An Ignoble Prize for Medicine

In 1949, an enormous controversy was ignited when the Nobel Foundation awarded its Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to Dr. Antonio Egas Moniz for developing the technique of prefrontal leucotomy, popularly known as a lobotomy. Many in the medical community protested. Large newspapers decried the award. The complaint was not that Dr. Moniz’s medical research and the surgical technique that developed from it were not up to high scientific standards. The criticism was that the award was given despite the ethical problems associated with lobotomies. The Nobel Foundation’s decision gave prestige to a medical practice that many doctors and others said violated the human dignity of the often-involuntary recipients, severing the brain connections in those with behavioral or psychological problems, not in order to resolve those problems but to incapacitate those who had them for the benefit interested third parties.

The Nobel Foundation seemed to learn some lessons from the controversy and in the ensuing 60 years has awarded its medical prize to scientists and doctors whose discoveries had no inherent ethical problems associated with them. That was until this year, when the Foundation awarded its 2010 prize to Professor Robert Edwards for the development of in-vitro fertilization (IVF). As with Dr. Moniz before him, no one disputes Prof. Edward’s scientific credentials or the validity of his conclusions with regard to the processes of human reproduction. The problem is ethical, about how in-vitro fertilization violates the dignity of parents, children, and others.

The Nobel Foundation totally ignored any and all ethical concerns in its statement announcing the prize. It stated that it was awarding the prize to Prof. Edwards because “his achievements have made it possible to treat infertility, a medical condition afflicting a large proportion of humanity including more than ten percent of couples worldwide.” That, already, was less than truthful. IVF does not “treat infertility,” in terms of providing a therapy to infertile couples that medically addresses the underlying issues as to why the couple cannot conceive naturally. IVF totally bypasses not only those causes of couple’s infertility but basically bypasses human reproduction altogether.

It also must be stated that IVF is used not merely by couples struggling to overcome infertility problems. It’s chosen by fertile couples who want to select the sex of their child. It’s used by single, fertile women who prefer to conceive children without any relationship whatsoever with their child’s genetic father or who hope to select certain genetic traits in a child from a list of anonymous sperm donors. It’s used by post-menopausal women as old as 67 who want to bear a child again notwithstanding that she will be the age of her child’s peers’ great-grandmothers. It’s chosen by gay or lesbian couples whose infertility problems have a rather obvious scientific basis. It’s used by women like Nadya Suleman, the unemployed, unmarried, infamous Octomom who last year gave birth to eight more children by IVF to add to the six she had previously so conceived. Not only does IVF fail to treat infertility directly but it opens wide the path to all of these ethical issues and abuses.

But IVF’s ethical problems do not stop there. As is well-documented, IVF practitioners normally produce multiple “spare embryos” — often up to eight at a time — so that men and women do not have to undergo again the debasing process of masturbation and egg extraction if the practice fails (which occurs two-thirds of the time). Several embryos are implanted in the womb, often leading to the “reductive” abortion of one or more if more than the desired amount begin to grow; other embryos — their fraternal twins — are discarded or destroyed, especially if they’re found to have any genetic disorders or to be of the “wrong” sex; others are deep frozen for future use if necessary, treating spare children like spare tires, capable of being stored in case they’re needed later.

There’s also the problem of egg extraction. Without human ova, IVF cannot happen. Multiple eggs are needed for every cycle. Sometimes the women seeking IVF will use their own eggs and go through the very painful of superovulation, with its side-effects of soreness, breast tenderness, mood swings, headaches and mild fluid retention; on occasion the women will develop ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, which causes blood clots, excruciating abdominal pain, kidney failure, loss of ovaries and sometimes even death. In order to avoid these problems or because they are incapable of producing healthy eggs, have genetic conditions, sexually transmitted diseases or polycystic ovary syndrome, many women choose to use other women’s eggs, as men need to do who wish to have a child with their own genes but who don’t want to have a relationship with a mother . A whole industry has therefore developed that pays young, healthy, college-aged women up to $50,000 to undergo these side-effects and health risks to produce cartons of eggs. “Eggsploitation,” a new documentary by Jennifer Lahl of the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network, sheds light on this dark side of the mostly unregulated fertility industry and the young women who are victimized by it.

There’s also the huge ethical problem of paternal identity, which is relevant not only to children conceived through anonymous sperm donors but also, to some degree, ought to be a concern to all those conceived through IVF; there have been multiple instances of egomaniacal IVF doctors, like Dr. Cecil Jacobsen of Virginia, who have substituted their sperm in place of the father’s and have sired scores of half-siblings through unsuspecting mothers. The reality is that once conception no longer occurs in the act of making love but in a manufactured mating of an extracted egg and washed sperm in a cell-culture dish, anything can happen. Many of the four million children conceived through IVF since 1978 are now coming of age and many of them wish to know the identify of their fathers, not merely for the sake of identifying genetic markers for medical problems, but also simply to know their origins. The Nobel Foundation, at the end of its “speed read” press release for Prof. Edward’s award, tried to pretend that there’s something prestigious in being an IVF baby. “Thirty-two years after that first IVF birth,” it sordidly declared, “the 4 million ‘IVF babies’ worldwide now have a rather unusual boast: who else can say that the method of their conception was worthy of a Nobel Prize?” Most children would prefer to know that they were conceived in a human act of love and who their father is.

The Boston Globe, in an October 6 editorial, rejoiced in Prof. Edward’s receiving the prize and expressed hope that IVF’s supposed vindication by the Nobel Foundation would harbinger a similar triumph of other immoral scientific techniques like embryonic stem cell research that flow from IVF and cannot work without it. The Globe’s editors wrote that Prof. Edward’s award is a “reminder that advances in human well-being can win nearly universal acceptance for procedures once considered highly controversial.” Only “the Roman Catholic Church still opposes” IVF, it sneered, while “other critics have been hushed in the face of millions of overjoyed parents. … Few would dare today to take on in vitro fertilization, even though it often results in embryos being destroyed.”

The Globe implied not only that right or wrong is determined by poll numbers — if most people have no major problems with IVF, then the teaching of the Catholic Church must be wrong — but that the checkmate of ethical criteria is the “face of millions of overjoyed parents.” If only enough people can be found to smile over still-yet-to-be-seen therapies from embryonic stem cell research, the editorial suggests, then the problem of the destruction of human beings will be overcome there, too.

If facial expressions constitute the Globe’s most important ethical criterion, then honesty would require that editors also factor in the faces of Nadya Suleman and Dr. Jacobsen; the grimaces of exploited egg-donors and children looking for their fathers; and the silent screams of all the brothers and sisters of the four million IVF babies, who were either destroyed, discarded, or cryo-preserved.

These, too, are all IVF offspring.

The Church, whose moral principles in defense of human dignity, human life and human love cannot be changed or hushed by people’s facial expressions or the politically-charged decision of a Norwegian foundation, will continue to have courage to stand “alone” and point this out.

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About the Author

Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations. He is the former pastor of St. Bernadette Parish in Fall River, Massachusetts and St. Anthony of Padua Parish in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

After receiving a biology degree from Harvard College, he studied for the priesthood in Maryland, Toronto and for several years in Rome. After being ordained a Catholic priest of the Diocese of Fall River by Bishop Sean O’Malley, OFM Cap. on June 26, 1999, he returned to Rome to complete graduate work in Moral Theology and Bioethics at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family.

Fr. Landry writes for many Catholic publications, including a weekly column for The Anchor, the weekly newspaper of the Diocese of Fall River, for which he was the executive editor and editorial writer from 2005-2012. He regularly leads pilgrimages to Rome, the Holy Land, Christian Europe and other sacred destinations and preaches several retreats a year for priests, seminarians, religious and lay faithful. He speaks widely on the thought of Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis, especially John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. He was an on-site commentator for EWTN’s coverage of the 2013 papal conclave that elected Pope Francis, appears often on various Catholic radio programs, and is national chaplain for Catholic Voices USA.

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you, Father Landry. We can only hope that this outstanding article is seen by both the Nobel Foundation and the Boston Globe. I’m afraid the people that really need to see articles like this are missing out.

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