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European Conference Reveals Flaws

COPENHAGEN, Denmark, JUNE 26, 2005 (Zenit) - A flurry of news stories on in vitro fertilization techniques emanated from the 21st Annual Meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology. The conference, held from Sunday to Wednesday in Copenhagen, heard from speakers about the latest research developments.

A press release posted Monday on the conference Web site explained that scientists in the United Kingdom have proved that human embryonic stem cells can develop in the laboratory into the early forms of cells that eventually become eggs or sperm. This opens up the possibility that eggs and sperm could be grown from stem cells and used for assisted reproduction, cloning and the creation of stem cells.

Behrouz Aflatoonian, from the Center for Stem Cell Biology at the University of Sheffield, stressed that there was still a lot of work to be done before the early laboratory results could be translated into reality.

A report on the experiments at the University of Sheffield published last Sunday by the Associated Press noted that some experts expressed concern over ethical issues. "It opens new and challenging possibilities," said Anna Smajdor, a medical ethicist at Imperial College in London. "Because the technique can be used to generate eggs from a man's [adult] cells, gay couples could have children genetically related to both."

Another press release by conference organizers on Monday announced that scientists in Belgium have discovered how to clone human embryos from eggs that have been matured in the laboratory. Previously, attempts at human cloning have had to use naturally matured eggs taken from women.

The research carried out at Ghent University Hospital could make it easier for scientists to create embryonic stem cell lines from cloned embryos. Researcher Bjorn Heindryckx warned, however, that there were still many problems to overcome. "None of these early embryos developed to the blastocyst stage, and failure to do so could reveal some problems in gene activation, especially in cloned embryos," he explained.

"Tourism"

The conference also heard that the number of European couples who have difficulty in conceiving children could double over the coming decade, reported the London-based Times newspaper on Tuesday.

There are four main factors causing a decrease in fertility, explained Bill Ledger, of the University of Sheffield. These are: the rising age at which couples first try for a baby; the increase in sexually transmitted diseases; rising levels of obesity; and declining male fertility.

One way in which couples are responding to fertility problems is by traveling to countries where laws governing IVF treatment are less stringent. This "reproductive tourism" was welcomed by Guido Pennings, professor of ethics and bioethics at the University of Ghent, Belgium, according to a press release Monday.

He explained that there is a general move to Eastern European centers, due to the lower costs. Spain is also attracting more people, as the law allows payment for egg donation. Pennings said he preferred a situation where liberal laws prevailed, and was critical of the restrictions in Italy, where voters recently rejected an attempt to repeal the law via a referendum.

Health concerns

But not all of the conference presentations were so positive in their portrayal of IVF techniques. A Reuters report on Tuesday noted the difficulties associated with babies born through these methods.

Babies conceived by means of IVF are usually born earlier than naturally conceived babies. As a consequence they have a lower birth weight, leading them to spend more time in hospital after the birth.

Diane De Neubourg, of the Center for Reproductive Medicine in Antwerp, Belgium, said that the cause of the earlier births is in the number of embryos transferred into the woman's womb during IVF treatment. "We believe that our work shows clearly that single embryo transfer is best for both the mother and child," she told the conference Tuesday.

Anja Pinborg, of the University of Copenhagen, added that the difference in the health of babies following single- or multiple-embryo transfers could be competition in the womb. Multiple embryos vie for the nutrients and blood supply. And, even if only one of two embryos survives, it will not have had the same early advantage as a child from a single-embryo transfer.

According to Reuters the average number of embryos transferred during IVF varies widely. The average number of single-embryo transfers is 12% in Europe. But dual-embryo transfers rose from 46.7% in 2000 to 51.7% in 2001, according to data presented at this week's meeting. Triple-embryo transfers dropped from 33.3% in 2000 to 30.8% during the same period, while four-embryo transfers fell from 6.7% to 5.5%.

An Associated Press report last Tuesday noted that a study presented in Copenhagen showed that women who become pregnant with donated eggs are more likely to suffer miscarriages and dangerous high-blood pressure than those who undergo fertility treatments with their own eggs.

SunHwa Cha of Sungkyunkwan University School of Medicine in Seoul, South Korea, explained that the risk was even higher if the donated egg came from a woman who was not related to the patient. The greater risks are thought to be due to the fact that donated eggs, like transplanted organs or tissue, are not genetically identical to the recipient and probably awaken the immune system.

Another presentation at the meeting warned of the dangers to women of a pregnancy later in life, the Scotsman newspaper reported Wednesday. Michael de Swiet, of Queen Charlotte's Hospital, London, said that the ideal age to have a baby was between 20 and 30.

He explained that a woman over 35 who already had more than one child had nearly a hundredfold increased risk of dying from a blood clot in her lung compared to the risk to a first-time mother aged 20. And a woman over 40 in Britain had the same mortality risk as an expectant mother in Eastern Europe -- that is, about three times as high as the continent's average. Moreover, by the time women reached the age of 42, more than half of all pregnancies resulted in the loss of the baby.

"Women need to be better informed. I'm not really saying that I think women shouldn't have babies over the age of 40," he said. "I just think they ought to be aware of the risks."

The ethics

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in Nos. 2373-9, briefly outlines the ethical principles involved in considering IVF techniques. After expressing compassion for the plight of couples who are unable to conceive, the text explains that the Church is in favor of research to help them overcome this problem. But it also warns that such efforts must be placed in the context of serving the human person and respecting human rights.

Techniques that use eggs or sperm from someone outside the married couple are unacceptable as they do not respect the marriage bond and also deny the child the right to be born of a mother and father known to him.

The Catechism also expresses serious reservations about techniques involving only the married couple, in which the sexual act is dissociated from the procreative act. Furthermore, the text explains that "A child is not something owed to one, but is a gift" (No. 2378). It is not a mere piece of property, and, likewise, there is no "right to a child." Points that provide a useful orientation in the midst of constant scientific developments.

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