Babies and Ethics

RADIO stations in Des Moines, Iowa, and Pensacola, Fla. are currently sponsoring what might rank as one of the most tasteless events of the year - Breeders Cup contests, offering prizes to the first couple to conceive. Once a week, three couples in each city gather at their local station to talk on the air about their efforts to have a family. As one of the would-be fathers competing in Des Moines admits, ``It's the nontraditional way.'' These couples are not the only ones taking a nontraditional and highly public approach to conception and childbearing. Last month the New England Journal of Medicine made front-page news when it reported that four of seven post-menopausal women between the ages of 40 and 44 gave birth to healthy babies using eggs donated by younger women. And earlier this fall a surrogate mother in California lost a highly publicized legal battle for custody of a baby she bore for another couple - an infant to whom she had no genetic link.

For desperate couples longing to have a baby, in vitro fertilization and other high-tech medical advances may represent a dream come true. But what is biologically possible is not always socially, ethically, and legally desirable. Increasingly, biotechnology is weaving a tangled web of parentage, pitting birth mothers against genetic parents and giving rise to such chilling phrases as ``host womb'' and ``fetal nanny.'' The heartfelt question becomes: Who - or what - is a parent?

No one should dismiss or belittle the love and the desire for a family that motivates couples to pursue expensive, difficult procedures that often do not produce a baby. But the brave new world has not arrived yet, despite hype from fertility clinics and hoopla from the media. Perhaps this is just as well. For if the biogenetic engineers have their technical problems, these are nothing compared with the moral puzzlers facing the bioethicists. When the reverent human act of childbearing gets reduced to either biomechanics or a game of Breeders Cup, it is a warning sign that everybody has a lot of second thinking to do.

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