Australian Developments in Reproductive Technology

By Singer, Peter | The Hastings Center Report, April-May 1988 | Go to article overview

Australian Developments in Reproductive Technology


Singer, Peter, The Hastings Center Report


Australian Developments in Reproductive Technology

Victoria Defines the Moment When an Embryo is Created. The Victoria Infertility (Medical Procedures) Act, 1984 prohibited experiments on embryos created specifically for research purposes but set up a Standing Review and Advisory Committee on Infertility to consider, among other things, proposals for research on excess embryos. At the time, no one regognized a need to define precisely when an embryo comes into existence. Perhaps this was because "fertilization" was thought of as a single event rather than a process. In fact, however, there is a period of some twenty hours after the sperm penetrates the egg before the genetic material of egg and sperm begin to merge--a process known as syngamy.

The need for a more precise definition became apparent when Dr. Alan Trounson, one of the world's leading in vitro fertilization (IVF) researchers, proposed two experiments to test the safety of new techniques in IVF. One of these is the cryopreservation of human ova; the other is the use of microinjection to fertilize an ovum with a single sperm, thus overcoming problems of male infertility caused by low sperm count.

Ideally, a number of embryos would be fertilized and their growth and development examined. The Victorian law prohibits this, however, because it would involve the creation of embryos for research purposes. (Paradoxically, the law would allow Trounson to proceed with the new techniques if he were to transfer the embryos to a woman's uterus; but he considers that unethical when the normality of embryos resulting from the techniques has not been assessed.) Trounson has therefore proposed fertilizing ova and examining them before syngamy has taken place. This would be long enough to give some information about whether abnormalities are likely. But is a fertilized ovum already an embryo, even before any mingling of the genetic material of the sperm and egg?

The Standing Review and Advisory Committee on Infertility debated Trounson's proposal at length, but when it finally voted on whether the experiments came under the prohibition on creating embryos for research, the result was an embarrassing 4-4 tie. …

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