Investigating the ethics of family planning

“The most important thing in life is having a child.” So said Sir Robert Edwards, British pioneer of In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) and Nobel Prize winner. There are a number of reasons a couple may be unable to conceive but, in many cases, the causes of infertility are simply unknown. Whilst the constant attempts at conception sound like a lot of fun, in reality many childless couples experience regular heartbreak and the lack of a medical explanation doesn’t make things any easier. IVF has provided millions of couples with the opportunity to bring a child into the world but the idea of artificial insemination still provokes moral and ethical debates today, some 35 years after the first test tube baby was born.

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Sir Robert Edwards with Lesley and Louise Brown

Dr Edwards was the first man to focus on the capabilities of human embryo fertilization outside of the body and, together with Patrick Steptoe, developed the IVF programme which was directly responsible for the birth of the first test tube baby. Since Louise Brown stepped into the world in 1978 it is estimated that the programme has led to the births of some 4 million babies bringing happiness to families who would otherwise have been unable to conceive naturally. Though well respected today (he died aged 87 in February 2013) his work was not universally popular in the 1970s and there are a number of questions that the idea of embryo research brings with it, not least the old warnings about “playing God”.

The idea of modifying genetics, of tampering with what nature intended, opens up a complex ethical debate and Dr Edwards encountered many people (including Pope John Paul I) disagreeing with his plans . Once a foetus can be generated artificially, will parents be able to select the gender, hair colour and personal characteristics of their children? What about the possibility of birth defects and the long term health and social issues IVF children will face? Who needs the traditional family structure when children can be simply ordered A La Carte in the future? Humans, after all, evolved naturally over millions of years and any helping hand science gives will ultimately lead to laboratories controlling the future of mankind. If it’s not meant to be, it’s not meant to be.

A photo of Bourn Hall
Bourn Hall in Cambridgeshire


There are even financial arguments against planned parenting with the costs of the treatment being funded by the NHS a sticking point with many. At the moment, couples who have been trying unsuccessfully for 3 years are entitled to three cycles of IVF but for a procedure with a relatively low success rate (less than 50%) the costs, both emotionally and financially (approximately £3000 per cycle) are huge. With the welfare system being scrutinised so heavily in recent years, there are those who suggest any extra pregnancies, natural or assisted, are not appropriate.

The stereotypical image of families producing babies purely to increase their income from the state may be true in a small number of cases but policing people’s sexual habits and contraception is impossible and, let’s face it, immoral. Should we be aborting pregnancies in a relationship where a partner is out of work or claiming benefits? And what of the couples who may have been on a waiting list for three years yet, through unforeseen redundancy, should they be denied the IVF treatment they have desired for so long?

Along with abortion and euthanasia, various religions have strict positions on the subject of fertility treatment and planned pregnancy. The Catholic Church has always maintained that, like abortion, IVF is “unethical because it undermines the dignity of the sexual act designed by God for married couples.” Whilst accepting the joy it has brought, it also points to the loss of embryonic life wasted in the process of creating one child. The church is against the research which attempted to create children out of wedlock and sees the act of obtaining eggs and sperm as unethical and a “violation of marital sexuality”. Islamic law on the other hand has no problem with couple’s using fertility treatment, provided it is within marriage and not done through surrogacy or with donor sperm or eggs.

A photo from coronation street
Coronation Street’s Tina and Izzy battle over their surrogate baby

There are parenting avenues for gay couples, using either donated sperm or eggs and surrogates, but the legal and financial implications do not make it an easy process. Despite the impression given by TV shows such as ‘Friends’ and ‘Coronation Street’ surrogacy is not a straight forward option for planned parenting for either gay or straight couples. Whilst there are websites for couples to explore this option, it is illegal for surrogacy to involve any financial transactions (other than expenses incurred during procedures) and the process adheres to strict legal guidelines. The ethical issues occur once the child is born and the birth mother has to give up the child she has carried for 9 months with the attached custody and emotional issues.

For some, the long term results of planned pregnancy is a dysfunctional society filled with older women having babies, gay and lesbian couples rearing children and an armada of single mothers swamping our streets, a right wing reader’s idea of hell! The truth of IVF is a very long winded, hormone induced and invasive process causing physical and emotional stress on couples often desperately throwing the dice for any chance of a child. The horror stories about the long term health issues of test tube babies have long since been proven wrong and the happiness the IVF programme has brought is something to be celebrated rather than mocked. Infertility causes heartache to both male and female partners and the joy brought by Dr Edwards and his team at Bourn Hall is one of the great achievements of 20th Century science.

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