I think “octo-mom” Nadya Suleman is the ethical scandal that will bring regulation to the freewheeling fertility and reproductive technology industry.
Why? Because this 33-year-old California mother’s story contains too many poor judgment calls by people who should have known better, and because her children’s mushrooming medical costs are too stunning to ignore.
How does this affect you?
For starters, public dollars are going to pay this indigent woman’s multimillion-dollar medical bills. I think taxpayers and state lawmakers ought to be thoroughly alarmed by the thought of a Suleman copycat coming soon to a clinic near you.
Beyond the money, the assisted reproductive technology (ART) industry is just warming up. Not only are its procreative powers advancing rapidly, but its customer base — infertile couples — is exploding in size, thanks in part to an epidemic of sterilizing sexual diseases.
As Ms. Suleman’s case shows, there are few laws governing who can do what to whom with a petri dish, and the professional guidelines — such as only transferring one or two embryos in a woman younger than 35 — are easily flouted.
If people are separated from God, procreation is separated from sex and the only consideration is “ability to pay for services rendered,” what can stop people from doing unthinkable things?
Politics, says Aristide Tessitore, a political-science professor leading sessions on bioethics at Furman University’s new Tocqueville Program.
Science, religion and politics are all authorities in the world, he said. But with ART, science can’t be the authority, since its mission is to advance its knowledge and accomplishments, and religion can’t be the authority because no religion is universal.
“So what you’re left with is politics,” said Mr. Tessitore, adding that, in his view, politicians would be wise to consult with scientific, religious and ethical leaders and craft an authority the ART industry must answer to.
Spadework already has been done in this area.
In 2001, the Bush administration created the President’s Council on Bioethics. Its diverse, blue-ribbon panel issued a report in 2004 asking for, at minimum, better data collection about ART and in vitro fertilization, plus stricter self-regulation by the industry. It also urged Congress to “to erect certain legislative safeguards” to prevent “boundary-crossing practices” until they can be discussed. (“Boundary-crossing practices” means things such as transferring human embryos into nonhuman species, or creating half-human, half-animal hybrids.)
Then in 2006, Johns Hopkins professors Francis Fukuyama and Franco Furger issued their “Beyond Bioethics” report, urging the United States to follow the British example and create a regulatory agency for biotechnologies. “We fully understand the downsides of regulation,” the professors wrote. But instead of chilling innovation and research, good regulation can result in superior research that also is conducted “safely and ethically,” they argued.
Lawmakers in a hurry might want to consider model ART legislation from the pro-life Americans United for Life (AUL).
The bill recommends limiting the transfer of embryos to two at a time and encourages using frozen embryos before creating new ones, AUL official Mailee Smith said. It also would require comprehensive informed consent, so women can understand the range of health risks associated with multiple births, she said.
None of these paths are clear-cut, of course. Lawmakers, like the rest of us, have eyes that glaze over when the subjects are ART, half-human hybrids and ethics. But the alternative is to start building really big shoes for all the women who have so many children they don’t know what to do. Maybe Nike will step up and “just do it,” but somehow I doubt it.
• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.