The Ethics of In Vitro Fertilization (IVF)

To understand the ethics of IVF (In vitro fertilisation) we must first consider the ethical status of an embryo.

This is because there is an important distinction to be made between when a ‘human life’ begins and when a ‘person’ begins.

The former (‘human life’) is a biological question – and our best understanding is that human life begins when the human egg is fertilised by sperm or otherwise stimulated to cause cell division to begin.

The latter is an ethical question – as the concept of ‘person’ relates to a being capable of bearing the full range of moral rights and responsibilities.

There are a range of other ethical issues IVF gives rise to:

  • the quality of consent obtained from the parties
  • the motivation of the parents
  • the uses and implications of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis
  • the permissibility of sex-selection (or the choice of embryos for other traits)
  • the storage and fate of surplus embryos.

For most of human history, it was held that a human only became a person after birth. Then, as the science of embryology advanced, it was argued that personhood arose at the moment of conception – a view that made sense given the knowledge of the time.

However, more recent advances in embryology have shown that there is a period (of up to about 14 days after conception) during which it is impossible to ascribe identity to an embryo as the cells lack differentiation.

Given this, even the most conservative ethical position (such as those grounded in religious conviction) should not disallow the creation of an embryo (and even its possible destruction if surplus to the parents’ needs) within the first 14 day window.

Let’s further explore the grounds of some more common objections. Some people object to the artificial creation of a life that would not be possible if left entirely to nature. Or they might object on the grounds that ‘natural selection’ should be left to do its work. Others object to conception being placed in the hands of mortals (rather than left to God or some other supernatural being).

When covering these objection it’s important to draw attention existing moral values and principles. For example, human beings regularly intervene with natural causes – especially in the realm of medicine – by performing surgery, administering pharmaceuticals and applying other medical technologies.

A critic of IVF would therefore need to demonstrate why all other cases of intervention should be allowed – but not this.

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Is it ethical to intercede in natural selection?