New Research Raises Concerns About IVF Baby Defects

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:11 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - New research has raised fears of the safety of in-vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment, prompting pro-lifers to question both the wisdom and the morality of conceiving children unnaturally.

An Australian study has found that IVF babies are twice as likely to have birth defects as are babies conceived naturally.

Nine percent of hundreds of IVF children surveyed in the study had a major birth defect diagnosed by one year of age. The figure for children conceived through a more recently introduced form of assisted reproductive technology - intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) - was 8.6 percent.

By comparison, in naturally conceived infants the figure dropped to 4.2 percent.

The study was adjusted to take into account the fact IVF mothers are generally older than other mothers, something which in itself could increase the chances of birth defects such as Down's syndrome.

IVF babies have long been known to be more likely to be born prematurely, which in itself places babies at a slightly higher risk of developmental problems.

But the birth defects looked for in the Australian study included problems not explained by premature birth, including Down's syndrome, congenital heart problems, club foot and cleft lip and palate.

More than 5,000 children, conceived between 1994 and 1997, were surveyed in the study, which was published Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

One of its authors, epidemiologist Dr. Carol Bower from the University of Western Australia, told Australian radio IVF children were also more likely to develop multiple disorders.

"The results also show that test-tube babies are twice as likely as those conceived naturally to suffer from genetic defects or problems with the heart, muscles or bones," she said.

Another of the authors, Dr. Jennifer Kurinczuk of the University of Leicester in the UK, was quoted as telling British media that it was possible genetic abnormalities in the parent -- which could be linked to the parent's own infertility -- were responsible for the defects.

But she said that the possibility that something in the IVF process itself was to blame could not be ruled out.

Another study published in the same medical journal Thursday found that of singleton (i.e. not twin) children born at 37 weeks of gestation or later, those conceived with assisted reproductive technology had a 2.6 times greater risk of low birth weight than others.

The study was carried out by researchers from the Division of Reproductive Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Wrong and unsafe

Couples struggling to have children naturally are increasingly turning to fertility treatment, especially IVF and ICSI.

In IVF, a woman is given medication to stimulate the development, growth, and maturation of eggs. These are then removed and fertilized with semen in a laboratory, often in a glass petri dish. Should embryos result, one or more are reimplanted in her womb.

With ICSI, a single sperm is injected directly into the egg.

Opponents of fertility treatment include those who disagree for religious reasons to the concept of assisting a process they believe should be natural.

Many pro-lifers are uncomfortable with the fact that embryos are created but not allowed to develop into babies. The destruction of embryos once they have been harvested for stem cells is another major current ethical concern.

The American Life League, the largest pro-life educational organization in the U.S., is firmly opposed to IVF.

"We should not allow scientists to play God by creating human beings in a laboratory," ALL spokesman Erik Whittington said in response to queries early Friday. Not only was it morally wrong, he said, but "as this study shows, its unsafe."

"Children are a gift from God, not things that adults feel that have a right to own. Children have the right to be conceived in the proper place - by two adults fully committed to each other and the children they may conceive. We should not make babies to be conceived in the chill and unloving atmosphere of a laboratory."

Whittington pointed to figures showing that for each baby born from the IVF procedure "four to nine of her brothers and sisters die."

"This should be enough to cause an uproar in the pro-life community. Now knowing that each person born from the IVF procedure has a higher chance of major birth defects or other problems, the pro-life community has an obligation to the babies to stand up and say 'no more' to IVF."

Couples unable to conceive a child should consider adopting, Whittington urged.

"There are thousands of babies that need homes now. Why create babies in labs knowing that many will die? Why create babies in labs knowing that the petri dish may cause your child great harm?"

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow