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  What about me? The child of A.R.T.
A conference organised by Comment on Reproductive Ethics (CORE)
Review by Emily Jackson

'What about me? The child of A.R.T.' was a one-day conference, held on 28 March at the Royal Society, London. Organised by Comment on Reproductive Ethics (CORE), the event aimed to examine the outcome for children of conception through assisted reproduction (A.R.T. is the now rather little used acronym for artificial reproductive technology).

Despite the apparent neutrality of its name, CORE is a pro-life organisation run by Josephine Quintavalle, the founder of the Pro-Life Alliance (the organisation that fielded candidates in the 1997 General Election).The pro-life lobby's attitude to assisted conception is intriguing. At first sight one might be forgiven for assuming that they would consider trying to make babies to be a thoroughly benign enterprise. But reproductive technologies only exist because scientists were able to carry out research on human embryos, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the 'pro-lifers' seem unwilling to embrace infertility treatment. In addition to the 'waste' of human embryos in research, embryos may also be discarded during IVF treatment. And aside from the inevitable destruction of embryos, some members of the pro-life lobby perceive the unnaturalness of assisted conception to be an illegitimate attempt to 'play God'.

One wondered whether the speakers invited to participate in the conference fully appreciated their hosts' distinctly partisan perspective. Several of the speakers are actively involved in the provision of assisted conception services. Eleonora Porcu from the University of Bologna has been a pioneer in the cryopreservation of oocytes (eggs) and their subsequent use in fertility treatment. Ole Schou is the Director of a Danish sperm bank which exports sperm to 25 countries. Hossam Abdulla is the Director of the Lister Fertility and Endocrine Clinic, and, in addition to being the Director of the Multiple Births Foundation, Jane Denton is the deputy chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. Additionally Derek Morgan, a Reader in Law at Cardiff Law School, has published a guide to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. And Susan Golombok is a psychologist whose research into children born following assisted conception has found that the children are functioning well, and that they may even have better relationships with their parents than children conceived naturally.

It was left to Alexina McWhinnie, an academic from Dundee University, to give the only paper which was clearly hostile to reproductive technologies. Immediately following Susan Golombok's impeccable presentation of her empirical research, Alexina McWhinnie's research, which appeared to reach completely opposite conclusions, was rather confusing. Susan Golombok had laid out the criteria they used in the psychological assessment of children and their parents and in the assessment of the quality of their relationships. In addition to interviews with all of the family members, they had also talked to teachers in order to get a third party's view of the family. Families which had used IVF, egg donation and donor insemination were compared with families where the children were adopted in infancy and with families with no fertility problems. Over 200 families had been studied in England when the children were 6 years old, and again when they were 12, and the research had been replicated in Italy, Spain and the Netherlands, where the results were identical.

In contrast, McWhinnie told us that she had looked at 54 families, 31 where IVF had been used, and 23 involving donor insemination (DI). There was no control group which of course meant that when she said 40 per cent of DI children had problems, there was no way of comparing this with children conceived naturally. This was exacerbated by the absence of clear criteria for determining what constituted a 'problem'. We heard about DI parents 'bringing it up' during arguments: 'he's not yours anyway' was one example. Again without a control group it would be hard to say that arguments in families helped by assisted conception were necessarily 'worse' than arguments between fertile couples.

The pro-life contingent was much more evident among the audience. Derek Morgan was asked about the dismemberment of babies during late-term abortions. Jane Denton, whose presentation concerned multiple births, was asked whether fetal reduction was more common among IVF multiple pregnancies than where the fetuses had been conceived naturally. And there was considerable hostility from at least one member of the audience to Susan Golombok's presentation.

What then was the purpose of this conference? The conference was meant to be about the children born as a result of A.R.T., and we were reminded several times that we needed to think and talk more about the welfare of children. Additionally, in our conference pack we were given a list of very angry quotes from people who had been born as a result of donor insemination.

There is a fascinating parallel between the pro-life lobby's suggestion that abortion causes psychological harm to women, and this new interest in the possibility that assisted conception may result in children with long-term psychological problems. Abortion is not going to be re-criminalised, and assisted conception is not going to be banned. Instead the pro-life lobby perhaps intend to sow seeds of doubt about their long-term side effects.

But we do not burden fertile people with the requirement that they demonstrate that they are capable of producing psychologically well-balanced individuals prior to conception. And even when we know that a person's alcoholism, record of domestic violence or history of abuse poses a statistically significant risk to the well being of their offspring, we are not entitled to prevent them from having children. If protecting the civil liberties of the fertile population prohibits us from policing conception among those who may actually pose a serious risk of causing psychological harm to their offspring, it seems incongruous that a possibly groundless fear of psychological harm to children born through assisted conception should be used to challenge the continued provision of services to would-be parents.

If the 'pro-lifers' are concerned about the welfare of children in England, they should worry more about the poverty and deprivation of children who are already living and suffering, and rather less about the children who may be born to parents who will love and cherish them

Emily Jackson is a lecturer in law at the London School of Economics
 
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