‘Advent of the virgin births’ at IVF clinics

There are ‘dozens’ of women in the UK who have never had a relationship, but successfully had a baby through IVF. The end of men? Or a welcome opportunity for modern women?

‘Did we really mean to make men useless?’ asked an editorial for the Mail on Sunday. The paper had published a front-page story on Britain’s ‘virgin births’ after doctors revealed that a handful of young women — ‘at least 25’ — had given birth to artificially conceived babies without ever having sexual intercourse.

The story was well-timed after Pope Francis made a speech to US congress warning that ‘fundamental relationships’ such as marriage and family are ‘being called into question’.

Many of the critics included in the Mail on Sunday’s story also came from religious backgrounds. The Bishop of Carlisle argued that the ‘ideal’ family for a child was a married mother and father, while the head of Britain’s Islamic Sharia Council accused fertility doctors of ‘acting like God’. Josephine Quintavalle, the founder of a non-religious group on ‘reproductive ethics’ compared the children to a ‘teddy bear’ picked from a shelf.

‘Every case is different,’ said Tracey Sainsbury, a senior fertility counsellor at The London Women’s Clinic. She said that some women had simply not found a heterosexual relationship, while others had psychological reasons for not wanting to have sex. Others identified as lesbians. But regardless of the reasons, she insisted that none of the women had ever looked into the treatment ‘on a whim’.

IVF and artificial insemination in humans were originally developed to help couples with fertility problems, but the number of single women deciding to have a baby is on the rise. Recent figures from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) stated that 952 single women registered at IVF clinics in 2013, a rise of more than 200% since 2006. Many of these are older women who had not met the right partner, but still wanted to be a parent.

Brave new world?

Some fear that the rising trend of voluntary single mothers is diminishing the role of men in society. Their children have been denied a father, or even another parent in a same-sex partnership. The situation could be damaging for a child struggling to understand their identity, and difficult for the mother who is raising them without much support. Of course single parents have existed for centuries, but deliberately choosing to bypass men is a dangerous step.

Others are less worried about the ‘natural’ role of men and women in families. Science has given a chance to women who may not have become mothers any other way. They are forced to think carefully about the decision, so are often more prepared than parents who did not plan their pregnancy. And the child is sure to grow up in a loving household, knowing how much their mother wanted them. Isn’t that the most important thing?

You Decide

  1. Could you, one day, decide to have a baby without a partner?
  2. Has society ‘diminished’ the role of men?

Activities

  1. Write a letter to your imaginary future child, giving them three pieces of advice. If you like, you can save your letter for the future.
  2. Research the process of IVF and draw a series of diagrams explaining it to potential parents.

Some People Say...

“IVF is wrong when there are children waiting for adoption”

What do you think?

Q & A

How much does this matter?
An interesting question. Single parents are not new; there are currently around 2.8m single-parent households in the UK. But until recently, this was largely due to the breakdown of relationships or the death of a parent. So this ethical question is about the context in which children are born when the absence of a father is a deliberate choice. ‘Traditional’ families are no longer the only option. In the end, how much that matters is probably up to the families themselves.
How much does it cost?
NHS guidelines suggest that IVF should be free for women under 43 who have been trying to have a baby naturally for two years or more, but local policy can vary. For those who do not qualify, including the women in this article, it can cost around £5,000 each cycle.

Word Watch

Sexual intercourse
There are lots of different ways to ‘have sex’, but in this case we are referring to a heterosexual partnership where a penis is inserted into a vagina.
Pope Francis
The 266th leader of the Catholic Church gave his wide-ranging speech last week. In addition to his comments about families, he called for action on issues including climate change, immigration, poverty and capital punishment.
Congress
The two ‘Houses’ of US government which debate and approve legislation: the House of Representatives and the Senate.
IVF
In vitro fertilisation, meaning ‘in glass’. During this process, the egg is fertilised outside a woman’s body and then returned to her womb after it has begun to develop. Since the 1970s, more than five million people have been born this way.
Artificial insemination
Medically inserting sperm into a woman’s womb so that the fertilisation happens inside her body. It is sometimes called intrauterine insemination, or IUI.
Same-sex partnership
In 2012, women in same-sex relationships in the UK went through 2,037 cycles of IVF or artificial insemination.

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