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Bioethics at Center Stage : Fertility advances make the subject a hot item of public debate

June 23, 1996

Bioethics has been around at least since Mary Shelley fretted about what science had wrought in her 1818 novel "Frankenstein." Lately, however, three controversies over human fertility have thrust bioethics, now a growing academic field, into the foreground of public debate.

The first emerged last year when UC Irvine officials accused three of the university's fertility specialists of taking human eggs and embryos, without the knowledge and authorization of the donors, and implanting them in other women. One of the doctors involved is expected to be tried next month in a federal case, while on Tuesday a committee in the California Assembly will begin considering a Senate-passed bill that criminalizes the unauthorized transfer of a human egg.

The second controversy, spurred by what some call a "Wild West era" of infertility treatment, finds individual reproductive rights in conflict with physicians' concerns that some treatments are leading to inviable multiple pregnancies--triplets or more. This problem may be partly resolved not so much by ethical debate as by economic necessity: the rising costs connected with multiple births. The average hospital bill for one baby, $5,700, soars to $90,000 for triplets. Oregon's basic package of Medicaid services no longer covers infertility treatments, and some health maintenance organizations are thinking about eliminating similar coverage.

Ethical debate, however, will be all but essential to resolve the third and most dramatic controversy, sparked by veterinarian Ralph L. Brinster's discovery of a key to a kind of "biological immortality." Writing in the May 30 edition of the journal Nature, Brinster reported success at freezing and storing spermatogonia, the tissues that produce sperm. Even after storing them for long periods, he was able to transplant them back into the donor animal or a surrogate and they resumed making unlimited amounts of sperm.

Some of the human applications proposed for Brinster's work--preserving the sperm of males who undergo intensive chemotherapy or enabling men with low sperm production to reproduce--are unlikely to ruffle many feathers. One proposed animal application, however, is sure to cause controversy. By freezing the spermatogonia of endangered species, some environmentalists suggest, it might be possible, years or even centuries later, to block extinction of those species by artificially impregnating large numbers of females. Given that an estimated 48 species become extinct each day in the Amazon rain forest alone, a hard question emerges: Do we have the resources, wisdom and moral responsibility to dash around the globe preserving spermatogonia?

By far the most provocative aspect of Brinster's work is its potential to make "superior sperm" nearly immortal. Scientists enthused that Brinster's methods could permit storage of the sperm of a champion racehorse and then insertion into mares over centuries. What they didn't discuss was the more delicate prospect of doing something similar with human genes: allowing a brilliant scientist, for instance, to sire children indefinitely.

Perpetuating a man's sperm, it should be said, is not the same as perpetuating the man. Sexual reproduction, wherein the genetic information in the male's sperm is combined with that in the female's egg, differs from asexual reproduction, in which an exact duplicate is "cloned" from the original. Breeders will tell you that simply mating a champion horse won't guarantee glory for its offspring on the racetrack.

World governments are recognizing the social importance of the advances in bioengineering. To address them, the Clinton administration established the National Bioethics Advisory Commission last October. Last month, the Russian Medical Assn. set up a national bioethics committee, and this month scientists submitted "moral guidelines" on biological research to the Council of Europe.

The U.S. advisory commission, still in the process of formation, arguably faces the toughest work of all these groups, for the American society is one that believes devoutly in the rights of the individual. Brinster's work suggests that one day we may well have to determine whether these rights extend to a form of immortality.

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