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Further Reading

BIOHAZARDS: Department

Cracking Eggs

IVF & Israel's New Eugenics

by Paige Comstock Cunningham

Ten years ago, Dr. Tal Biron-Shental, an ob-gyn at Meir Hospital in Israel, announced success in keeping ovarian tissue from aborted fetuses alive in a laboratory for several weeks. With the addition of specialized hormone treatment, she said, it was "theoretically possible" to turn the immature eggs into mature ones that could be used in IVF procedures. Though conceding that the procedure was controversial, she thought that at some point it would become "ethically acceptable."1

Fast-forward ten years. In February 2013, Dr. Eliezer Shalev of the Technion Israel Institute of Technology reported on the possibility of creating human eggs from amniotic sac tissue.2

The Israeli quest for a supply of human gametes is not limited to eggs. Dr. Jacob Rosen, head of the largest private sperm bank in Israel, notes that "super-sperm" donors are becoming rare. These "superior" men are tall, in their twenties, and have passed rigorous genetic testing. A decade ago, one in 10 men qualified as super-sperm donors; today, only one in 100 pass the test. The quality of the sperm is falling at an alarming rate, for unknown reasons. (One possibility, though, is excess exposure to the female hormones in birth control pills, which show up in Israel's water supply.)

Israel is a leader in IVF success rates, something that can be attributed to its extensive research, its offering of free and unlimited IVF procedures, and its welcoming attitude toward children. Journalist Edmund Sanders notes that "fertility is a major issue in Israel, where memories of the Holocaust are fresh and having children is an entrenched part of Judaism."3

But consideration of another aspect of the Holocaust seems to be missing from the forward march of technology: its eugenic origins. The seeds were planted in laboratories on Long Island and nourished by Supreme Court approval of involuntary sterilization before being transplanted to Germany. There, the fiercely efficient extermination operations of the Third Reich began with the mentally and physically handicapped before being expanded to include Jews.

Edwin Black, the son of Holocaust survivors, writes that eugenics did not disappear after World War II ended, but "quietly took postwar refuge under the labels human genetics and genetic counseling."4 Genetics is interwoven with current IVF practices: both egg and sperm donors are screened for suitability; their gametes undergo genetic screening; and embryos must pass preimplantation genetic diagnosis before being transferred to a woman's uterus. Those carrying a marker for a particular disease are excluded. Often, so are females.

In the scenario where eggs are retrieved from a female fetus who was aborted because of a chromosomal or anatomical defect, a child could be created whose genetic mother was deemed unfit to be born, but managed to produce eggs of acceptable quality. Isn't this discrimination of the most particular sort, based not on racial identity, but on individual unacceptability?

Tacit approval of genetic selection of embryos engenders a property-based view of children. For example, one single mother, whose three-year-old daughter was created with donor sperm from an Israeli, sued to keep other sperm samples from the donor after he changed his mind. The mother claimed that the donor was depriving her daughter of biological siblings, adding that if the child ever needed a bone-marrow transplant, "a donation from a full biological sibling has a greater chance of working."5 The Israeli High Court of Justice ruled in favor of the sperm donor, but urged him to reconsider.

Historical amnesia envelops laboratories and courtrooms, and the language, ethics, and technology of the new eugenics have captured the market and the public imagination—even in Israel. 


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