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The human fertility industry: creating and destroying human life for profit?

By Michael Cook - posted Thursday, 18 March 2004

The touching story of a sick child and its desperate parents is being used to promote a growing industry.

The news that an IVF clinic has created two saviour siblings is more than an ethical challenge -- it is slick public relations.

Sydney IVF made headlines around the world after revealing that it had selected embryos to be perfect tissue matches for sick children in need of bone marrow transplants. This marks an advance on techniques used by other Australian clinics which have tested embryos for genetic errors. It is the first time that embryos have been matched for compatible blood groups in Australia and the second time in the world.


Other couples are now queuing up in the hope of cures for their children.

This achievement is not just a reminder of scientists’ amazing ability to manipulate and modify embryos. It also highlights the fact that fertility medicine has swollen from a single baby 25 years ago into an immense industry with growing political and social clout.

Sydney IVF, for instance, is a public unlisted company which employs 150 people. Its chairman is not a doctor, but an investment banker with Macquarie Bank, Rowan Ross. Until last October its chief operating officer was a Harvard MBA.

According to its website, Sydney IVF has started or assisted clinics in Thailand, Brunei, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Indonesia, Turkey, India and Bolivia -- plus Australian centres in Wollongong, Newcastle and Canberra and clinics in Coffs Harbour, Lismore, Orange, Tamworth and Launceston.

And Sydney IVF is just one of several Australian IVF companies which are aggressively touting their business in regional centres and overseas.

Like any player in a highly competitive market, an IVF company needs to create new products; it needs to be on the cutting edge; and it needs to open up new markets. That’s why IVF clinics are moving from a meat-and-potatoes product like in vitro fertilisation for infertile couples to deluxe services like sex selection and pre-implantation embryo diagnosis, and now, saviour siblings.


IVF doctors know that their industry has a bright future. With more and more women waiting until their 30s to have a child, long after their fertility has begun to decline, their market will continue to grow as the Australian birth rate declines. Furthermore, they can always count on strong demand. Many couples are so eager to have a child that they are willing to suffer any indignity, any inconvenience, any pain -- or pay any price -- to bring a baby into their lives.

With nearly two per cent of all births now attributable to assisted reproduction, IVF clinics will soon have a significant effect upon national health, family structures and social welfare. Such an industry ought to be subject to close government scrutiny of its impact on the social environment.

But this isn’t happening.

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About the Author

Michael Cook edits the Internet magazine MercatorNet and the bioethics newsletter BioEdge.

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