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Some Somber Views at Annual Meeting of Experts

BERLIN, JULY 12, 2004 (Zenit) - The 20th annual meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology provided a mixed bag of news. Along with the usual news of the latest advances in in-vitro fertilization (IVF) techniques, there were more somber presentations regarding the limits and abuses of artificial reproduction methods.

The June 27-30 meeting got off to an inauspicious start when Rolf Winau, professor of the history of medicine at the Free University of Berlin, argued for lifting his country's restrictions on reproductive methods. Winau urged Germany's doctors to get over the taboos triggered by the Nazi abuses, the London-based Times reported June 28.

Winau argued for lifting the limits contained in the embryo protection law that prevent the use of techniques such as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. This method identifies embryos with genetic problems, leading to their destruction.

Then came news that for the first time a woman became pregnant following a transplant of ovary tissue, BBC reported June 29. Doctors from the Université Catholique de Louvain in Brussels had treated the woman, whose baby girl, conceived naturally, is due in October.

The patient was diagnosed with advanced Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1997. Before she underwent chemotherapy a portion of her ovary tissue was removed and frozen. After she being declared free from cancer in April 2003, the tissue was transplanted back into her body. Doubts still exist as to whether the ovum which was fertilized came from the transplanted tissue or from the other ovary which had been left in her body and could have begun to function again.

Those doubts notwithstanding, Josephine Quintavalle of the UK Center for Reproduction Ethics warned: "This technique should not be used lightly. I sincerely hope it is not used as a lifestyle choice for deciding when you want to have children."

Limits to success

The conference also warned women not to wait too long to have children, if they are expecting to be able to solve any fertility problems through artificial reproduction techniques. In a June 17 press release, conference organizers gave details of a study by Henri Leridon, a demographer from the French Institute of Health and Medical Research and the National Institute for Demographic Studies.

Leridon's studies concluded that, under natural conditions, three-quarters of women starting to try to conceive at the age of 30 will start a successful pregnancy within one year. This falls to two-thirds for those who start at 35 and drops to 44% for women starting at age 40.

But, noted Leridon, artificial techniques will make up for only half of the births lost by postponing a first attempt at pregnancy from age 30 to 35 and fewer than 30% after postponing from 35 to 40 years. Referring to women 35 or older, Leridon said that artificial methods "will not fully compensate you for the years, and the chances of conceiving, that you have lost."

Consequences for children

Some of the reports at the conference raised concerns about children conceived through IVF. A study by British researchers concluded that two-thirds of children born through embryo donations made by outsiders will not be told about their true biological origins, the British newspaper Independent reported June 29.

Psychologists from City University, London, interviewed a group of 21 parents who conceived through embryo donations, another group of 28 adoptive families, and 30 couples who conceived through normal IVF methods. It turns out that only 30% of couples who use donated embryos plan to be truthful about their children's origins. This compares to 100% for the adoptive parents and 90% of those treated with their own embryos.

The Berlin conference also highlighted the dangers involved in cloning. Researchers from Cornell University in New York state warned that cloning creates potentially dangerous abnormalities in embryos, BBC reported June 30.

The scientists conducted a study involving cloned mice embryos. They found that far fewer of the cloned embryos reached the blastocyst stage, at which embryos are 3 to 5 days old. As well, the researchers observed unusual patterns of genetic development in the clones.

Dr. Takumi Takeuchi, who led the research, said the study "has made us more convinced that reproductive cloning is unsafe and should not be applied to humans."

Another study demonstrated that implanting multiple embryos puts both the mothers and the babies at risk, the London newspaper Telegraph reported June 30. The warning is based on a study by Dr. Ann Thurin, from Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Gothenburg, Sweden. Her investigation involved a group of 661 women under the age of 36.

Half were implanted with two embryos and the others were given just one embryo. The women in the single-embryo group had a success rate of nearly 40%, compared with 44% for those given two embryos at one time. Thurin explained that twins and triplets are more likely to be premature, be of low birth weight and suffer from birth complications. They are also at greater risk of being born disabled.

Protecting human dignity

The spreading use of IVF has long raised ethical concerns. Earlier this year the Pontifical Academy for Life dedicated its general assembly to this subject. The academy's concluding statement Feb. 21 was titled "The Dignity of Human Procreation and Reproductive Techniques: Anthropological and Ethical Aspects."

The declaration observed that in the 25 years since the first baby was born using IVF, around 1 million children have been born using these procedures. But the success rate of artificial techniques is still very low, noted the statement, and a consequence of this is an enormous loss of human embryos.

The pontifical academy warned of a mentality emerging that sees recourse to artificial techniques as a preferential way to conceive children, since the methods enable greater control over the quality of the embryos conceived. This mentality brings with it the danger of seeing children as a mere product whose value is dependent on reaching a satisfactory level of quality.

"The dramatic consequence of this is the systematic elimination of those human embryos that lack the level of quality that is held to be sufficient and, moreover, according to parameters and criteria that are inevitably disputable," warned the pontifical academy's declaration.

The concluding statement declared that each human being is a unity of body and soul from the moment of conception. "For this reason, the dignity (which is the dignity of the human person) of a child, of every child, independently of the practical circumstances in which his life begins, remains an intangible and immutable good which requires recognition and defense, both by individuals and by society as a whole."

The Pontifical Academy for Life's declaration acknowledged that couples who cannot bear children by normal means undoubtedly undergo great suffering. This understandable and licit desire for a child, however, "can never be transformed into an arrogant 'right to a child' and, moreover, a 'right to a child at all costs.'"

The statement urged that a child "should be seen as a very valuable gift to be welcomed with love," whenever it may arrive. The dignity of a person, explained the academy, requires that the origins of a child should take place within "the reciprocal gift of the married love of a man and a woman, expressed and realized in the conjugal act with respect for the inseparable unity of its unitive and procreative meanings."

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Keywords

Embryo, Stem Cell, Cloning

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