Jennifer Lahl, Founder and President of The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network, talks about the scientific and political aspects of third party reproduction and the inherent risks associated with these practices.
INTRODUCTION: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Our guest today is Jennifer Lahl, Founder and President of The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network. Jennifer is with us to discuss several scientific and political developments in the so-called “brave new world” of third party reproduction.
As a former pediatric critical care nurse, Jennifer has 25 years of experience in the healthcare field. She is routinely interviewed on radio and television programs, including ABC, CBS, PBS, and NPR, and her writings have appeared in a number of publications, including the American Journal of Bioethics. Jennifer has produced or directed several critically-acclaimed documentaries on third party reproduction, including “Eggsploitation,” “Anonymous Father’s Day,” and “Breeders: A Subclass of Women.” Jennifer, welcome back to Family Policy Matters!
JENNIFER LAHL: Thank you John. It’s good to be with you.
JOHN RUSTIN: It’s always a pleasure to have you on the show. You provide such great insights into this complex medical field. Reproductive medicine is possibly one of the medical fields that has changed most over the last half-century. In some ways, I am reminded of the question raised by Michael Creighton in Jurassic Park the movie and that is that scientists ought not ask whether something CAN be done, but rather they should ask whether something SHOULD be done. Now that seems a particularly relevant question as we discuss reproductive medicine. What do you see as the most concerning developments in this field, especially when you consider that question of what “can” be done versus what “should” be done?
JENNIFER LAHL: That’s a really good question from where I sit because I follow this every single day. It’s a key part of my work. There are a couple of new things that are quite troubling that we now can do that perhaps we ought not do. We’re moving more and more fast down the designer baby track, if you will, where we see parents almost ordering their children by design, whether that be picking the egg donor or the sperm donor or the surrogate womb, but also just the whole field of genetic medicine. There’s a couple of other things that trouble me and it’s a couple of leading thinkers, if you will, academics out of Stanford who were writing and speaking about the end of sex, and why would we want to leave chance, mother nature, to work on the creation of children in the old-fashioned way babies are made, and why wouldn’t we just take all baby making into the laboratory. One professor at Stanford has a new book out where he says that sex will only be for fun and pleasure and baby making will be moved into the laboratory. So, those are very troubling to me, those kinds of attitudes, and the fact that the technology’s there to do this.
JOHN RUSTIN: Based on the rapidly changing technology in this arena, we are really only now just developing a track record and a better understanding of the longer-term effects of things like in vitro fertilization, egg and sperm donation, and surrogacy on both the children and families who are developed through these methods. What is the data telling us about the long-term effects of these technologies?
JENNIFER LAHL: I wish I had good news. I feel like this is a downer of an interview! The reality is that this is still—like you said—relatively new technology for the day, just coming out, and you know all good data has to really have a large sample size where we track and monitor and follow up over years. So, we’re still not at that critical mass, if you will, to have the sample sizes and the really, really long term data that it’s important to have. But you know, it’s troubling what we are seeing. And we are seeing that these technologies are not without risk to women’s health and to the health and wellbeing of the children that are created this way. We are seeing that there’s harm and risk, if you will, to egg donors, to surrogate mothers who are used—you know paid, whatever—to help people have children. So the data so far is troubling to me And I do think, as we follow these endeavors longer over time and have larger sample sizes, we’ll see even more problems.
JOHN RUSTIN: Those are certainly matters that we should be concerned about and definitely continue to keep a very close eye on. Jennifer, you’ve touched on this, but more and more of the process of quote “making babies” is being “artificialized.” We are now hearing about doctors creating children with 3 or 4 biological parents and scientists working with stem cell technologies that they hope will allow them to actually grow artificial eggs and sperm in laboratories to use for in vitro fertilization. Talk about the potentially positive aspects and also the negative aspects— or areas of concern—that we should have regarding this artificialization of making babies.
JENNIFER LAHL: Personally, I have huge ethical/moral problems with it, so I don’t see anything good that can come out of these technologies. Certainly, the intention is good. The intention is to be able to treat, alleviate, stop horrible genetic illnesses; There’s nobody who would be against treating or curing disease. But again, when it gets back to “making life,” we are, by our own human hands, our own will, making human life by our design. That’s hugely problematic. We talk about the three-parent embryo technology, where you are exploiting a young healthy woman for her eggs in order to provide the genetic material for the intended mother who has a defect, whose going to pass this defect onto the child. And this is human experimentation on children—future children that can’t even consent to this. We have strong laws in the United States about how we advance scientific research and the use of human research subjects, how we protect their safety, you know there’s all these protections. But here we’re doing research on a future person that cannot consent and this is experimentation on children! Parents because they’re so desperate to have a child, to have a child that doesn’t have a particular type of horrible genetic illness, are willing to allow this experimentation. And there’s huge safety problems! We don’t know what it’s like to be a human being with DNA from three different people. Since the beginning of time, we have the DNA from our mother and our father, that’s it, and now we will be creating a population that will have genetic material from three people, and what does that mean and what will that look like and is that safe?
JOHN RUSTIN: I am so struck by the way conversations around reproductive technology are often couched in terms of the desires of the adults, as opposed to the basic human rights of the children who are produced using these technologies. How do we balance the desires of adults to have children for those that can’t or are having difficulties, with the rights and interests of the child?
JENNIFER LAHL: Our work is very much focused on the educational side of things, which is why we produce documentaries: to get people to stop and think about what they are perhaps doing in their desire, their adult desire. Wanting children and wanting a family, just like the many millions of things we want and desire, is not necessarily bad. It’s the method and the means by which we go about to get those things we want or we long for. So I think if we educate people, we can get people to stop and think, ‘Oh my gosh! This is experimenting on a future child.” We do not understand the safety of these issues, and what little we do know—we do know that there’s problems in moving forward in this way. And making a strong case for the rights of the child, not just the rights or the needs or the desires of an adult. Doesn’t a child have the right to not be created as part of a technological project? Begotten not made? Are we just going to be concerned about our desire to make a child versus the child’s right not to be part of a project or a social experiment or a scientific experiment.
JOHN RUSTIN: That really begs the question, should our elected officials and other policymakers involve themselves in what some would consider to be “scientific” matters?
JENNIFER LAHL: Absolutely, I do think so. The problem is always getting your lawmakers to be educated, because we have a lot of lawmakers who pass laws on things that are outside of their pay grade or above their area of expertise. So, how do we not only inform our citizens, but how do we also inform our lawmakers so that when they are looking at passing laws to protect children, to protect the health and wellbeing of young healthy women on college campuses that are asked to sell their eggs, that they are passing good laws? The worst thing is, we have lawmakers who are ill-informed to pass laws that do things that we would not want them to do. So we have a huge educational battle—and it’s an uphill battle—to get people to understand these new novel technologies.
JOHN RUSTIN: No doubt about that. As we’re discussing that Jennifer, what is the current legal status in the United States for the regulation of reproductive technologies and surrogacy, and what are your recommendations to lawmakers who are considering laws in these areas?
JENNIFER LAHL: The sad reality is in the United States, like it or not, it really is a patchwork because these matters are decided at the state level. Wouldn’t it be great if we had some really good federal policies that said: we cannot freeze human embryos; we cannot do human cloning research; we cannot pay women for their eggs—like we have universal federal laws that say we can’t pay organ donors. But sadly, the reality is that these are at the state level so you find a hodgepodge of laws. Our organization takes a strong position against all third-party conception. We don’t think it should be allowed. We don’t think federal law or state law should permit egg and sperm donation or surrogate pregnancy. We are very against human cloning and experimentation on human embryos and freezing of human embryos. So, there’s plenty of laws that we could pass—plenty of good laws that we could pass. It will be really interesting to see with the new Administration: Will there be a bioethics commission like under George Bush, like under President Obama? Will the Trump Administration form some kind of a bioethics commission that will advise and direct policy? So, we’re optimistic and hopeful and watching and seeing what might happen. But there’s plenty of room for lawmakers to act. It’s just getting them to act in the direction in which we’d like them to act.
JOHN RUSTIN: I know one of the issues that’s been discussed some in the state legislature in North Carolina, but there’s still a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about it, is surrogacy. Talk a little bit, as we close out our discussion this week, about surrogacy. What is surrogacy and what concerns do you have about a woman essentially voluntarily carrying a baby to term for another couple who cannot physically carry their own baby?
JENNIFER LAHL: And you right there pretty much defined surrogacy. It’s a woman who volunteers or offers with compensation to do this deed: carry a pregnancy with the full notion that when the baby is born she will surrender it. You introduced me by talking about my background in pediatric nursing. I’m imagining many of your listeners are from a faith community, “I knit you together in your mother’s womb.” As a pediatric nurse, we talk about maternal child health and the good of bonding and maternal child bonding happening before the baby’s born, in utero, and there’s huge problems, I think, when we use another woman’s body instrumentally to just get a baby. There’s problems to the baby whose bonded and attached to that mother, that the baby will forever be separated from. And then there’s the whole contract, the drawing up of contracts is hugely problematic when you’re talking about a new life. It’s not like we’re selling a house or selling or car or I’m offering you a job. This is the creation of a new life! A third party, fourth party, how many people could be involved? So, there’s all kinds of ethical, medical, legal problems in turning conception into a contract.
JOHN RUSTIN: These are very significant and important issues and certainly, as we said before, things that we will be involved with and certainly continue to keep very close tabs on. Jennifer, before we close out our discussion this week, I certainly want to give you an opportunity to let our listeners know where they can go to learn more about these topics and also your work at The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network?
JENNIFER LAHL: One is our website which is cbc-network.org and we’re also very active on Facebook: The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network on Facebook. So between our website and our Facebook page, you can probably find out anything you want to find out about in matters concerning bioethics.
JOHN RUSTIN: And with that Jennifer Lahl, I want to thank you so much for joining us again on Family Policy Matters and for your great work staying on top of so many bioethics issues that are critically important and fundamental to the sanctity of human life. We’re really grateful for your work on the cutting edge of this and appreciate your voice and your passion for these issues.
JENNIFER LAHL: Oh thank you! My pleasure, John.
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