of trying to tell us something.

But no, we don’t want to hear that.  In Britain, doctors are proposing a variation on IVF to prevent  mitochondrial disease:  instead of simply uniting a mother’s egg with a father’s sperm, the researchers want to remove the mother’s egg nucleus from its defective egg cell, and insert it into another woman’s healthy egg from which the nucleus has been removed.  Then that hybrid egg would be united with the father’s sperm, and the resulting embryo would have its father’s DNA, its mother’s nuclear DNA, and its other mother’s mitochondrial DNA.  Yep, a three-parent baby.  While the UK’s Chief Medical Officer calls it “a lifesaving treatment,” I disagree:  it’s not “lifesaving,” it’s “human engineering.”  Dr. David King agrees:  as he told CNN, conventional egg donation already allows a mother to bear a child without passing on mitochondrial disease.  The ability to have one’s own genetically related child “is not a medical benefit to anybody — and you have to weigh it against the risks of invasive techniques that will clearly carry a risk to the child,” he said.  He also points out that this would cross the ethical line over modification of human DNA.

Then the AP reported on Monday that Swedish doctors have transplanted wombs from related donors into women who had no uteri, either through birth defect or through disease.  None are pregnant yet, but any pregnancy will have to be accomplished through IVF.

Sorry, but I’m with the ethicists on this one:  this not lifesaving surgery.  It is risky, life-altering surgery in which one woman undergoes a hysterectomy for the sake of the other, and then the recipient will require anti-rejection drugs for the life of the transplanted organ.  Anti-rejection drugs are already associated with higher rates of complications in pregnancy, including a ten-fold higher rate of preeclampsia.  Where is the logic in trying to get pregnant by creating a situation risky to pregnancy?  Is sheer desperation to reproduce really a good enough justification for this?

Consider, too, that a primary cause for women to be born without a uterus is MRKH, a syndrome in which not only the reproductive tract is affected, but other organs may be involved as well:  the heart, kidneys, hearing and spine.  MRKH appears to be genetic in origin, which begs the question of why, exactly, we want to enable women who are genetically unable to reproduce, to produce more women who are unable to reproduce.  We seem so enamored of the notion of allowing women to have their own children, that we blind ourselves  to the possibility that we are creating whole lines of human beings whose descendants will never be able to have children without expensive, risky, highly invasive medical intervention.  Why should we want to do this?  It’s not only monstrous, it’s counter-productive in the long run.

There are plenty of unwanted children out there in an overpopulated world.  Instead of forcing dead women to give birth on the one hand while on the other, we flush millions of unused IVF embryos down the drain…  instead of engineering three-parent babies or going to Herculean lengths to enable genetically defective people to reproduce, at the same time that we destroy embryos that have genetic defects… maybe we should be focusing on making it easier for children longing for homes to be placed into homes longing for children.