Assisted Reproductive Technology and Ethics

This week we zone in on sexualised technologies, in particular the heavily medicalised and socially regulated practice of birthing. Birthing has accelerated far beyond it’s simple biological act of sex, and has developed into a complex social, medical, legal and ethical issue with the invention of assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs). Bioethics scholar and senior lecturer M.M. Peterson explores these issues brought upon by ARTs such as IVF and sperm donor babies within Australia.


Technology such as ARTs and IVF are medically groundbreaking and provide children for thousands of modern women who would otherwise be unable to conceive. They in fact widen the scope of reproductive options, contesting traditional notions of childbirth, pregnancy and overall motherhood. However issues arise for many women attempting to access this technology which in many cases is determined by a private party or practitioner who decides whether a candidate is suitable for ART services. ART providers are left to tackle ethical questions such as, should single heterosexual women be eligible for ARTs? Lesbians? Women of low socio-economic status? Women whose ability to rear children is questioned such as older or those with restricting disabilities?

In Australia, ART services are controlled by state legislation (Victoria 1995, West Australia 1991, and South Australia 1988) with other states adhering to relevant national health and medical guidelines. These guidelines were based on national guidelines produced in 1996 stating that, “IVF should only be available to people within an accepted family relationship” without specifically defining what this was. Likewise common medical discourse left ethical responsibility onto IVF professionals, who were obliged to use their ‘common sense’ about providing ART services on ‘appropriate’ candidates based on a personal judgement of their parenting ability.  Naturally this leads to systemic bias and discrimination based on common social theories (which have little to no evidence supporting them) suggesting children of single mothers, homosexual relationships or older parents are not capable of raising normal children. In fact psychological studies of children raised under homosexual parents found no negative impacts on cognitive development and function, emotional adjustment, gender identity or behaviour compared to children raised under heteronormative families. Especially with statistics in Australia suggesting that 1 in 3 marriages end in divorce, surely our socially constructed idea of an ‘appropriate’ candidate to have children must change. It is debated if offspring are conceived by donor gametes however which raises concerns about knowledge or contact of their biological parents. But this having not been proven detrimental for heterosexual couples, it should likewise accessible to homosexual couples. Victorian legislation which is likely to spread interstate gave same-sex couples the right to access IVF as well as donor-children the right to access this information once reaching the age of 18 and thus changes the dynamic for anonymous sperm donation ART dynamics.

Australian senator Penny Wong with partner and IVF-assisted daughter.

Social consensus aside, it is stated in the Declaration of Human Rights (of which Australia assisted in drafting) that all people have the right to found a family without limitation of discrimination (Article 16). Regardless of the slow repeal of discriminatory laws regarding ART services, the ethical issue as a whole must be discussed widely within society in order for acceptance and the social stigmas of ‘unacceptable conditions’ for children to be raised in completely removed.


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