Hijacking the octuplets backlash to restrict IVF.

Science, technology, and life.
March 4 2009 7:31 AM

Crocktuplets

Hijacking the octuplets backlash to restrict IVF.

No more octuplets! That's the rallying cry for Georgia Senate Bill 169, which faces a committee hearing Thursday morning. The bill's lead sponsor, state senator Ralph Hudgens, says he believes in "less government," "more personal responsibility," and "greater individual freedoms." Supposedly, that's what galls him about Nadya Suleman, the now-infamous woman who had six kids and, through in vitro fertilization, just gave birth to eight more. "Nadya Suleman is going to cost the state of California millions of dollars over the years; the taxpayers are going to have to fund the 14 children she has," Hudgens told the Wall Street Journal. "I don't want that to happen in Georgia."

Georgia Right to Life, which helped Hudgens draft his bill, puts a gentler spin on it. The Suleman case shows that "the fertility industry needs governmental oversight," the group argued in a press release two weeks ago. Its president explained that S.B. 169 "is written to help reduce the attendant harm that could come to the mother and her children through the creation and implantation of more embryos than is medically recommended." The release was titled "Georgia Right to Life Introduces Legislation to Protect the Mother and Child."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

So which rationale should we believe? The one about protecting taxpayers or the one about protecting women?

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Neither. Never trust the press release. Always read the bill.

S.B. 169 does limit the number of embryos you can implant in an IVF patient to two or three, depending on whether the patient is younger or older than 40. But it also does several things that have nothing to do with saving tax money or protecting women from the risks of carrying multiple fetuses. It forbids the sale of eggs or sperm, bans therapeutic human cloning, and prohibits any stem-cell research involving the destruction of leftover embryos.

"This bill would limit the number of embryos transferred in any given cycle to the same number that are fertilized," says the Georgia Right to Life press release. But that's not what the bill says. Here's the actual text  of the legislation:

In the interest of reducing the risk of complications for both the mother and the transferred in vitro human embryos, including the risk of preterm birth associated with higher-order multiple gestations, a person or entity performing in vitro fertilization shall limit the number of in vitro human embryos created in a single cycle to the number to be transferred in that cycle.

In other words, if you're 39, your doctor is forbidden to fertilize more than two of your eggs per treatment cycle. Take all the hormones you can stand, make all the eggs you want, but you get two shots at creating a viable embryo, and that's it.

How does this restriction "protect the mother" and "reduce the risk of complications" for her? It doesn't. If you wanted to protect the woman, you might limit the number of embryos that could be transferred to her womb, not the number that can be created in the dish. In fact, by limiting the number that can be created, you increase her risk of complications. The fewer eggs you fertilize, the lower your chances of producing an embryo healthy enough to be transferred and carried to term. That means a higher failure rate, which in turn means that women will have to undergo more treatment cycles, with the corresponding risks of ovarian hyperstimulation and advancing maternal age.

So why limit the number of embryos created per cycle? Because the bill's chief purpose isn't really to help women. It's to establish legal rights for embryos. That's why it bans cloning and embryo-destructive stem-cell research. And if the woman and her husband get into a legal battle over what to do with their embryos, guess which of them has the final say? Neither. According to the bill's text, "the judicial standard for resolving such disputes shall be the best interest of the in vitro human embryo."

From the standpoint of respecting embryos, this is all wonderful stuff. But it doesn't serve the health interests of women seeking IVF, and it certainly doesn't protect taxpayers. "A living in vitro human embryo is a biological human being who is not the property of any person or entity," the bill declares. "The fertility physician and the medical facility that employs the physician owe a high duty of care to the living in vitro human embryo." Guess who's going to foot the bill for that "high duty of care"? With half a million embryos already frozen and thousands more accumulating every year, a declaration of medical rights for embryos would be one of the biggest entitlement programs in history.

Oh, and if you like what Suleman did, you'll love S.B. 169. By requiring doctors to "limit the number of in vitro human embryos created in a single cycle to the number to be transferred," the bill logically requires them to transfer every embryo created. That's exactly what Suleman did. She loved her babies too much to leave any of them behind.

Enough with the opportunism about the octuplets. Respecting embryos is a noble idea. But it won't be safer for women, and it won't come cheap.

(Now playing at the Human Nature blog: 1. Obama, "conscience," and abortion. 2. The insanity of driving while breastfeeding. 3. Why am I having trouble selling rubbers?)

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