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IVF - in pursuit of the unattainable?

By Daniel Donahoo - posted Tuesday, 31 January 2006

The science of IVF is extraordinary. On an individual level it transforms couples’ lives, providing a solution to a devastating situation. But it’s also an expression of our collective obsession with the idea we can provide perfect lives to people in our imperfect world.

Humanity has decided its destiny is to solve all problems and provide some sort of earthly utopia. Consequently, we don’t think through the social and ethical issues of our technological progress very well.

IVF critics claim intervention is encouraged thanks to the money that can be made. This cynical view may have some truth, but no more than the deeper issue that many people not only believe they can “have it all”, but also “having it all” is a human right.


It isn’t surprising that the systems governing IVF are not sophisticated enough to deal with the wave of emotions and complex issues that arise from dabbling with the human desire to reproduce.

We are an outcome-driven society.

Governments spend millions promoting their achievements. Businesses focused on delivering profits ignore process. Our children are funnelled through 13 years of education, with only a single score received in their final high school year to show for all they’ve learned.

Being outcome-focused means the processes we undertake as human beings suffer. The ethical dilemmas presented by science and technology are not dealt with systematically. And our governments are ill-equipped to legislate when they themselves are more focused on the electorate’s interest as the end result rather than the process.

This may be because we tend towards conservatism. Our society’s initial response to change is usually negative. We oppose before engaging, whatever the issue, and prefer just to be told the end result. Our lack of participation and discussion in the decision-making process is doing us a disservice.

We continue to fail to come to terms with the issues surrounding IVF and other complex matters because we hold up choice as the dominant ethic. More choice gives us greater possibilities and opportunities to express our individuality and less chance to expose our imperfections.


The impact of that choice on the community is given insignificant attention. This is the case with scientific developments such as genetically modified crops, genetic testing and IVF technologies. All promote their ability to reduce imperfection and provide consistency in an unstable and uncertain world. But their promises of certainty are hollow without adequate longitudinal studies of their impact on society.

So I was surprised by the decision early last year not to allow a Victorian woman access to her dead husband’s sperm. The core reason was he couldn’t give his consent. His death meant his choice went to the grave with him.

To uphold the choice of the dead over that of the living is a new twist, and in some ways conflicts with another key decision in Victoria this year - to allow contact between sperm donors and their biological offspring.

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About the Author

Journalist and columist with The Age, Sushi Das says he is ‘one of today’s young rebels’. Author and ethicist Leslie Cannold has referred to him as one of her ‘gorgeous men’.

Daniel Donahoo is fellow with OzProspect, a non-partisan, public policy think tank. He writes regularly for Australia's daily papers and consults on child and family issues. A father to two boys. Daniel's first book is called Idolising Children and explores our society’s obsession with childhood and youth. Updates on Daniel's work can be found at

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