Ahlin: Whether stem cells or fertility, fear fuels religious opposition
Nobody calls them "test-tube" babies anymore. However, in the fledgling days of in vitro fertilization (IVF), the term was common. Carrying overtones of Frankenstein and sci-fi otherworldliness, the notion that embryos created outside the human b...
Nobody calls them "test-tube" babies anymore. However, in the fledgling days of in vitro fertilization (IVF), the term was common. Carrying overtones of Frankenstein and sci-fi otherworldliness, the notion that embryos created outside the human body could be implanted in a woman's womb, gestate normally, and be born normal babies who would grow up to live normal lives seemed iffy, at best.
In fact, when Robert Edwards, a British research scientist, and Patrick Steptoe, a gynecologist, sought funding for IVF research in 1971 from the British Medical Research Council (akin to our National Institutes of Health), they were refused. Edwards and Steptoe were forced to raise the money from private sources, which they did. The result in 1978 was the birth of Louise Brown, now a 32-year-old British postal worker who has a child of her own - a happy, ordinary woman enjoying her life.
Louise Brown was the first; however, approximately 4 million babies conceived by IVF have been born since. (The European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology reports that the number has increased on a worldwide basis to about 300,000 IVF babies per year.) Now an accepted procedure in infertility medicine, IVF is viewed by most folks as a very good thing. And, belatedly, Robert Edwards was awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize for medicine. (Steptoe died in 1988, and the prize is not awarded posthumously.)
The Vatican objected to Edwards' award through the president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, Bishop Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, who was quoted as saying, "Without Edwards, there would be no market for human eggs; without Edwards, there would not be freezers full of embryos waiting to be transferred to a uterus, or, more likely, used for research or left to die, abandoned and forgotten about by all."
But the objection didn't get much traction. The problem of infertility crosses all boundaries, and the basic desire to have children is understood by all religious, ethnic, and socio-economic groups.
With understanding comes compassion. Although most folks don't have fertility problems, they have relatives or friends - or the children of relatives or friends - who do; some of those problems are solved with IVF. Once the connection to IVF is made through a niece or sister or neighbor, folks stop seeing it as a foreign idea and, instead, view it as a medical advancement that brings joy to good and decent people.
The same will be true for the stem cell controversy when it's a grandchild with diabetes or a mother with Parkinson's or a neighbor's son with a spinal cord injury whose quality of life is greatly enhanced through treatments that today are the goals and dreams of medical research on stem cells.
That isn't to say that medical advancements come without moral and ethical dilemmas. The issues surrounding donor eggs and sperm are complicated and need to be dealt with, not only nationally but also internationally. Then, too, there always will be those who misuse knowledge (octo-mom's doctor).
Regardless, what we cannot do is give into fear. Science is not the enemy of humanity, nor is it the enemy of religion, although religious leaders too often use ideology to instill fear of scientific - particularly medical - advancement (Jehovah's Witness beliefs on blood transfusion or Roman Catholic beliefs on birth control methods).
Fear in our nation today is typified by proponents of moving backward on IVF and stem cell research through initiated measures and legislation to give "personhood" to embryos. Beyond the silliness of what that means for pregnant women (two tickets to movies, "doubles" in a tennis match, or a passport for the fetus) is the age-old apprehension of progress. We shouldn't forget that there are 4 million young people in the world today who know that the initial fears of IVF were overblown.
Ahlin is a weekly contributor to The Forum's Sunday commentary page.