Embryo experiments fuel fertility debate

Wednesday, September 25, 1991

By Tracy Sorensen

The Victorian government's standing committee on infertility has approved experiments on embryos up to 14 days old. Previously, the committee's guidelines allowed limited experimentation to embryos between 22 and 48 hours old.

In a related issue, the reproductive biology unit at Melbourne's Royal Women's Hospital has applied to the committee (the Standing Review and Advisory Committee on Infertility — SRACI) to experiment on freezing, thawing, inseminating and transplanting ova.

These developments are of crucial importance to debates in the women's movement about women's fertility and control.

The Melbourne Age commented on September 8 that the committee's two-week deadline for experiments amounted to "a new definition of the beginning of human life".

Doctors and scientists working in the area argue that experiments on embryos and eggs will increase women's choices and facilitate foetal health. Church groups have opposed this type of experimentation as immoral interference in the process of the creation of human life.

The international feminist group FINRRAGE opposes these experiments on the grounds of their detrimental effects on women's health, the eugenic possibilities inherent in the technology and metaphysical arguments. A biologist and lecturer on women's issues at Deakin University, Dr Renate Klein, has spoken of the "sinister dewomanising" of human creation using new reproductive technologies.

Embryo experimentation has arisen as an issue in the wake of developments in in-vitro fertilisation techniques: that is, in the uniting of eggs and sperm outside the human body.

The IVF procedure, usually involving drug-induced superovulation of the woman, surgical extraction of eggs and the implantation of resulting embryos, was initially developed to overcome infertility. The percentage of babies carried to term as a result of this procedure is low.

Doctors and scientists advocating embryo research argue that it is necessary to carry out genetic tests on some embryos to eliminate deformed foetuses and boost the number of healthy babies born in IVF programs. One such test involves embryo biopsy: the removal of a cell or cells from the foetus for genetic examination.

They argue that if society accepts abortion when there is a known foetal disability (as is currently the case with amniocentesis and chorionic villus sampling, which are now routine examinations for pregnant women in their late 30s and 40s), the embryo biopsy simply moves this process forward a couple of months.

Such procedures could be offered to women over 37 or potential parents with known genetic risks. The reproductive biology unit at Melbourne's Royal Women's Hospital is researching the possiblity of a woman's eggs being frozen and stored for use later — possibly decades later. The possiblity of a woman in her 20s putting her eggs "on ice" until her 40s, when her naturally produced eggs would carry higher risk of Downs Syndrome and other genetic disorders, could widen women's options in terms of career and childbirth and rearing.

Women who lost their ovaries through cancer could also benefit: eggs could be removed before treatment, and embryos implanted after recovery (or, possibly, used in surrogacy arrangements).

In order to develop egg-freezing techniques, say scientists at the reproductive biology unit, they need to be able to experiment on embryos so that any damage to the eggs caused by the freezing process can be checked.

FINRRAGE's objections to the experimentation focus on women's lack of control over the technological processes, and its eugenic possibilities.

Embryo experimentation, says FINRRAGE member Christine Ewing in the June 1989 Legal Service Bulletin, relies on a continuing supply of oocytes (eggs) from women, obtained by the administration of superovulatory drugs and surgery for egg collection. These procedures carried significant risks for women, including side effects from drugs such as menopausal symptoms, ovarian cysts and cancers, as well as the usual risks associated with anaesthesia and surgery.

"More and more women will be pressured to use these dubious technologies", writes Ewing. "It will be women who test the product — only when women have carried their children to term will science know if its manipulation and intervention have succeeded."

At the same time, she writes, "the techniques contain and reflect the values of our society that does not seek to deal with the issue of disability, but rather eliminate it. The nature of this research is eugenic, since the aim is to apply genetic screens to select which embryos are implanted and therefore which babies are born. As the number of genetic probes for diseases rapidly expands, the window of normality will become narrower."

FINRRAGE's objections appear to go beyond a criticism of sexism in medical science and health delivery, to point to an intrinsic link between technology and men's oppression of women.

Renata Klein told the Australian on September 16 that embryo experimentation "is not giving women power, it is placing more power in the hands of doctors.

"Women have to ask themselves why the doctors are doing this and why they should trust these people. When is an egg a good egg? What is a bad egg? The whole process likens women to hens."

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