The Hidden Dangers of In Vitro Fertilization
Bradley Mattes, MBS, Life Issues Institute
In vitro fertilization (IVF) is viewed as controversial technology within the pro-life community. Many have an ethical problem with how human life is created. The primary reason though is that most doctors who perform this technique of assisted reproductive technology do not value each and every life created through IVF. With rare exception, most physicians fertilize more ova than are implanted into the woman’s uterus. Each embryo created in the medical laboratory is a unique human being, worthy of protection. Sadly, many tiny preborn children languish in frozen storage around the nation, while others are callously washed down the drain, or worse, experimented upon. In addition, parents who find out they are expecting twins or triplets, sometimes opt for “selective reduction” which is aborting some of the babies to get fewer children.
There is another reason society can look upon IVF with concern. More than a dozen scientific papers have been published suggesting that children conceived through IVF may have an increased risk of physical problems. This may come as a surprise to many; however, the growing evidence is unmistakable and should not be ignored. IVF accounts for over 50,000 children born each year throughout the world. As a result, birth defects from IVF is an issue that deserves the attention of the field of fertility medicine and others.
A Swedish study first published in the February 9 issue of The Lancet suggests that IVF increases the risk of neurological problems. The study, done at the University Children’s Hospital in Uppsala, Sweden, found IVF children were almost twice as likely to develop a neurological problem than those who were conceived naturally. They were three times more likely to have cerebral palsy, and four times as likely to have some type of developmental delay. 1 Researchers believe the risks are largely due to the increased likelihood of twin pregnancies, low birth weight and a premature delivery.
While multiple birth pregnancies are attributed to health problems for IVF babies, not all potential problems fit this category.
A study funded by the National Institutes of Health showed an “alarming” increase in Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome, according to Dr. Andrew Feinberg, professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. 2 IVF children are six times more likely to have the syndrome. It is characterized by an enlarged tongue, retardation, abnormalities in the kidney, liver and spleen, and a predisposition for early childhood cancers. The research indicates that certain growth-regulating genes had a tendency to be imprinted incorrectly in babies conceived by IVF. Scientists called the link between Beckwith-Wiedemann and IVF “strong.”
A second study done in Ireland at Dublin’s Rotunda Hospital supports the Beckwith-Wiedemann link, as well as another. Professor William Reardon, a genetics expert at Crumlin Children’s Hospital, said their research showed IVF children were three times more likely to have Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome or Angelman syndrome, 3 which causes a stiff, jerky gait, excessive laughter and seizures. Other symptoms can include mental retardation and poor balance.
Another study co-authored by Kristine Anthis, assistant psychology professor at Southern Connecticut State University, found that twins conceived by IVF tend to be smaller than twins naturally conceived. 4 The size difference disappeared by age two. However, there was still a significant difference in physical development, including body control, coordination and fine motor skills.
Sarah McDonald, of the University of Ottawa, and her colleagues found that twins conceived by IVF were one-and-a-half times more likely to be born prematurely than twins conceived naturally. 5 They were also two times more likely to be admitted to the intensive care unit and 1.33 times more likely to be delivered by caesarean section.
Research done at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore, MD reported that IVF babies showed a sevenfold increase in the incidence of certain urological and genital defects, including some babies born with their bladders outside their bodies. 6
A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that IVF singleton babies were twice as likely to be born at a very low birth weight than naturally conceived children. 7 Prior to this research, doctors had incorrectly assumed that was only the case with multiple birth IVF pregnancies.
According to a report from the BBC, the practice of “hatching” is a method of making a hole in the membrane around the embryo, increasing the chance of the baby successfully implanting into the endometrium. However, it is reported that this process causes a much higher rate of “monozygotic twining.” 8 This twining process is more likely to cause birth defects in the babies.
An Australian study by Dr. Jane R. W. Fisher, from the University of Melbourne, found that mothers of IVF babies are at an increased risk for post-natal mood disorders and early parenting difficulties. 9
Other studies show additional related problems. Donated eggs raise the risk of mothers experiencing pregnancy-induced hypertension (high blood pressure) and early miscarriage. 10 Scotland is looking at barring clinically obese women from undergoing IVF due to an increased danger for them and their babies. 11
These complications may be less surprising to researchers at Yale School of Medicine. They found that eighty-five percent of embryos produced during IVF don’t result in live births. 12 According to them, “Something in nature has decided that these implanted embryos are not viable.” Which may indicate that those babies who do survive may have undetected genetic defects. Evidence seems to indicate that IVF tinkers with the system provided by our Creator. It may be possible that assisted conception comes with an unexpected price.
Some medical experts feel parents are unnecessarily being frightened. Dr. Michael Alper, medical director at Boston IVF in Waltham, MA, says that 91 percent of children conceived by IVF are born without any major birth defect. He says couples faced with infertility should have the choice of using modern technology to conceive.
However, it’s probably safe to say that a vast majority of parents would want to know there may be potential hazards associated with assisted reproductive technology. Many may not want to risk the health of children born by IVF and instead look to other more conventional means of having a family, such as adoption.
The goal of this article is not to inflame the debate on IVF. There are understandably legitimate concerns surrounding the ethics of assisted reproductive technology. Life Issues Institute condemns any part of the process that involves the destruction of innocent human life. At the same time, we feel a great deal of empathy for married couples who desperately want to have children.
Considering the possible implications, it’s important to enlighten the reader that there are many unanswered questions regarding the future health and welfare of babies conceived by IVF. A fully informed parent is better equipped to make wise decisions for themselves and their families.
1 Brain Work, The Neuroscience Newsletter, Page 1, March-April 2002.
2American Journal of Human Genetics, 72:156-160, 2003.
3An International Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, Vol. 112, Issue 12, Page 1589, December 2005.
4Kelly-Vance, L., Anthis, K. S., & Needelman, H. (2004). Assisted reproduction versus spontaneous pregnancy: A comparison of the developmental outcomes in low birth weight twins. Journal of Genetic Psychology, 165, Pages 157-167.
5American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Vol. 193, Issue 1 , July 2005, Pages 141-152.
7 New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 346, Pages 731-737, No. 10, March 7, 2002.
9 Fertility and Sterility, Vol. 84, Issue 2, Pages 426-430, August 2005.
12Fertility and Sterility, Vol. 84, No. 2, Pages 325-530, August 2005.