No sex please, we're just egg machines and baby makers

Liz Hunt on a symposium tackling the dilemmas of fertility treatment
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The Independent Online
Strasbourg - The psychological impact of test-tube baby treatments which reduce men to the role of "sperm provider", and position women simply as "baby-making" machines, has been widely underestimated by doctors, a leading fertility specialist warned yesterday.

Professor Israel Nisand, a French obstetrician and gynaecologist, described the paradox in which scientists had "mastered the creation of man by man" but with dehumanising consequences largely ignored by them.

"The Sixties witnessed the advent of sexuality without procreation; the Eighties heralded procreation without sexuality," he said on the opening day of a European symposium which will attempt to resolve some of the medical, legal, and ethical questions raised by modern fertility treatments.

The events of last summer in the United Kingdom, which saw an impassioned debate over the disposal of "orphaned" embryos; the decision by a woman to abort one of her healthy twins; and the case of Mandy Allwood, who miscarried octuplets after taking a fertility drug, has highlighted the dilemmas faced by developed countries where medical progress has outstripped society's attempts to deal with the legal and moral aspects.

Where legislation has been introduced, its failings and inflexibility have been cruelly exposed, as in the case of Diane Blood, the woman denied the right to use her dead husband's sperm to have a child.

Speaking about the psychological repercussions of fertility treatment, Professor Nisand, of the Universite Paris V, said eroticism had been separated from parenthood, and instead the "intimate and private sphere of sexual relations [had] become the `field of operation' for highly specialised medical procedures ... physical intimacy, normally experienced in a spontaneous manner gives way to the alienating experience of a mechanical body." The trappings of fertility treatment were all threats to a couple's wellbeing, he said.

Studies show that despite being given precise information on success rates, couples persistently overestimate their chances of a baby - putting it at a 60-90 per cent compared with an average 14 per cent.

Professor Nisand warned that "while there are children in the world who are not wanted, there are also children who are wanted too much". He urged doctors to avoid "technical totalitarianism" and treat couples as individuals, having the courage to defer or refuse treatment if necessary.

Meropi Michaleli, a psychologist from Athens, told the 400 delegates attending the conference that rapid advances in reproductive medicine since the birth of the first test-tube baby, Louise Brown, in 1978, had reduced infertility to simply a disorder of the reproductive apparatus.

She welcomed the fact that a psychologist had been asked to present the first paper at the symposium, organised by the Council of Europe. "I believe that treating sterility first means treating the psychological suffering of sterility, and that the child ... can only come afterwards," she said.

The Third Council of Europe Bioethics Symposium will determine the contents of a protocol for the protection of the human embryo to be included in the draft convention on human rights and biomedicine which is now under discussion by ministers.