In Michelle Obama’s newly released memoir, “Becoming,” she vulnerably shares that her and Barack’s daughters Malia and Sasha were conceived by in-vitro fertilization (IVF). Their experience is not unique. In the United States alone, almost 1 million children born were conceived by IVF or another assisted reproductive technology.
Sadly, the Obamas, like so many others, struggled with infertility. To not be able to conceive children when one so badly wants to is a profound suffering. With the ever-empty womb comes a vast expanse of agony, a growing frustration of feeling like you’re continually grasping but your hand always slips away. The unmet desire is only magnified with each passing day, each sighting of a pregnant woman, each friend’s birth announcement or social media post of a happy little family.
The Obamas’ path to IVF was illuminated by friends who had struggled with infertility. As one friend shared with Michelle, now Michelle shares with the world. This vulnerability can encourage others facing similar struggles to open up. It can also encourage them to view IVF as a viable option. But is it a moral one?
Not All Solutions to Problems Are Equal
It’s challenging to have a serious discussion about the ethics of IVF when people are so personally affected, whether they’ve opted for IVF or been conceived that way. It can be helpful, then, to start by considering this question: Can someone have a good desire, and bring about a good result, yet be wrong in her method?
The obvious answer is yes. For example, a student can desire an A on a test, achieve an A, yet do so by cheating. A man from gender-imbalanced China can desire a wife, get a wife, yet do so by human trafficking. A couple can desire a child, have a child, yet do so by kidnapping.
I am not denying the excellent desire the Obamas had for children. Nor am I denying the good—the wonderful, marvelous, unrepeatable, and irreplaceable “result” being Malia and Sasha Obama. What I am proposing is this: The method of creating human beings in a lab, outside of marital intercourse, is morally flawed. This is so for several reasons. Let’s look at some of the big ones.
How Many People Were Killed So Others May Live?
We don’t know the exact number of IVF-conceived children the Obamas created. We do know, as Michelle writes in her book, that “[t]he plan was I’d administer first one drug to suppress my ovaries and then later a new drug to stimulate them, the idea being that they’d then produce a cascade of viable eggs.”
If this “cascade of viable eggs” were all fertilized, not just the two eggs used to create Sasha and Malia, then that would mean these girls actually have more siblings than the one child the Obamas naturally conceived but miscarried.
Although we don’t know the specifics of the Obamas’ case, we do know that with IVF it is common to create more embryos than are implanted immediately. That explains why it has been estimated that the United States has 1 million human beings in freezers. That’s where many “excess” embryos go for storage in case their parents decide to implant them at a future date.
But not all embryos make the cut. According to a report from the United Kingdom, 1.7 million embryos were destroyed in attempts to create other embryos via IVF. If not destroyed immediately, some embryos, according to the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology, can be donated for “laboratory research.” This latter option is code for unjustly experimenting on, and ultimately killing, weak and defenseless humans—something the Holocaust was supposed to teach us to condemn.
Are Humans Objects or Subjects?
As good as having children is, one cannot claim a “right” to a child because to do so treats children like possessions. Humans are not beings to be possessed, not individuals to be made, bought, or sold.
Objects are manufactured. Objects are commodities. Objects are returned or destroyed when they are defective. But not humans. Humans are subjects, individuals of great dignity who should be received and respected. IVF clearly treats humans as objects:
- Humans are manufactured by unrelated parties.
- Humans may be stored in freezing temperatures rather than beneath the warmth of their mothers’ hearts.
- Humans may be subject to “quality control” through Preimplantation Genetic Testing.
- Humans may be selected specifically as a means to an end—as having the “right” genetic makeup to provide bone marrow or stem cells for one’s already-born, and sick, sibling.
- Humans may be disposed of when they are deemed imperfect. The Daily Mail in England reported that some IVF-conceived children who had Down Syndrome were aborted.
How Should Subjects Begin?
Since humans are subjects and not objects, they should not come into existence like objects do. They should not be manufactured, but the fruit of love between two other subjects, a love that is physically manifested through the act of sex.
With IVF there is control, forcing, and manipulating in making new life. With sex, although one can select good timing to increase the likelihood of pregnancy, there is surrender, detachment, receptivity, and mystery about whether new life comes to be—for example, what egg will be released, which sperm will find it, etc.
With IVF there is isolation. Even Michelle wrote about how much more involved her role was than Barack’s in the process: “By the time the preliminary medical work was finished, rather unfortunately, the state legislature had returned to its fall session, swallowing up my sweet, attentive husband and leaving me largely on my own to manipulate my reproductive system into peak efficiency…he was gone and I was here, carrying the responsibility…In the weeks to come, he’d go about his regular business while I went in for daily ultrasounds to monitor my eggs…He was doting and invested… but his only actual duty was to show up at the doctor’s office and provide some sperm.”
Not only can IVF isolate the spouses in the very process of life creation, but the children conceived are also isolated, beginning existence in a glass dish. With sex there is a communion of persons, always togetherness. One plus one can suddenly equal three in a way that defies math. A child’s very beginning occurs by being enveloped in the body of her mother.
With IVF, a baby’s creation is separate from an act of parental bonding. While the couple may love each other deeply, the very beginnings of a new human life do not come from a physical manifestation of that love. With IVF, science unleashes life. With sex, a baby comes about through an act of parental bonding. The very act of the couple is a physical representation of their marital love for each other, and that is what results in the beginning of new life. With sex, love unleashes life.
So What Can Couples Struggling with Infertility Do?
In her ABC interview with Robin Roberts, Michelle said, “The biological clock is real; egg production is limited, and I realized that as I was 34 and 35; we had to do IVF.” The Obamas didn’t have to do IVF. They could have opted to look further into any number of medical organizations that help people achieve pregnancy naturally, such as these: the National Gianna Center, The FEMM Foundation, Bella, and Neo Fertility.
There are stories where couples who failed at or avoided IVF had later success with achieving a pregnancy through sexual intercourse. This can occur unexpectedly or when they pursued medical interventions that corrected the ultimate cause of a couple’s infertility. Consider stories here, here, here, and here.
While there are encouraging cases where people achieved pregnancy by aiding the sexual act rather than replacing it, intellectual honesty demands this admission: that isn’t everyone’s story. Some people face infertility as a lifelong cross, and it can be a profound agony.
The simple premise of this reflection is this: When we face situations of suffering, that alone does not give us license to do just anything in response, no matter how good our desire or how good the outcome. Some people get cancer, some become paralyzed, others need organ transplants. Theirs is also a very real and agonizing suffering. And while we ought to pursue ethical means of alleviating such suffering, we cannot always eliminate it, ethically or unethically.
The person waiting for an organ transplant may not have a stranger kidnapped to obtain a needed body part; the cancer patient may not steal drugs from other sick people; the paralyzed person may not lash out in jealous anger at those who are able-bodied. Are there ethical responses to suffering like this? Certainly, and those ought to be pursued.
Similarly, there are ethical responses to infertility, but where there are unethical ones, like IVF, people ought to refrain from using them.