ivf in vitro fertilization ethical issues

The ethical issues with in vitro fertilization include the many human embryos killed in the IVF process, and the “pregnancy reductions” (read: abortions) that often follow.

Ethical Issue #1: An Inefficient Procedure

The probability of a single transplanted embryo surviving the entire in-vitro fertilization (IVF) process are unfavorable to say the least.  Despite using multiple eggs, the probability of achieving pregnancy per IVF cycle is only about one in three.  Even with decades of constant tinkering with the details of the IVF process, its efficiency rate has not improved significantly since 1990.[1]

Pro‑life activists object to IVF not only because it violates the dignity of the marriage act and commodifies human life from its very beginning, but also because it requires the intentional killing or abandonment of many “surplus” human embryos.  In the mid-1980’s, two large studies showed that only about 4% of embryos used in IVF procedures survived to birth.  These numbers have improved somewhat, but even now more than a million embryos fail to survive the IVF process every year.[2]

IVF specialists simply discard as biological waste any embryos that appear to be defective in any way.  If a woman becomes pregnant with multiple embryos, an abortionist often commits a “pregnancy reduction,” or selective abortion.  “Surplus” or defective children are killed with a shot of potassium chloride to their hearts, and are then reabsorbed by the mother’s body.

Naturally, many researchers are reluctant to see all of these perfectly good embryos go to waste, so they extract them alive and experiment upon them. As a result, the availability of so many thousands of “spare” embryos has lent great impetus to the field of embryonic stem cell research, or ESCR ― an area of research that has yet to yield a single cure after more than two decades and billions of dollars spent.[3]

IVF Statistics

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCs) released its first annual ART consumer report, which examined the success rates of 281 fertility clinics, in December 1997.  It has followed up this initial report with a detailed annual survey of all fertility clinics in the United States.[4]

Embryologist adding sperm to egg in laboratory of reproductive clinic. Selective focus

These reports show:

  • In 1995, nearly 60,000 assisted reproduction procedures produced 11,315 live births, for a success rate of about 19%. By 1999, this success rate had improved to just over 25 percent (25.2%), with 16,588 live births resulting. This success rate has continued to increase and has leveled out at about 37% healthy births from fresh embryos and 42% from frozen embryos (for non-donor eggs), and a slightly lower rate of healthy births from donor eggs.[5]
  • Because of the relatively low percentage of success, nearly half of all clients (45.6%) try some form of assisted reproduction more than once, and 6.5% try five or more times.
  • According to epidemiologist John L. Kiely of the National Center for Health Statistics, due to the increased use of fertility drugs, multiple births (and prematurity) increased rapidly from 1972 to 1989. The incidents of triplets rose 156%, quadruplets 356%, and quintuplets and greater numbers of babies 182% during this period.[6] By 1995, 37% of ART successes were multiple births, compared with 2% of births generally.  As scientists perfected the procedures (and resorted increasingly to “selective abortion”), this percentage slowly declined to about 10% by 2014.[7]
  • The highest success rate (31%) for healthy term single births is currently achieved among women under 35 years old using their own (non‑donor) frozen eggs. This rate declines steadily by age until it becomes about 1% for women more than 44 years old.[8] Success rates rest primarily on three variables: whether or not the eggs are frozen, the quality of donor eggs, and the age of the mother.
  • In 2014, the estimated cost of a single uncomplicated in‑vitro fertilization procedure using fresh, non‑donor gametes was about $12,000, with another $3,000 to $5,000 for the necessary associated medications. This does not include several thousand additional dollars for a regimen of multiple prenatal genetic diagnoses (PGDs) that are usually part of the process.

Ethical Issue #2: “Pregnancy Reductions”

As mentioned earlier, one of the many ugly ethical problems that fertility drugs and IVF have created is an alleged need for “pregnancy reduction” abortions.  After implanting a large number of embryos and having more of them survive than expected, doctors often tell women that they are carrying too many preborn babies, and an abortionist selectively kills one or more of them.

Mark Evans, a specialist in maternal and fetal medicine at Detroit’s Hutzel Hospital, invented the “pregnancy reduction” abortion.  He did about 100 of the procedures annually in the 1980s and 1990s, and believes that about 800 to 1000 are done annually in the United States now.  Mothers of quadruplets opt for “pregnancy reduction” 90% of the time, and 70% of the mothers of preborn triplets “reduce” their pregnancies.[9]

baby triplets black background

Two doctors described the “pregnancy reduction” procedure in the New England Journal of Medicine:

Using ultra‑sound to locate each fetus, the doctors would insert a needle into the chest cavity of the most accessible fetus and place the needle tip directly into the heart of the baby.  Potassium chloride was then injected into the heart and the heart was viewed on the ultrasound screen until it stopped beating.  Even at 9 weeks, 3 of the 12 fetuses selected for elimination presented problems.  The heart continued to beat and the procedure had to be repeated.[10]

Other doctors described how they killed two of five babies in a slightly different procedure:

At ten weeks gestation, a reduction in the number of embryos was performed at the Clamart Clinic in Paris.  Guided by real‑time ultrasonography and under abdominal local anesthesia (lidocaine 1 percent), ten milliliters of amniotic fluid from each of the two sacs was aspirated [drawn out] through a ten centimeter long, 21‑gauge needle.  The tip of the needle was then directed into the thoracic [chest] cavity of the fetus and a mixture of 1 milliliter of dolosal and 3 milliliters of xylocaine was injected.  The needle was left in place for up to ten minutes until cessation of cardiac activity was seen.  If the initial injection was unsuccessful, it was repeated after ten minutes.[11]

Some three decades ago, the U.S. Congress’ Committee on Small Business found that many unregulated IVF enterprises deliberately implant too many embryos just to increase their chances of success:

IVF success rates are so discouraging that there are some centers trying to do better in terms of creating babies by using multiple [embryo] implants.  It shows at the forty‑one [leading] centers that there were an average of three embryos used.  Some centers use more than that.  When they do, they sometimes create multiple pregnancies, three, four, five or six babies.  Then they use fetal reduction, which is killing some fetuses to preserve the health of the mother and to help the other fetuses survive.[12]

The usual scenario is that a doctor claims a woman is carrying so many babies that her life or theirs may be endangered.  However, IVF doctors are often wrong.  One of them told a woman her five babies would all die, but she chose to carry them all to term.  They were all born healthy and the entire family appeared in a 1991 People Magazine cover story.

As always, abortionists lead with “hard case” arguments.  Some women seem to think twins are too much to handle, and abortionists (who, of course, will make plenty of money by humoring them) will invariably agree.  The “mother’s health” argument, in general, does not hold up when twins can be “reduced” to one child with a sort of abominable reverse “Sophie’s choice.”  In other words, the mother is not choosing which of two children will live, but which one will die.  Of course, pro-abortion people can “justify” all abortions with the same flimsy arguments used to rationalize “pregnancy reduction.”  After all, most abortions are just the reduction of one preborn baby to none.

In vitro image of a human fetus in the womb - approx 12 weeks.

In fact, most “pregnancy reductions” involve killing one of a set of twins.  Even in such apparently simple cases, “pregnancy reduction” is an abysmal failure at delivering its intended result.  A 1989 article in a medical journal admitted:

The first six twin pregnancies to undergo selective termination at Mount Sinai Hospital “worked out very badly,” with the unintended miscarriage of four unaffected fetuses as well as the six targeted for abortion.  These first attempts involved the use of exsanguination [draining all of the blood from the preborn babies] or injection of saline or an air embolism [to cause heart attacks], Dr. Berkowitz said.[13]


As with all immoral acts, medical personnel and mothers need Newspeak to insulate themselves from the reality of what they are doing.  The term “pregnancy reduction” is an example.  Others take this self‑deceptive language even further.  Dr. Seymour Romney suggested in 1989 that we call the roulette killing of some of the babies in a multiple pregnancy “enhanced survival of multifetal pregnancies,” or ESMP for short.[14]



[1] “Success of Fertility Clinics Rated in Consumer Report.”  The Miami Herald, December 19, 1997; Tabitha M. Powledge.  “Science and the Citizen:  Looking at ART.”  Scientific American, April 2002; X. Wang, C. Chen and L. Wang,  et al.  “Conception, Early Pregnancy Loss, and Time to Clinical Pregnancy:  A Population-Based Prospective Study.”  Fertility and Sterility, Volume 79, pages 577 to 584 [2003]; Centers for Disease Control.  “2014 Assisted Reproductive Technology Fertility Clinic Success Rates Report.”  Table entitled “2014 National Summary,” page 21.

[2] United States Congress, Committee on Small Business.  Consumer Protection Issues Involved in In Vitro Fertilization Clinics [Washington, D.C.:  U.S. Government Printing Office], 1988, pages 26 and 27]; Centers for Disease Control.  “2014 Assisted Reproductive Technology Fertility Clinic Success Rates Report.”  Table entitled “2014 National Summary,” page 21.  As of 2012, about 1.5 million ART cycles are attempted each year, with 350,000 live births resulting.  This means that about 1.15 million embryos either die or are frozen annually [This figure was presented at the 28th annual meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE), held June 30-July 1, 2012, in Istanbul, Turkey (Peter Baklinski.  “Let’s Celebrate?: Estimated 30 Million Lives Sacrificed for 5 Million ‘Test Tube Babies’.”  LifeSite Daily News, July 4, 2012)].

[3] The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity.  “An Overview of Stem Cell Research,” August 2009.

[4] See, for example, the CDC’s 600-page “2014 Assisted Reproductive Technology Fertility Clinic Success Rates Report,” available here.

[5] Centers for Disease Control.  “Assisted Reproductive Technology Fertility Clinic Success Rates Report.”  Table entitled “National Summary,” Reports from years 2012-2014.

[6] “Multiple Births.”  USA Today, July 15, 1992.

[7] Centers for Disease Control.  “2014 Assisted Reproductive Technology Fertility Clinic Success Rates Report.”  Table entitled “2014 National Summary,” page 21.

[8] Centers for Disease Control.  “Assisted Reproductive Technology Fertility Clinic Success Rates Report.”  Table entitled “National Summary,” Reports from years 2012-2014.

[9] Kim Painter.  “Risks and Costs Increase with Number of Fetuses.”  USA Today, November 10, 1997, page A1.

[10] “Selective Abortion, AKA Pregnancy Reduction.”  New England Journal of Medicine, April 21, 1988.

[11] Rene Frydman et al.  “Reduction of the Number of Embryos in a Multiple Pregnancy:  From Quintuplet to Triplet.”  Fertility and Sterility, August 1987, pages 326 and 327.

[12] United States Congress, Committee on Small Business.  Consumer Protection Issues Involved in In Vitro Fertilization Clinics [Washington, D.C.:  U.S. Government Printing Office, 1988], pages 26 and 27.

[13] “Selective Abortion in Multiple Gestation.”  Obstetrics and Gynecology News, August 1‑14, 1989.

[14] Debra Evans.  Without Moral Limits:  Women, Reproduction, and the New Medical Technology [Westchester, Illinois:  Crossway Books], 1989, page 116.