Selection of embryos in IVF to increase birth rates

A recent article in the Daily Mail brought my attention to recent research by the British assisted reproduction scientist Simon Fishel (see abstract) on a technique which can help select which early developing embryos produced by IVF are most likely to result in a live birth when they are implanted. This technique in evolves repeatedly photographing the developing embryos and using a computerized process to assess which embryos are showing the developmental characteristics that are associated with successful live birth. The study indicates that they were able to achieve a 19% increase in the number of live births in women under age 38 and a 37% increase in live births in women over age 37 by using this technique compared to conventional ways of selecting the healthiest appearing embryos.

On the surface the study appears to be about a simple process for making a particular form of biotechnology more effective and more efficient. What caught my eye from an ethical standpoint was the way in which this study demonstrates how biotechnology is so completely focused on the fulfillment of human desires that it tends to ignore any other concerns. The human desire that drives infertility treatment is the desire to give birth to a baby. The study shows how a particular improvement in technique makes it possible to fulfill that desire in a higher percentage of patients. What is interesting is that the focus on fulfilling that desire is so complete that there is no mention of what happens to the embryos that are not selected when their photographs are input into the computer-generated profile for selecting the best embryos. It also says nothing about whether the babies who are born using this process are healthier or less healthy than those using conventional techniques. The sole focus is on whether the desire to give birth to a baby is fulfilled.

Having technology that can help us fulfill our desires can be beneficial, but effective technology tends to be very focused on what it accomplishes. Life and particularly the moral life is more complex than that. We need to evaluate our desires to see if they are worthwhile. We need to consider what effects it may have on others if our desires are fulfilled. Since technology is successful when it fulfills our desires it may lead us to think that we are doing well when we have effective ways to fulfill those desires, without stopping to consider whether our desires and the means that we choose to fulfill them are good.

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