Freedom and choice

The value of technology in providing greater choice

Technology gives people more choices. For example, consider different kinds of activities that are available through home computer systems, such as word processing, games, music, internet access, and email.

Technology has greatly increased choice in human reproduction. For most couples, having a child happens naturally after having sex. However, for a small number of people, conception does not occur for many different reasons.

Not being physically able to have children is called infertility. Around fifteen per cent of Australian couples are affected by infertility. Until the late 1970s, the only way for these couples to have a child was through adoption. Since then, advances in reproductive technology have dramatically changed the ways infertile couples can conceive children.

There has been an increase in treatments that use methods such as artificial insemination - where sperm (from a woman's partner or a donor) is injected into the woman's reproductive system to help fertilise an egg.

Assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) is the name for techniques that have come from the work of English scientist, Professor RG Edwards and obstetrician, Mr Patrick Steptoe. This team was responsible for the first successful in vitro fertilisation (IVF).

In 1978, IVF was used to help an English couple, Leslie and John Brown, have a healthy baby daughter called Louise. Eggs were removed from Mrs Brown and fertilised with Mr Brown's sperm in a sterilised glass dish in the laboratory. The fertilised eggs were then put back into Mrs Brown's uterus.

While ARTs now help infertile couples to have children, these technologies have also changed traditional parenthood. For example, ARTs can be used for:

  • a couple to have a child when the woman is unable to conceive naturally
  • single people or same-sex couples to have a child, as long as there is someone to donate the egg or sperm
  • surrogacy, where a woman who is not the biological mother carries a child until it is born
  • fertilised eggs/embryos to be stored frozen for later use.

ARTs have also raised speculation of future parents being able to 'design' their baby by altering the embryo's DNA before returning it to the woman's body.

Through technology, we certainly have more choice in child bearing. However, is greater choice all that is necessary for these developments to be seen positively?

There is a lot of debate about the use of reproductive technologies in our society. Some people consider a procedure like IVF worthwhile from a health perspective, because it can improve human wellbeing. For others, cultural or religious beliefs may give them a different point of view.

In the ART area, infertility is seen as a medical condition. Therefore, the need for the person to make their own decisions follows the same ethical considerations that apply to any patient needing medical treatment.

The following activity enables students to explore ethical questions related to the use of biotechnology in expanding our choices in relation to childbearing.

Using biotechnology to expand our choices - work sheet [PDF 30kb | 4 pages]

The National Health and Medical Research Council has set up a specific group that looks at ethical issues relating to health and developing guidelines for the conduct of medical research involving humans.