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The Nobel Prize in Medicine has been awarded to British physiologist Robert Geoffrey Edwards, who helped develop the method of in vitro fertilization (IVF) through which the first “test tube baby,” Louise Brown, was born in July 25, 1978. Aside from issues that arose from later applications of IVF, such as embryonic stem cell research, I believe that IVF, as it is usually practiced, is morally wrong. Normally during IVF, several fertilized eggs are produced. Some are set aside and frozen, and if they are not used due a failure of the first attempt at implantation, they usually are destroyed. If human personhood begins, as I believe it does, at the point of conception, of the new genetic code that forms when sperm and egg join to form a new person, then the current practice of IVF results in the murder of human persons. Now a woman may request that that no more than one fertilized egg should be produced. This costs a great deal more money, but it would avoid the major ethical problem with IVF. But this is not the method used in the vast majority of cases.

America, and to a large extent Western Europe, are obsessed with “rights.” So a woman who is infertile is said to have a “right” to bear a child no matter what the moral costs might be. If that means that frozen embryos are destroyed, so be it–the woman has fulfilled her wish to bear a child. Now people who defend IVF obviously do not believe that the embryo is a human person. The difficulty is, at what point does one deny human personhood, once the unique genetic code in the fertilized egg is formed, that is not arbitrary? Viability varies with technology. There is a continuity of human development from conception to death that makes it clear that the same organism is living from conception to death. Conceptions of personhood based on mental capacity would deny personhood to senile old people or to the severely mentally retarded. The safest course is to hold that human personhood is present as long as a human organism with a unique identity is present, and this is the case with a fertilized egg, whose unique individuality is guaranteed by its unique genetic code that is neither the genetic code of the sperm nor of the egg. Thus a woman does not have a right to bear a child at the cost of murdering other human persons.

Scientists often mean well, but there is a certain arrogance in their approach to nature. The ethicist Leon Kass has noted that contemporary technology has invaded natural human bonds such as marriage, childbirth, and the family, holding that such processes can be manipulated at will. While there may be some situations in which this is justified, it should not be at the cost of human lives.