11 Jan, 14 | by Iain Brassington
It’s good to see that Stephen Latham is blogging again after a short hiatus; and he’s come back with a really thought-provoking post on IVF and problems of identity.
The background is this: apparently, there is evidence that children conceived by IVF are at an elevated risk of health problems compared to kids conceived naturally:
Compared to spontaneously-conceived singletons, singletons from assisted conception were almost twice as likely to be stillborn, more than twice as likely to be pre-term, almost three times as likely to have very low birth weight, and twice as likely to die within the first four weeks after birth. Outcomes varied by type of assisted conception. Very low and low birth weight, very preterm and preterm birth, and neonatal death were “markedly” more common in births from IVF and, to a lesser degree, in births from ICSI. Use of frozen embryos elminated the risks of ICSI, but not of IVF. But frozen embryos also had increased risk of macrosomia.
This is the paper that Stephen mentions; but it’s not the only one to report potential risks associated with IVF. A rather kneejerk response to this is to go “Eeeep! This means that IVF is dangerous, and we’re harming kids by conceiving them by this method”. (I suspect that there’s an element of that in posts like this – though admittedly if that element is there, it’s being deployed merely as a part of a wider attack on IVF, motivated for different reasons.) But, of course, kneejerk reactions are rarely all that morally insightful, and the conventional response to concerns about IVF is rather more sanguine.
Borrowing heavily from Parfit, the standard response is this: each of us is reliant on a particular egg and a particular sperm having fused in a particular way. Had that been different, we would not have come into being. A month later, and it’d’ve been a different egg; and it could easily have been a different sperm cell. Any resultant child would be related to us only in the same way as a sibling – except that it wouldn’t be our sibling, because we wouldn’t be there. This indicates that, if IVF represents a child’s only chance of coming into existence – and it probably is – it is hard to say that the child has been harmed or wronged thereby. There may be a qualification to add, along the lines that should the child’s life be so bad that non-existence would be preferable, existence may be a harm; but that kind of outcome is probably hyperbolic in practice. An elevated risk of any congenital characteristic is therefore unlikely to count as a harm.
So, as Stephen points out, we can ask a question: more…