In a case that highlights the ethical complications of fertility treatments, a pregnant Tunisian woman is reportedly carrying twelve babies. One Catholic ethicist has commented on the moral aspects of the case, suggesting that doctors did not properly monitor their patient.
The pregnant woman, a teacher, is expecting six boys and six girls. After suffering a number of miscarriages, she conceived the babies following fertility treatments, Fox News reports.
The method of fertility treatment was not reported. Dr. Mark Hamilton of the British Fertility Society said the mother could have been receiving ovulation induction treatment, which stimulates egg production and lacks the “control” of in-vitro fertilization (IVF).
The mother has told doctors she was feeling “fine” and has said she looks forward to hugging her children.
"In the beginning, we thought that my wife would give birth to twins, but more fetuses were discovered," said the father, named as Marwan in local reports. "Our joy increased with the growing number."
Dr. Manny Alvarez, managing health editor of FoxNews.com, said such a prolific pregnancy is possible but the likelihood of all 12 babies surviving to term is very slim.
"When you get to a pregnancy with that many multiples, often some of them spontaneously die," Alvarez said. "Anything more than five babies becomes a very high-risk pregnancy."
If the majority of babies are carried to term, she will need constant monitoring and will need to be hospitalized.
"The rates of premature labor for multiples are astronomical," he told Fox News.
Sister Renée Mirkes, OSF, Ph.D., Director of the Center For NaPro Ethics at the Pope Paul VI Institute in Omaha, Nebraska spoke with CNA in a Tuesday phone interview about the ethics of infertility treatment.
Catholic ethics holds that the human person should be conceived by “an act of love between husband and wife.”
The principle implicit in this, she explained, is that the new human child ought to be “the fruit of a loving act of sex between its parents.”
“The life and integrity of the newly-conceived human being is to be protected,” she continued. “Fertility treatments must respect life and bodily integrity of the newly conceived human being.
If the woman’s doctors used superovulatory drugs to stimulate the woman’s ovaries, she speculated that the dosage may have been “completely off.”
“It’s very important in the superovulation process to take a moral approach to the problem.”
A doctor must monitor the woman carefully to determine how the drugs are affecting her and her ovaries.
A key question, she said, is how many eggs a woman has developing.
Sr. Mirkes explained the procedure of Dr. Thomas W. Hilgers, an obstetrician/gynecologist and founder of the Pope Paul VI Institute, in the case of a woman undergoing ovarian hyperstimulation.
He tells the woman to avoid intercourse during the fertile phase if ultrasound shows three or more follicles that all look like they are “ripening” and preparing to expel an egg, Sr. Mirkes reported.
“It is not a good thing to conceive more than one baby at a time,” she said. “Even just twins put stress and strain on the mother’s body and the babies’ own development could be compromised.”
She said that whoever gave the Tunisian mother ovary hyperstimulation treatment “wasn’t very ethical because they didn’t follow her.”
Though reports were unclear on which method was used, but Sr. Mirkes doubted IVF was the source of the twelve babies in the pregnancy. It would be a “huge, huge breach of practice” of implanting only a few embryos.
She explained the reasons IVF was unethical, noting that the children were conceived not “within a loving act” but in a lab, a “sterile setting” where the person guiding the process of fertilization doesn’t even know the parties involved.
In such techniques, the husband has engaged in the immoral act of masturbation, while the woman has had her eggs removed, turning the parents into merely “suppliers of genetic material” until the IVF-conceived embryos are transferred back into the woman.
“Husbands are sometimes invited to attend, but it doesn’t do much for intimacy, certainly,” she told CNA, saying that this process is immoral since children have a right to be conceived in an act of love between prospective parents.
She also noted that in “high order” pregnancies, pregnancies in which there are more than one unborn child, “selective termination” is often used. In this process, a form of abortion, doctors find the fetus that looks “the least developed, the most compromised and probably least likely to make it in the end.”
They then inject sodium chloride into the heart of the developing unborn child until the baby stops moving.
This is “directly destroying an innocent human being in the womb,” she stated.
“You can’t ever kill someone out of necessity. It doesn’t make any moral difference just because you feel it is necessary.
“If the baby dies normally, that’s one thing. But you don’t go and start killing them off to make the pregnancy more manageable.
“That shows an inherent flaw in this approach to pregnancy. We should not be encouraging high-order pregnancies. On every front, it’s immoral.
“Even Solomon in all his wisdom probably couldn’t figure out how to fix this.”
Returning to the case of the Tunisian woman carrying twelve children, Sr. Mirkes said:
“Right from the get-go, the mistake that was made is that no one told the woman not to have intercourse with her husband because the medicine had produced more eggs than you would ever want to be fertilized.”
“The moral part of it for the doctor was that no one in the medical profession took that initiative.”