Fewer U.S. Twins and the Development of IVF

Readers of this blog may have seen the report in the general press that, after three decades of increases, the rate of twin births in the U.S. has declined by 4% from 2014 to 2018.

Those three decades correspond to the era of IVF, since the birth of Louise Brown in England in 1978.  It seems likely that changes in IVF practice contributes at least in part, if not substantially, to the trend in twin births.

Specifically, doctors at IVF clinics are more commonly implanting only one, rather than more than one, embryo back into a prospective mother’s womb with each attempt at a live birth.  Multiple pregnancies—even twins, not just “Octomom” scenarios—carry increased risk for mother and babies.  Previously, two or more embryos were implanted in an effort to increase the chance that at least one would make it to live birth.  Sometimes, “selective abortion” was practiced to reduce the number of initially multiple pregnancies to one.  Now, it appears that gradually increasing success rates of IVF are supporting single-embryo transfer as a standard practice.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which provides a substantial amount of information on the current status of IVF on its website, summarizes the changes in the percentage of single-embryo transfers in recent years—increasing from 11.6% of non-donor-egg transfers in 2007 to 39.9% in 2016.

To the extent that this reduces the practice of selective abortion and, one hopes, decreases the number of embryos created but kept frozen, never to be born, at IVF clinics, this is a welcome development.  The Christian Medical Dental Association takes the position that, in IVF, the number of embryos should be kept to a minimum, and all embryos created should be so created with the intent of having the genetic mother carry all of them in pregnancy, to live birth one hopes.

IVF remains a transformative enabling technology that facilitates contractual arrangements for reproduction, profound changes in the structure of families, and the use of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis to control what sort of people are allowed to be born.  One might view these developments as non-physical harms, that alter our overall experience of being human in ways that may properly be subject to question.

And: the rate of twin birth is still twice what it was in 1980.  If one sees a mom or dad pushing a stroller with fraternal twins, chances are they are IVF kids.

Why do we do this?

Many of the posts on this blog involve cautions that there are things in medicine which we are capable of doing and which some want to do that we should not do. Much of the time those cautions go unheeded by our society. For fifty years we have been saying that we should not perform abortions, but many unborn human beings continue to lose their lives. We give reasons why we should not do euthanasia, but PAS becomes legal in state after state. We write about why we should not alter the genes of human embryos, but the research continues. Is it just that we are anti-medical science and like telling people what they should do?

No. We do it out of love. Sometimes it is love and concern for people who are powerless and cannot speak for themselves. It is because of our love for the person who is aborted as a fetus or comes into being as the result of a genetic manufacturing project rather than being accepted unconditionally as a gift. It is out of love for the Canadian man who chooses euthanasia because he cannot obtain the 24 hour a day care he needs to live life with ALS.

It is also out of love for those who do things that are wrong. Love for the physician who performs abortions or euthanasia. Love for the researcher who uses human embryos as research subjects destined to die. We do it for the sake of the gospel which tells us that we have all done wrong and are destined for judgment unless someone intervenes. The gospel that tells us Jesus did intervene by his death and resurrection and has made forgiveness and restoration available to all who confess their wrongdoing and put our trust in him. We do it for those who will miss out on the amazing grace of the God who died for us if they listen to a culture that says that anything you desire to do is right and there is no need to ask for forgiveness for anything.

“Velvet Eugenics”

Human Flourishing in an Age of Gene Editing is a new collection of essays, edited by Erik Parens and Josephine Johnson.  In the introduction, the editors explain they are concerned with “nonphysical harms” of human gene editing.  That is, these harms would not affect bodily systems, but harm “people’s psyches…[their] experiences of being persons,” and could impair human flourishing.  These harms could be incurred not only by gene editing but also by use of other “reprogenic” technologies such as preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) and prenatal diagnosis.

Your correspondent has just begun to read this collection.  In the first entry, “Welcoming the Unexpected,” bioethicist Rosemarie Garland-Thomson of Emory University, takes the view that flourishing is not a matter of proximity to some ideal of health or human excellence, but is, for each person, a growing into expression of that person’s unique capabilities.  Accordingly, rather than embrace a project of eliminating disabilities, society should work to make the environment more welcoming to people with those conditions—many of which, after all, need not impair a person’s ability to live a life of happiness and contribution to others.  Communities have an obligation, she says, “to support the distinctiveness of its members according to the egalitarian principles of justice, liberty, and equality,” and “build environments that…support the widest spectrum of embodiments…in which human embodied existence can successfully thrive as it is.”  Put another way, we should not be building a regime in which we are deciding what sort of people we will allow to be born, but we should be ready to welcome and embrace the ones who are.  In this, Professor Garland-Thomson sounds a “caution against an aggressive normalization imperative…an outlook of humility about the human capacity to control future circumstances through present action…against the arrogance of [what one writer called] ‘the danger of a single story.'”

We should, she writes, adopt a stance of “growing” rather than “making” human beings, and “reconsider the logic of a velvet eugenics that would standardize human variation in the interest of individual, market-driven liberty and at the expense of social justice and the common good.”  In this, she embraces the argument of contemporary German philosopher Jurgen Habermas that rejects “a liberal eugenics regulated by supply and demand.”  One can be forgiven for hearing in this an echo of C.S. Lewis’s worries about “conditioners” in The Abolition of Man.

This is set in the author’s description of her ongoing friendship with three other women, all, like her, married PhD’s who like good wine, good food, and are amply supported by technology and community.  One of her friends is congenitally deaf, another has hereditary blindness, the third has a genetic muscular condition, and the author herself was born with what is now called “complicated ectodactyly,” with “asymmetric unusual hands and forearms.”  The sort of thing your correspondent understands the Chinese to be trying to eliminate through the use of PGD.

A remarkable essay to lead off a collection that appears worthy of careful consideration.

Bioethics as Comedy

Sometimes comedy takes a cultural activity to its logical conclusion to reveal an absurdity that is so humorous everyone will talk about it. Sometimes a bioethical argument takes a cultural activity to its logical conclusion to reveal an absurdity that is ethically so troublesome hopefully everyone will talk about it. Recently, popular comedian Dave Chappelle combined the two.

Sponsored by Netflix and speaking at The Tabernacle in downtown Atlanta, Mr. Chappelle offered the following bioethical observation during his comedy monologue. I have removed all descriptive adjectives non-essential to his main argument. Speaking about abortion as a woman’s right to choose, he observed:

“I don’t care what your religious beliefs are or anything. If you …[are a man,]…you need to…[keep quiet]…on this one, seriously. This is theirs, the right to choose is their unequivocal right. Not only do I believe they have the right to choose, I believe that they shouldn’t have to consult anybody, except for a physician, about how they exercise that right.

Gentlemen, that is fair. And ladies, to be fair to us, I also believe that if you decide to have the baby, a man should not have to pay. That’s fair. If you can kill this…[baby,]… I can at least abandon them. It’s my money, my choice. And if I’m wrong, then perhaps we’re wrong.”

Mr. Chappelle comedically paired “My body, my choice” with “My money, my choice” and something well short of bioethical hilarity ensued. Regardless of what you think about his proposed moral equivalency, a simple Google search on the above quoted portion of his comedy monologue suggests this particular “bioethics as comedy” approach certainly has everyone talking.

For the record, I agree that he is right that both are wrong.

Veil of Ignorance and Unrestricted Abortion

As a Christian, it seems to me that the most logically consistent application of justice is based upon the belief that all human beings bear the image of God, the imago Dei, and as bearers of the image, have equal human dignity, deserving of equal and just treatment by others, both morally and legally, regardless of our varying human attributes (as expounded here at page 163). I realize that not all human beings believe in this God so their systems of justice naturally differ from mine. Resolving conflicting understandings of justice is what makes the intersection of law and bioethics challenging. Currently, nowhere is this conflict so challenging as in the issue of unrestricted, elective abortion.

One such differing theory of justice is by the late John Rawls, in his 1971 Theory of Justice. Briefly, Rawls conceived arriving rationally at a theory of justice by conducting a thought experiment whereby rational persons would determine justice by conceiving it from an “Original Position” behind what he termed a “Veil of Ignorance”. At this Original Position, no one knows what eventual position they would subsequently hold in society, including wealth, health, class, education, minority status, religion and sex/gender. Since justice would be determined prior to one’s random subsequent placement in society, no decision from behind the Veil of Ignorance within the Original Position ought to favor one classification over another because no one would know in advance into what classification one might fall. No one religion would be favored since one might not believe in that religion or any religion at all. No one racial group or sex/gender would be favored since one might not be included in that group or sex/gender.

So what does the Theory of Justice have to say about elective abortion? Interestingly, Rawls himself only wrote once parenthetically on the subject of abortion as it pertained to his theory. It was a very brief footnote in support of abortion, unfortunately not a rigorous defense. As one might expect, different people have used Rawls’s theory to support or refute abortion. I have included links to two such example position papers (RawlsAbortionPro and RawlsAbortionCon). Both of these papers (and others like them) hinge on whether or not one believes the embryo or fetus has sufficient “personhood” or “moral potential”, qualifications that are indeterminate from within the Theory of Justice. Facts are preferred to beliefs when rationalizing from the Original Position behind the Veil of Ignorance, since one does not know in advance what one might believe once subsequently existing in society. Are there any facts that one might use from the Original Position to consider the Rawlsian justice of abortion regardless of one’s beliefs about personhood or moral status of the unborn?

Consider the following: EVERY actual human being invited by Rawls to step with him behind the Veil of Ignorance into the Original Position to determine justice MUST have already passed from conception through the stages of embryo, fetus, newborn infant and immature youth before reaching that nebulous stage of human development called personhood in order to receive the coveted invitation. For the sake of argument, let’s grant that Rawls only wanted the philosopher-kings, IQs above 180, possessors of the apex of personhood, Harvard, not Yale, to join him behind the Veil. Would any of these persons reasoning from the Original Position permit unrestricted, elective abortion of an otherwise healthy unborn human, given that the unborn human aborted might be one of them? The beliefs about the personhood or moral status of any of the earlier stages of development prior to personhood of these great thinkers are irrelevant. What is factually relevant is that all of these great thinkers must each pass through all these stages of development before achieving personhood. None would, from that Original Position, choose unrestricted, elective abortion of themselves to be a just outcome, simply because death has to be the worst of all social categories in which to land after leaving the Original Position. Or is that just my belief?

Treating all humans as equal image bearers of God regardless of any other human characteristics we might possess seems to me a better basis for a theory of justice than one rationally designed by our best and brightest fellow humans. Living that out is the real challenge.

Should Abortion be a Trivial Event?

A recent NEJM Perspective by Drs. Jane Henney and Helene Gayle is calling for reduction in the current restrictions on Mifepristone, previously better known as RU-486. Mifepristone, a progesterone blocker, which effectively opens the cervix of the uterus, when combined with misoprostol, which promotes contractions of the uterus, forms the two-pill combination marketed as Plan C – an effective, safe, self-administered home medical abortion. Arguing that the drug has been shown to be far safer than originally thought, and because many US women are accessing foreign internet sources of potentially suspect quality Mifepristone, Drs. Henney and Gayle are encouraging the FDA to make the drug available from regular US pharmacies rather than at special medical/surgical clinics from a restricted set of doctors as it is presently distributed.

At the time of its initial FDA approval in 2000, it was unknown whether mifepristone would have a high risk of excessive bleeding or incomplete abortions so it was approved under FDA Subsection H, which required that the drug be dispensed directly from a physician (rather than a pharmacy) who can provide blood transfusion or surgical abortion. Drs. Henney and Gayle argue that numerous studies since 2000 support that this level of restriction is unnecessary. This is not to say that the risks of Mifepristone are zero but rather, as one of their arguments goes, there are many other medications available from a pharmacy via prescription that have higher risks so why single out Mifepristone? They are not specifically calling for the medication to become “over-the-counter” (meaning available without prescription) but they list other countries where this is the case.

Their concern about the ease of obtaining Mifepristone (or Plan C) over the Internet is not exaggerated. A quick search of the Internet shows one advocate website called plancpills.org providing a report card where their own secret shoppers grade various Internet sites offering Mifepristone for sale. Another popular site called AidAccess.org offers an informative video, telemedicine consultation as well as foreign sourced Mifepristone and this site is presently one of the least expensive sources of the drug.

One of the statistics offered in support of abortion, especially medication-based abortion such as Plan C, is that these processes are safer for women from a morbidity and mortality standpoint than actually being pregnant, particularly the labor and delivery of birthing a baby. Of course, it (always) goes without saying that the same processes are nearly universally fatal for the baby. But, for arguments where the morbidity and mortality of the child are excluded, abortion, particularly medication-based abortion, has become a relatively safe process.

I have no doubt that the present restrictions by the FDA on access to Mifepristone will be reduced for the reasons Drs. Henney and Gayle have provided, perhaps eventually to point of making Plan C available over the counter.

Abortion is becoming a trivial event.

Abortion kills a human being.

Killing a human being should not become a trivial event.

Defense of Abortion as Killing

It is rare to hear a defender of abortion plainly admit that the act of abortion is killing. So, I was curious as to how such an individual would defend that killing. Dr. Sophie Lewis has recently done so in her new book, Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family. The publisher, Versa Books, has put out a short YouTube video interview, where she outlines her “abortion as killing” defense. The video is just over 2 minutes and she articulates her point clearly. While I have not read her new book, summaries from the publisher suggest the overarching theme is that pregnancy is “gestational work” done by women without appropriate compensation (permission, time, money, recognition…), resulting in their exploitation. Pregnancy (and procreation in general) ought best be done by willing “gestational workers” with clearly defined contractual obligations and recompense. Surrogacy is the answer. There is much to unpack here so I want to focus the remaining blog entry on her defense of abortion as killing as stated in her linked video above.

Her central defense of abortion as killing is as follows:

…looking at the biology of the hemochorial placentation helps me think about the violence that, innocently, a fetus meets out vis-a-vis a gestator. That violence is an unacceptable violence for someone who doesn’t want to do gestational work. The violence that the gestator meets out to essentially go on strike or exit that workplace is an acceptable violence.

The gestator going on strike or exiting the gestational workplace is the act of abortion. In her view, pregnancy is gestational work that can result in workplace violence or, at least, unacceptable work conditions that exceed those previously agreed upon. At that point, Dr. Lewis believes it should be permissible for any woman to leave the workplace, even though that exit causes an ultimate violence to the fetus – the killing of that fetus. She holds the placental attachment to the uterus as a sufficiently biologically violent condition that should permit a biologically violent defensive reponse with the abortion.

It is hard to make these acts either biologically or morally equivalent. Biologically, there is nothing violent about a placenta developing an attachment to a uterus. In fact, using Dr. Lewis’s workplace metaphor, it is the job of the placenta to attach to the lining of the uterus and it is the job of the uterus to receive such an attachment – it is what both were designed or evolved to do. Even if we accept her workplace violence metaphor, it is rare for the violence of the placental attachment to the uterus to result in the death of the mother just as it is equally rare for the violence of the abortion NOT to result in the death of the fetus. These are hardly biologically equivalent events.

Morally, it is hard to argue, even in her terms, that the mother’s choice to terminate gestational work is equivalent to the baby’s placental attachment, even if we grant her claim that both are equally violent. The mother always has the choice in deciding to terminate the pregnancy – the fetus never has a choice or intentional control of the placental attachment process at any point during the pregnancy. After all, intentional choices are made by persons not fetuses. I doubt that Dr. Lewis wishes to cede further moral ground by granting personhood to a fetus.

Maybe that is why Dr. Lewis stipulates that the baby’s violence is innocent. Frankly, the obvious innocence of the baby makes it even harder, if not impossible, to morally justify the violence she desires us to find acceptable.

Oh, Those Darned Terms (Part 3)

It is hard to keep a good theme down as terminology is back in the news. It seems National Public Radio (NPR) is concerned about proper terminology as a recent “Guidance Reminder: On Abortion Procedures, Terminology & Rights” post by NPR Standards and Practices Editor Mark Memmott on NPR.com suggests. This link is one of periodic commentaries by Memmott on standards expected by journalists at NPR based upon their Ethics Handbook, which is also available on their website. The stated goal of the Ethics Handbook and the periodic commentaries is to be as accurate and unbiased as possible with reporting at NPR, which is obviously an appropriate goal in reporting the news, particularly potentially controversial topics. Read Memmott’s commentary link and see if you think NPR is meeting that goal.

I think there is room for improvement.

For one thing, while there is an appropriate “We-They” throughout the article describing NPR’s word choice versus the word choice of groups favoring “anti-abortion rights” (approved term), I failed to find a similar “We-They” within the article describing NPR’s word choice versus the word choice of groups favoring “pro-abortion rights” (not approved term). Perhaps I missed it?

Additionally, NPR favors the term “fetus” over the term “unborn”, despite the fact that fetus means “unborn offspring of an animal” per Wikipedia or “unborn or unhatched vertebrate” per Merriam-Webster. The Latin sounds more accurate but fewer people are speaking Latin these days. Nonetheless, NPR believes that “[i]ncorrectly calling a fetus a ‘baby’ or ‘the unborn’ is part of the strategy used by antiabortion groups to shift language/legality/public opinion.” I wonder if the Mayo Clinic realizes their interchangeable use of the terms “fetus” and “baby” on their fetal ultrasound web page is not only incorrect but places them squarely in the antiabortion movement trying to shift language/legality/public opinion?

Finally, NPR does not like to use the term “abortion clinics” but rather “medical or heath clinics that perform abortions”. That may indeed be more accurate but why stop there? Why not list all the procedures that a specified medical clinic performs, including the total number of each of the procedures performed, and let the reader decide how he or she wishes to categorize that particular clinic?

It is wrong to purposely select terms feigning accuracy so as to appear unbiased, particularly if the goal is to bias by use of those very same terms.

Oh, Those Darned Terms (part 2)

By Mark McQuain

Voltaire has been credited with saying: “If you wish to converse with me, define your terms”. In a previous blog entry, Tom Garigan reminded us that it is literally vital that we define our terms when we engage in ethical debates, particularly those ethical debates related to the beginning of life. Explicit definition of terms should apply for opinion pieces in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) as well.

In a recent NEJM Perspective (subscription required), Cynthia Chuang, MD, and Carol Weisman, PhD, are concerned that the Trump administration’s November 15th publication of final rules (HERE and HERE), broadly allowing employers to deny contraceptive coverage to their employees on the basis of religious or moral objections, will “undermine women’s reproductive autonomy and could lead to an increase in rates of unintended pregnancies, unintended births, and abortions.” The article provides a summary of the political back and forth of court injunctions and rule modifications that have ensued, which is interesting but not the point of this blog entry. I want to focus on one of the four main objections they raise against allowing employers religious or moral exemptions from the current requirement that employers provide all FDA-approved contraceptive/birth-control methods.

There are 18 FDA-approved Birth Control methods for women provided by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (commonly called Obamacare or ACA) without cost-sharing [that is, at no cost to the patient]. These are also referred to as contraceptives. A contraceptive is defined as a method that prevents pregnancy. Pregnancy has been defined as either beginning at conception (the union of an egg and sperm that results in a fertilized egg) or beginning at implantation of a fertilized egg into the lining of the uterus. This difference in definition impacts how one views certain contraceptive methods that may work in part by preventing a fertilized egg from implanting into the wall of the uterus. Any contraceptive method that prevents implantation causes the intentional death of that fertilized egg and would correctly be an abortifacient (a birth control method that causes an abortion) if pregnancy is defined as beginning with conception. An intrauterine device (IUD) and Levonorgestrel (PlanB) both work primarily by preventing the egg and sperm from joining to create a fertilized egg, but some argue that it can not be proven that these methods don’t also work, in part, by preventing implantation ((PlanB) (IUD).

This background is useful in discussing Chuang and Weisman’s third objection to allowing employers religious and moral objections against the full gamut of FDA-approved birth control methods currently allowed by the ACA:

“Third, the rules allow entities to deny coverage of contraceptives to which they have a religious or moral objection, including certain contraceptive services “which they consider to be abortifacients.” By definition, contraceptives prevent pregnancy and are not abortifacients. Allowing employers to determine which contraceptives they consider to be abortifacients, rather than relying on medical definitions and evidence, promotes the spread of misinformation.”

The previous link on IUD by the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) relies on the definition of pregnancy that defines pregnancy as beginning with the implantation of a fertilized egg into the lining of the uterus. Neither an IUD nor Plan B are believed to terminate a pregnancy after implantation and therefore, under ACOG’s definition, the one relied upon by Chuang and Weisman, neither is an abortifacient. If pregnancy begins with conception, then both Plan B and the IUD are potential abortifacients, as both interfere with implantation of an otherwise viable fertilized egg. ACOG admits the IUD interferes with implantation in their position paper linked above.

Rather than rhetorically condemning employers who have genuine religious and moral concerns about participating in the termination of innocent life by implying they fail to rely on proper “medical definitions and evidence”, Chuang and Weisman (and ACOG for that matter) should do better job explaining their definitions so they can also avoid promoting “the spread of misinformation”.

Oh, those darned terms!

Abortion and viability

By Steve Phillips

There has been considerable reaction to the recent passage of a New York State law a regarding abortion. It has been celebrated by those who support a woman’s choice to have an abortion at any time and for any reason and strongly opposed by those who believe that a human fetus has a life that should be greatly valued because he or she has been created in the image of God. The new law basically changes two things in the previous New York State abortion law which led the way in the legalization of abortion prior to Roe v. Wade. One is that it expanded those who can legally perform and abortion in the state to include nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and midwives in addition to physicians. I will not be discussing that here. The other changes have to do with the circumstances under which an abortion may legally be done after 24 weeks gestation.

The 1970 law stated that an abortion could be done legally for any reason prior to 24 weeks, but only to protect the life of the mother after 24 weeks. Why 24 weeks? 24 weeks gestation was considered to be the limit of viability for a fetus in 1970. Today it would probably be more like 22 weeks, but they didn’t change that. What has changed in the new law is that abortion is considered legal after 24 weeks if there is an absence of fetal viability after 24 weeks or to protect the life or health of the mother. This significantly expands the cases in which abortion after 24 weeks can be considered legal. Roe v. Wade already expanded it in the second way. In that decision the Supreme Court ruled that the state could have an interest in the life of the fetus later in the pregnancy that it did not have early in the pregnancy but limited that interest by saying that a state could not say that an abortion was legal if it was done to protect the life or health of the mother. A companion decision made at the same time stated that the health of the mother should be interpreted very broadly to include the emotional well-being of the mother. That left us with the current situation in which the United States has the broadest definition of a legal abortion in the world.

The thing that I find most interesting about the new law is that it keeps the distinction between abortions done before and after 24 weeks and that it adds the condition that an abortion after 24 weeks can be legal in the absence of fetal viability. If the law is going to say that an abortion can be legal at any time during the pregnancy based on the mother suffering emotional distress, why would those making the law be concerned about fetal viability? I think that what is being said by those who have written and passed this law is that until a fetus is capable of living independently of his or her mother the life of that fetus has absolutely no value other than the value conferred by his or her mother. They want that to be contained in the law even if it actually makes no practical difference regarding the legality of abortion. Why is that so important?

I think it is important because the fundamental underlying issue regarding the permissibility of abortion has to do with how we determine who is a person who we are obligated to treat as we would want to be treated ourselves. It is essential for those who support the moral permissibility of abortion and therefore its legality to say that a fetus is not such a person. The best way to do that is to say that an individual is only a person with full moral status when that individual has certain capabilities that are like ours. One of those capabilities which can be fairly clearly defined is viability. If people can be convinced that they should look at capabilities such as viability to determine who we are obligated to treat like ourselves it will distract them from the alternative way of determining that. The alternative is to say that every human being, or every member of the human family, no matter what their level of development or capabilities is a person that we should treat as we would want to be treated ourselves. That means that every human being who is weak, helpless, and marginalized has equal value with the strongest and most privileged of human beings. That is the position of those of us who believe that every human being is important because we have been made in the image of God. That includes everyone who is dependent including those who are dependent to the point of being unable to survive outside their mother’s womb.