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Ladies, win an egg this Easter!

March 15, 2010

Yesterday was “Mothering Sunday” in the UK, and the Sunday Times reported that a London fertility clinic is holding a prize draw for would-be mums this week. The lucky winner gets a human egg.

And not just any old egg, mind you, since she’ll be able to pick the “racial background, upbringing and education of the donor”.

The raffle is being organised to promote a partnership with a US company in the same business. The idea is to attract women in their forties and fifties who are unlikely to get pregnant using their own eggs.

For Josephine Quintavalle of CORE, a think-tank specialising in the ethics of assisted reproduction, “the capacity of the IVF industry to commodify human life reaches a new low with this latest deplorable initiative”.

Others may not be so outraged. After all, selling bits of their body can be a useful source of revenue for the needy. The London clinic’s own website boasts of the “superb” success of its Ukraine programme, enabling patients aged up to 56 to conceive. That said, it doesn’t specify whether the “donors” are from the Ukraine (GDP per capita $6400) or whether women from the UK (GDP per capita $35,400) are helping their Slavic sisters.

It is clear, though, that the clinic and its business partners have to steer a course through a “very wide range of laws, rules, guidelines and ethics”. The raffle is a useful navigational aid, enabling the clinic to get round legal constraints on selling eggs, since the treatment will be carried out in a US state that allows such sales.

That doesn’t make the ethical debate disappear. On the face of it, you’d expect people whose worldview is shaped by Judaism, Christianity or Islam to be delighted at the idea of an old, barren woman giving birth. After all, when Abraham/Ibrahim’s wife Sarah had Isaac she was over 90, and it was hailed as a wonder to be praised.

Some of the feeling of unease around IVF is to do with the fact that we’re talking about women in their 50s or 60s having a baby. Little is said about a man the same age fathering a child. When asked to explain their unease, many people would say that in the women’s case, it is “unnatural”.

Consciously or not, such a reply reflects a view of nature and the natural that in the West at least has changed little since the Middle Ages, when thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas and Engelbert of Admont developed ideas explored earlier by St Augustine, and Aristotle before him. For them, a child conceived and born when one parent is beyond the usual age was a typical example of a miracle “beyond nature”.

Augustine also used the Greek notion of “rationes seminales” – seminal reasons – to explain the coming into existence of things that didn’t previously exist in nature. He argued that the germs of things have existed since the creation, even if the conditions that allow them to evolve did not. Also, each thing is true to its own essence – a flower seed will not grow into an animal for instance.

Why bother with all this ontology? Because in the past few decades, science has given us the possibility of producing miracles and wonders on a daily basis. Doctors can now restore sight to the blind, make the crippled walk and easily cure leprosy and plague. Thanks to science, we can fly to the Moon.

But science can also do things many of us disagree with or are unsure about – build nuclear weapons, alter genetic material, keep the near-dead alive.

Policy makers can’t keep up. Partly this is because the pace of change in science is far faster than the pace of policy making. Partly, it’s because politicians, like most of the citizens they represent, don’t understand the science. And partly it’s because, again like many of us, they have ambivalent attitudes towards the latest discoveries, perhaps not agreeing with them on moral grounds, but unwilling to deny others any potential benefits.

Useful links

Biotechnology: Ethical and social debtes from the OECD International Futures Project on “Biotechnology to 2030”

Improving the dialogue with society on scientific issues OECD Global Science Forum

Bioethics information resources from the US National Institutes of Health

Bioethics in the Council of Europe

International Association of Bioethics

Bioedge bioethics news site (incoporating the former Australasian Bioethics Information site)

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