Bioethikos: Bringing Life to Bioethics

Posts Tagged ‘Reproductive ethics’


Fighting Over Frozen Lives

Monday, September 28th, 2015 by Dr. Dennis Sullivan


The latest chapter in the embryo wars is in California, where a couple is engaged in a bitter custody dispute over the woman’s children, currently in the form of unimplanted frozen embryos. Dr. Mimi Lee and Steven Findley underwent in vitro fertilization when Dr. Lee was diagnosed with breast cancer, making pregnancy risky. She had planned to have a genetically-related child with the help of a surrogate mother. After three years, the couple divorced. Dr. Lee, now 46, would like to have her children. Her ex-husband disagrees.

The similar 1992 Davis v. Davis embryo case in Tennessee granted embryos “special status,” but nevertheless had them destroyed. Since that time, courts have tended to consider embryos as property rather than persons. But recent rulings in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Illinois have shown more sympathy towards women with cancer, who will not be able to have children biologically themselves. Dr. Mark Sauer, a reproductive endocrinologist, provides some clarity on the issue:

It is compelling and dramatic how these issues play out. These are embryos that will potentially live lives. It is not like you are bartering over the furniture in your house.


A decision in the case is likely within the next few weeks, and may set a new precedent.

News Article (LA Times)

Protecting Babies with Down Syndrome

Thursday, May 21st, 2015 by Dr. Dennis Sullivan
L to R: Dr. David Prentice, Edwin Vance (holding photos of son Justin who has Down syndrome), Stephanie Ranade Krider, Jackie Keough, Mary Kate Keough, and Dr. Dennis Sullivan

L to R: Dr. David Prentice, Edwin Vance (holding photos of son Justin who has Down syndrome), Stephanie Krider, Jackie Keough, Mary Kate Keough, and Dr. Dennis Sullivan

Last Tuesday evening, I presented testimony at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, representing the Center for Bioethics and Ohio Right to Life. I spoke before the Community and Family Advancement Committee in the Ohio House, in favor of H.B. 135, a statute to prohibit abortion solely because of a diagnosis on Down Syndrome. Here is an excerpt from my testimony:

It is highly relevant to our purposes today how we will protect the disadvantaged and vulnerable among us, and how we will prevent genetic discrimination among those who currently have no voice. Seven other states ban abortion for gender selection, and one other state bans abortion for genetic abnormalities. What we are proposing with this statute is rather simple: to protect unborn individuals with Down Syndrome from being killed simply because they have this condition. Anything else is discriminatory. Failure to protect these innocent unborn children is simply eugenics, and it is morally wrong.


Please communicate with your state legislators, to encourage them to support and pass H.B. 135, the Down Syndrome Non-Discrimination Act (for my full testimony, click on the link below).

Sullivan HB 135 Testimony

Ohio Right to Life Press Release

PGD: Eugenics Is Not Dead

Monday, April 13th, 2015 by Dr. Heather Kuruvilla


by Dr. Heather Kuruvilla

There is no genetically perfect person.  Every one of us carries mutations, both genetic and epigenetic, in our genomes.  In the future, we may be able to repair these defects.  Gene therapies have shown promise in treating some types of cancer, and may eventually be used to treat or cure diseases such as sickle-cell anemia and cystic fibrosis.  But right now, genetics is being used to discriminate against, and even destroy embryonic human beings.

Preimplantation genetic diagnosis is marketed as a way to help infertile couples conceive, and is usually done in embryos which have been created by in vitro fertilization.  According to the website,

Preimplantation genetic diagnosis involves the following steps:

  1. First, one or two cells are removed from the embryo.
  2. The cells are then evaluated to determine if the inheritance of a problematic gene is present in the embryo.
  3. Once the PGD procedure has been performed and embryos free of genetic problems have been identified, the embryo will  be placed back in the uterus, and implantation will be attempted.
  4. Any additional embryos that are free of genetic problems may be frozen for later use while embryos with the problematic gene are destroyed.


In the future, we may be able to use such technologies to diagnose and repair genetic defects.  But at present, this technology is only used to destroy embryos, since we don’t yet have the capability to fix them.  Is this technology simply giving hope to infertile couples?  Or has eugenics reared its ugly head yet again?

Your 3-person Embryo Questions Answered

Monday, March 2nd, 2015 by Dr. Heather Kuruvilla

8-cell_stage_embryoPhoto Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


by Dr. Heather Kuruvilla

Since Britain legalized the creation of 3-person embryos on February 24th, I’ve been asked a number of questions about this procedure. Below are a few commonly asked questions as well as some resources that I hope will be helpful.

Why is this procedure sometimes called making a “3-person embryo”?  Gametes from three individuals are being used to create one embryo.  The biological mother and father contribute eggs and sperm respectively.  However, in this case, the nuclei of the biological mother’s egg and the father’s sperm will be injected into an enucleated donor egg that has healthy mitochondria.

Whom would this procedure help? The procedure would enable women with mitochondrial disease to bear healthy children who are biologically related to them.  Mitochondria are cellular organelles that are passed down from mother to child.  Therefore, a woman with mitochondrial disease would normally pass diseased mitochondria to her offspring.

Will embryos be destroyed in order to carry out this procedure?  It depends upon how the procedure is carried out.  There are several methods by which 3-person embryos can be made, and not all are embryo destructive.  I’ve linked an article from the Center for Genetics and Society below.  Using their definitions, pronuclear transfer would involve the destruction of embryos, but maternal spindle transfer and nuclear genome transfer would not.  Polar body transfer would not directly result in the destruction of an embryo, but if the polar body were produced by fertilizing an egg so that the polar body could be produced, the resulting embryo would likely be destroyed since it would contain damaged mitochondria.

Is this procedure risky to humans?  The short answer to this question is that we don’t know.  It is a relatively untested procedure, which raises safety concerns.  In addition, the Center for Genetics and Society (CGS) mention other concerns, such as violating an EU ban on modifying the human germline, risks to the women from whom eggs were extracted, and potential identity struggles that a person might face once he/she learns of the unusual circumstances surrounding his/her conception.  CGS suggests preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) as an alternative to the three-person embryo technology.  However, since PGD generally results in the destruction of genetically imperfect embryos, this alternative cannot be supported by those who believe that embryos are human persons worthy of protection.

For more information: I’ve put links to several helpful articles below.

BBC Article on 3-person embryo

Center for Genetics and Society Article


The Pain of Being “Left-Over”

Thursday, August 14th, 2014 by Dr. Dennis Sullivan

Ever since the first “test-tube” baby in 1978, reproductive technologies such as in vitro fertilization (IVF) have led to a host of ethical conundrums. In order to boost success rates, fertility clinics routinely produce many more human embryos than can be implanted. The excess “left-over” embryos serve as a backup plan, and are usually placed in cryogenic storage.

What to do with these excess embryos has always been a deeply troubling and highly divisive problem. Should they be stored indefinitely, discarded, donated for research, or implanted? Do they have any rights? Are they persons or property?

Our Christian pro-life intuitions tell us that we can somehow “rescue” this situation by adopting them. Childless couples can have frozen embryos implanted, giving these tiny beings a chance at a normal life. This is a noble impulse, but there are still problems.

Gracie Crane is a normal teenage girl growing up in the U.K. Take careful note of her story:

Gracie, who is mixed race, was one of the first children in Britain conceived from a donor embryo, which means she has no genetic link to either of her parents. As she was born in 1998 — seven years before amendments were made to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act allowing children born through donor conception to trace their genetic parents — she has no right to find out who her biological parents are. Or even whether there are any hereditary conditions which may affect her in the future. . .

Having reached 16, and with the support of her clearly devoted parents, Gracie is speaking out because she wants anyone contemplating such a decision to understand just how difficult her life has been, despite being raised by a couple who adore her.

[She says,] ‘There are times I’ve wished I’d never been born — as much as I love my parents, it’s just so sad not knowing who I am and where I came from.’

(source below)

Clearly, the impulse to adopt embryos should continue, and we should do our utmost to help young men and women such as Gracie. But all of this technology comes at a price. To help childless couples to conceive is not inherently wrong, but our mass-production, throw-away culture seems to perceive children more as product than person, more like a commodity than a fellow human being given to us by God. And donor gametes (egg and sperm) mean that a young child conceived by IVF might never know her biological parents. This can be marginalizing and very upsetting to those we are trying to help.

These are some of the unintended consequences of the reproductive revolution.

London Daily Mail Article


The Hobby Lobby Victory and Conscience Rights

Tuesday, July 1st, 2014 by Dr. Dennis Sullivan

The wait is over, and one of the most hotly-contested debates of our modern day has been resolved. By a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that Hobby Lobby (and Conestoga Wood) cannot be forced by the Affordable Care Act to provide certain contraceptives to its employees. If you have been confused by the intense discussion, here are some implications of this latest ruling.

What types of birth control did the companies object to?

At issue were not just contraceptives in general (for example, Romans Catholics object to most forms of birth control on the basis of natural law). Specifically, the two companies  oppose the use of Plan B and ella, the two most common forms of “emergency contraception,” as well as the copper IUD (intrauterine device), a common  long term birth control method. The reason for their opposition stems from their view that protectable human life begins at conception. After fertilization in the fallopian tube, it takes 6-1/2 days for a new embryo to travel down the tube for implantation into the uterus. The three methods cited may act, in part, to prevent implantation. This makes them immoral from a pro-life standpoint.

Is this objection based on scientific facts?

This is a complex question, and the answer is clouded in rhetoric and obfuscation. First of all, FDA-approved language on websites and in drug inserts would imply that prevention of implantation is a possible mechanism of action of the methods in question. Now, the actual evidence is disputed, and some recent studies imply that the concern about Plan B may be misplaced. Nonetheless, even if this is not scientifically true, the government seems to believe it as well, and doesn’t care. Former Health and Human Services Secretary Katherine Sebelius said in 2011, “The Food and Drug Administration has a category [of drugs] that prevent fertilization and implantation. That’s really the scientific definition.”

What rights are at stake here?

The ACA mandate to cover contraception tramples on the rights of religiously-informed employers to act in ways consistent with their values. This is a religious-liberty issue, and has widespread implications for many other conflicts over conscience rights, including the right of healthcare professionals to refuse to participate in abortion, or for pro-life pharmacists to refuse to dispense drugs for assisted suicide.

What does the future hold?

Despite this victory, look for further attempts by the government to encroach on freedom of conscience and freedom of religious expression.

AAPLOG Statement

Source for Sibelius Quote

Can the Unborn Feel Pain?

Monday, April 28th, 2014 by Dr. Dennis Sullivan

The past few months have seen an increase in state bans on late-term abortion, at 20 weeks or later. No one claims that such bills will have a huge impact, since the majority of abortions are in the first trimester (up to 12 weeks). So why this emphasis on the later stages?

For one thing, this is an incremental pro-life strategy. Just like 48-hour waiting periods and bills requiring an ultrasound before abortion, such measures may cause women to think twice and carefully consider their options before making a decision they may later regret. For another thing, it is increasingly clear that 20 week-old fetuses can feel pain. Here’s some of the evidence:

  1. Pain receptors are present throughout the unborn child’s entire body at 20 weeks of development.
  2. Nerves link these receptors to the brain’s thalamus and sub-cortical plate by no later than 20 weeks.
  3. The connection between the spinal cord and the thalamus starts to develop from 14 weeks onwards and is finished at 20 weeks.
  4. From 16 weeks’ gestation pain transmission from a peripheral receptor to the cortex is possible and completely developed at 26 weeks’ gestation.

It seems amazing that many oppose such measures because “the evidence isn’t all in,” or because “we need more discussion.” In fact, neuroscience and developmental biology are very clear on these  scientific facts. It seems to me that being pro-choice at this stage of development is to be pro-torture.

World Magazine article
Doctors on Fetal Pain


A Duty to Design Your Baby?

Wednesday, August 29th, 2012 by Dr. Dennis Sullivan

A prominent ethicist, writing in the pages of Reader’s Digest, no less, Julian Savulescu is the Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics at Oxford University, UK. In an upcoming edition of RD, he claims it is not only permissible, but a moral obligation, for parents to genetically design their children. After all, claims Savulescu, we wouldn’t want to trust in the “natural lottery” for our children’s characteristics. They might have cystic fibrosis or Down’s syndrome, or they may have adverse psychological profiles such as poor impulse control or a propensity towards violence.

You may say, “But that sounds an awful lot like eugenics.” Here is Dr. Savulescu’s response:

Much of the unease about designer babies comes from the work of the 20th-century eugenics movement. It tried to use selective breeding to weed out criminals, the insane and the poor, based on the false belief that such conditions were caused only by genetic disorders. It reached its inglorious climax when the Nazis moved beyond sterilization to exterminate the “genetically unfit.”

But what was especially objectionable about this movement was the coercive imposition of a state vision for a healthy population. Modern eugenics, from testing for diseases to deciding whether you want a girl or boy, is voluntary. So where genetic selection aims to bring out a trait that clearly benefits an individual and society, we should allow parents the choice. To do otherwise is to consign those who come after us to the ball and chain of our squeamishness and irrationality.

So, according to Savulescu, all of this is acceptable because it’s voluntary for parents. No one gets hurt. Of course, if we were to agree with him, we would still be exterminating the “genetically unfit:” unborn embryos tossed out with the refuse of our throwaway society. In this version of modern-day eugenics, we can now snuff out small human beings who can’t speak up for themselves.

Society is becoming increasingly comfortable with these ideas. We have forgotten the lessons of the Third Reich, and are once again concluding that some human beings are “life unworthy of life.” If Savulescu has his way, his thinking will not only be acceptable, but required.

Reader’s Digest Article