Update on Life Issues – June 2006
While the number of abortions performed in the UK continues to increase seemingly inexorably (194,353 during 2005), so too do the number of troubling anomalies. For instance, between 1996 and 2004 more than 20 babies were aborted merely because scans showed they had club feet. This is a condition that can be readily corrected by surgery or even physiotherapy. Four more were aborted because of extra digits or webbed feet. And all of these abortions occurred after 20 weeks of gestation. The 1967 and 1990 Abortion Acts allow terminations for ‘serious handicap’ up to birth – these cases should prompt some profound questions. When did ‘serious’ come to include ‘trivial’? Who said the slippery slope does not exist? Do we still hate the disabled? How cruel can we be become?
The so-called ‘bedroom abortions’ are also on the increase. The largest private provider of abortions in the UK, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (now rebranded as, bpas), has reported that about 1 in 3 of its clients, amounting to 10,000 women, now use this method. The Department of Health is running a trial in the south of England so that ‘early medical abortion’ (known in the trade as EMA, to distinguish it from surgical abortion) can occur away from the hospital or clinic setting. A woman, who can be up to 9 weeks pregnant, takes one pill of RU486 (also known as Mifegyne) under medical supervision, returns two days later for intro-vaginal insertion of prostaglandins and then she delivers a dead fetus within hours. It is safe and cheap say its proponents. It is unsafe, anti-family, isolating and emotionally traumatic say its opponents.
In January 2006, Sue Axon lost her legal battle in the High Court. Mrs Axon, mother of five, including two teenage girls, was fighting for a parent’s right to know if daughters under 16 were being advised to seek abortion. Mr Justice Silber ruled that under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which seeks to safeguard the right to private and family life, parents’ rights were overridden by children’s rights to confidentiality. The Government, the children’s commissioner for England, the BMA and the Medical Defence Union welcomed the decision. It seems only the Lawyer’s Christian Fellowship disagreed. It said that the judgement, ‘… further erodes the role and status of the family in our society today.’
During the last few months many political leaders and others have been calling for an inquiry into late abortions and the upper limit of 24 weeks. Polls have suggested that the public has been growing increasingly uneasy about these issues. It had seemed likely that they would reach the debate stage in Westminster, or at least a Parliamentary inquiry. Any such hopes have now been dashed. In April, Geoff Hoon, the leader of the House rejected the idea.
May 2006 was the month that the move to legalise euthanasia took a hammering in the UK. Lord Joffe brought the third version of his Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill to the House of Lords. The 8-hour debate on 12 May was fascinating, with the usual suspects, including Lord Joffe, Baronesses Warnock, Hayman and Jay plus Lord Ashley, wanting to take us to a new abyss in an anti-life land. Pitched against them were the Anglican bishops, Lord Carlile, Baroness Finlay, Lord McColl and, most surprisingly, Professor Lord Robert Winston. A striking feature of the debate was that several of the peers mentioned the large numbers of letters they had received, mainly from Christians, opposing the Bill. See, writing reasoned letters can change the minds of Lords and Ladies. The Bill was eventually defeated by 140 to 100 votes. Technically, the second reading of this Bill was delayed for 6 months. But that is not the end of the matter. Lord Joffe has vowed to bring back yet another similar Bill. The fight goes on, and on, and on.
Meanwhile euthanasia is thriving in Holland. The number of cases officially reported by doctors, which is always a huge underestimate of the reality, has risen by 2.5%. And the Dutch are about to embark on a new version – baby euthanasia. Adult euthanasia has been legal since 2001. Child euthanasia for those over 12, is already legal, but now, with a few feeble safeguards, the chain will be complete. From now on, no Dutch citizen will be safe.
Dignitas, the euthanasia clinic situated on the fourth floor in a block of residential flats on Gloria Street in Zurich, is having trouble with its neighbours. The residents are complaining about the stream of dead bodies going down in the communal lift to be collected by hearses at street level. So far, since 1998, Dignitas has helped more than 450 people, including over 30 UK residents, to end their lives there. One resident recently stated, ‘Almost every day the bodies of people who have chosen to kill themselves are taken down in the lift. It’s horrid and I’ve had enough.’ What a ghastly state of affairs to have on your doorstep. But then euthanasia is an unnatural and offensive affair and someone has to bear the dirty work, be they doctors, nurses, or neighbours.
Every pregnancy entails some risks to mother and baby, but for those conceived by IVF, the risks can be considerably greater. Recent research from Trondheim, Norway showed that IVF women are up to six times more likely to suffer from placenta praevia, a condition in which the placenta blocks the womb and can cause haemorrhage, premature birth and ill health during infancy.
But that is not the only risk. Success rates from IVF can be improved by transferring two or three embryos at a time. The downside of this procedure is that twins or triplets are more likely to be born – accounting for something like a quarter of all IVF babies. Such multiple births are risky. Premature births, low birth weights and complications for mothers, such as pre-eclampsia, are well documented. Stillbirths and death within the first week after birth are 4 times more likely in twins and 7 times more likely with triplets, compared with singletons. Furthermore, the incidence of cerebral palsy is 5 and 18 times higher for twins and triplets respectively.
To limit these risks, from March 2004, UK doctors were banned from transferring more than two embryos to the wombs of women under 40 and more than three to those over 40. Now the HFEA is apparently so concerned about these risks that it is considering making single-embryo transfers the rule for younger women.
Not that any such rules would have stopped Patricia Rashbrook from seeking IVF. She went over to Italy to consult with the infamous Dr Severino Antinori, who operates from a clinic not far from the Vatican. What is illegal in Italy and unavailable in Britain was carried out in a Moscow clinic which buys ova from impoverished donors. And, on Wednesday 5 July, at the age of 62, Dr Rashbroook gave birth by Caesarean section to a son in a Sussex hospital and thus became Britain’s oldest IVF mother.
Opponents of IVF have typically produced ethically-grounded arguments against the procedure. Now IVF has come in for a financial bashing. Despite the Government’s pledge to give one free cycle of IVF, over 80% of IVF treatments occur in the private sector with couples paying on average £3,500 for every attempt, which, with additional tests and drugs, can be as high as £10,000. And the success rate is still only about 20%. It is now reckoned that the British IVF industry is worth at least £500m. Infertility has made some doctors very rich – it is said that Professor Ian Craft of the London Fertility Clinic has a personal fortune of £25m. Yet neither doctors nor prospective parents want to see themselves as business partners. They want to view IVF as creating a child rather than as purchasing a product.
But just such a ‘designer baby’ product, at £6,000 a time, is the very aim of the Care at the Park IVF Clinic in Nottingham. Doctors there, led by Dr Simon Fishel, will offer embryo screening to produce ‘saviour siblings’. In 2003, Jamie Whitaker, the first UK ‘saviour sibling’, was born to save the life of his 6-year-old brother, Charlie, who suffered from a bone marrow failure called Diamond Blackfan anaemia (DBA). Because the required IVF and tissue typing was banned in the UK, Jayson and Michelle Whitaker had to travel to the USA. Eventually, the stem cells from Jamie’s umbilical cord blood were used to treat his brother. In 2005, Joe and Julie Fletcher from Northern Ireland, had a ‘saviour sibling’ daughter in the hope of curing their son Joshua of DBA. This time the IVF was allowed in Britain, but the embryo screening had to take place in the USA. Now the HFEA has changed its mind and allowed Charlie and Catherine Mariethoz to produce an IVF baby at the Care at the Park Clinic, who will also be screened there to be a genetic match for their daughter Charlotte, another sufferer from DBA. The HFEA stated that ‘… each patient’s case is approved separately, based on its own merits.’ We’ve heard that sort of pragmatism from the HFEA before. Despite the HFEA’s denial of a slippery slope, the floodgates will soon be opened and it will be open season on all human embryos with disabilities. Instead of developing real cures, carriers will be discarded. Is that good medicine, or is it destructive eugenics?
In actual fact, the HFEA has recently widened the range of conditions for which embryos can be screened (and destroyed if found to be infected with the wrong sort of genes). Preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) was already allowed for a limited number of conditions with which babies can be born, such as cystic fibrosis, or those which can develop early in life, such as cancers like retinoblastoma and familial adenomatous polyposis. Both of these cancers have ‘high penetrance’, meaning that children born with the genetic mutation have a 90% chance of developing the disease. In May 2006, the HFEA went one step further. It approved PGD for some ‘lower penetrance’ genetic mutations, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2, which are linked to breast and ovarian cancers. These have only a 40% and 80% possibility of developing, respectively, and they are also treatable and occur only later in life. This move by the HFEA had a cynical element to it. The HFEA was in the middle of a public consultation, which included the issues surrounding PGD. But it decided to ignore public opinion and approve the wider scope of PGD anyway. That’s pragmatic and unprincipled. But that’s the HFEA for you.