April 14, 2024

US bioethics panel advises tighter IVF regulation

President Bush’s council of bioethics advisers has recommended tighter regulation of assisted reproduction in a lengthy report which skirts controversy. Although was sceptical of assisted reproductive technologies, its modest proposals were generally welcomed by the IVF industry.

Apart from calling for a ban on such “boundary-crossing” practices as commerce in embryos, transferring human embryos to other species, hybrid embryos, and so, the main thrust of the report was to call for “basic information” about fertility practices. It complained that that there were so many gaps in the government’s knowledge of what is actually happening that it would be imprudent to draft legislation at the moment. Amongst its specific recommendations are “decades-long” federally-funded studies of the health of IVF children and of the health of women who use reproductive technologies. It also wants more information on the use of genetic tests which help couples select the sex and other characteristics of their children.

On the crucial issue of embryo experimentation, the Council tried desperately to stake out a “principled common ground” — although its members are deeply divided on the personhood of human embryos. Consequently its compromise recommendations were couched in words which prohibited a universally abhorred practice, reproductive cloning, without either banning or endorsing cloning embryos for research. It merely called for the prohibition of “the use of human embryos in research beyond a designated stage in their development (between 10 and 14 days after fertilisation)”.

Several Council members who oppose destructive human embryo research commented that the silence of their report on what could be done before 10 to 14 days must not be construed as endorsing it. The subtlety of this reasoning escaped its critics who slammed it as a weak and even “morally reprehensible”. “There is no way to close the door only partially. It will either be open or slammed shut,” said Ben Mitchell, a bioethicist at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. “The council should have slammed the door, locked it and thrown away the key. Instead, they left a small crack that will either provide a line of sight through which to aim research guns at human embryos.”

Perhaps the report’s main contribution will be drawing public attention to the glaring lack of information about a technology which has produced 1 million babies around the world. It has also set up a framework for ethical, medical and social scrutiny of the industry. Its survey of the market for assisted reproduction, for instance, was sketchy but valuable. The fact that gross revenues in the US have skyrocketed in less than 25 years from nothing to US$4 billion has never emerged before.