Nairobi, Kenya (CNSNews.com) - Decades after in vitro fertilization (IVF) was first used successfully in the West, the birth of two "test tube" babies in Kenya last week has generated widespread debate, even in traditional communities.
The Catholic Church spearheaded criticism of what it called an artificial procedure, while Protestants, Muslims and others welcomed the technology, saying it not only enabled childless couples to conceive, but would also help Africans develop a better understanding of human life.
Hundreds of childless couples have flocked to major hospitals requesting information on the technology, even though the procedure costs around $4,300 in a nation with an average per capita income of $360.
"Considered from an ethical standpoint, this procedure in fact is morally unethical," said Archbishop John Njue, chairman of the Kenya Episcopal Conference, a Catholic body.
"The process undermines the dignity of a child, who becomes an object of manipulation and must be possessed at all costs," he said. Conceiving children should be the result of an act of marital love, not "factory production."
Support for the procedure came from the chairman of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims, Prof Abdulghafur el-Busaidy.
"There is nothing wrong with it so long as it is coming from married couples," he said. "If for medical reasons the couple cannot get a child, then it is healthy."
Although some view IVF as a Western "import" that could disturb African customary norms, others see advantages precisely for people in traditional communities.
At a time when birthrates in the West continue to fall well below the replacement rate, conservative African societies still regard children as a key part of marriage, with the women's role to bear children and look after them and her husband.
Although those norms are changing as more women take up professional jobs and some choose to become single parents, the importance of children in a marriage remains.
But in cases where a couple struggles to conceive, the woman is invariably blamed even in the absence of medical evidence.
"Marriage, the way I see it, should be built on mutual love and respect," said Dorothy Kweyu, a newspaper editor and commentator.
"It should be built on the principle, children or no children, the two belong [together.] They are gifts of God, and a bonus in the marriage...when they come, and when they fail to come, nobody has a right to persecute the woman."
James Onsongo, a social ethics teacher, said that in rural areas in particular, "men are forced by their families and friends to divorce their wives when the couple cannot get children.
He argued that in those circumstances, IVF could help save marriages that would otherwise be under threat.
"It's good for the society and certainly good for women," he argued.
Yet despite these perceived advantages, the fate of unwanted "spare" embryos is a major cause for concern, says the Catholic Church.
Although some children were born as a result of IVF, Njue said, "most were not so lucky. Most died along the way. This part of the process is not publicized."
" In order to provide for one birth, "many others have to lose their lives," he said.
Pascal Mwambi Mwakio, a Catholic priest, said the destruction of the excess embryos could be equated to abortion.
"These are sacred lives in their initial stages. What happens to the so-called surplus? Some of these die while others are subjected to freezing of up to 190 degrees below zero.
"Even in the womb, still not all are allowed to continue growing especially when more than two are implanted," he said.
Nairobi lawyer Kamotho Waiganjo said new legislation was needed to govern the use of the technology in Kenya.
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