Saturday, November 23, 2013

Against taxpayer funded access to IVF services

This weekend's column in the Kingston Whig-Standard, on IVF funding and adoption.

More than a few of my friends, colleagues and even family members think I am wrong on the issue of in vitro fertilization (IVF) funding for infertile couples.
For the life of me I cannot see what interest the state should have in paying significant amounts of money to satisfy some people’s interest in having their own genetically-linked children. I do understand that some people want to have a child that is biologically linked to them. I think the desire is irrational, but evolutionary pressures probably explain this drive to get hold of their ‘own’ child as opposed to opting for an adoptive kid.
My objection to IVF is not religiously motivated. Regular readers of this column will know that I am as secular in approaching ethical issues as they come. So I don’t care strongly about how babies are made, whether it’s by sexual intercourse, IVF, or any number of other means, including reproductive human cloning when that comes eventually about. My argument is not about prohibiting access to IVF. I am concerned about ongoing discussions – even court cases – aimed at getting taxpayers to pay for this sort of thing through our public health care system. In Canada, health care being a provincial matter, we see very different approaches. Wealthier provinces such as Quebec – just kidding – pay for IVF treatment cycles while poorer provinces such as Ontario have chosen not to. Well, who is right?
Given that the question is whether the public health care system ought to provide free-to-user IVF treatment cycles, it’s worth asking: is infertility a disease? I guess it depends on how you define disease. Some infertile people campaigning for taxpayer-funded access to IVF compare their infertility to cancer and other serious illnesses. You might want to ask someone struggling with life-threatening cancer what they make of that kind of comparison. Clearly, infertile people can live perfectly healthy lives very much like other people who choose not to reproduce. The latter choose not to reproduce, the former cannot, but both are able to live healthy lives. If you think that not being able to reproduce biologically is a sign of illness justifiably demanding tax monies to be thrown at it you will obviously disagree. At a minimum though it isn’t self-evident that infertility is an illness. It is also unclear whether we could find a sensible cut-off-point for IVF treatments that ought not to be funded. The oldest woman carrying an IVF caused pregnancy to term was a 74 years old. The sky is the limit and profit maximization is the name of the game for the fertility industry. Unsurprisingly the fertility industry is keen to see IVF treatment cycles paid for by taxpayers as that would increase its income.
Even if infertility was uncontroversially an illness it still wouldn’t follow that tax monies ought to be expended on it. We make resource allocation decisions in health care systems (public and private) all the time. More needs to be said to justify public expense than merely ‘I want my own genetically-linked child, so you pay for my IVF treatment cycles.’ Some cash-strapped parents-to-be argued that it truly is unfair of society to expect of them to pay the $15,000-$20,000 for IVF treatment cycles. I do think to describe this as unfortunate would be correct, that it is unfair is far from self-evident. Indeed, some went so far as to say that they would not have been able to have children if it hadn’t been for someone else paying the bill for the IVF treatment. Here’s my problem with this line of reasoning: The cost of raising a child to the age of 18 currently is in the average about $250,000 in Canada. You can’t tell me that a down payment of $15,000-$20,000 is beyond anyone considering that kind of overall expenditure. If it were, perhaps that would be a good reason to reconsider your spending priorities in life, or better even, your life-plan.
An expert panel working on behalf the last Liberal government in Ontario recommended that IVF treatment cycles be provided free of charge through the public health care system. It noted that some people who rely on their own funds to pay for the treatment, implant too many embryos to ensure a pregnancy. This leads to costly complications in some cases. My response to this argument would be that folks engaging in such risk-taking ought to be required to take out insurance to cover any health care cost their irresponsible behavior requires.
Be that as it may, my broader objection to IVF goes beyond merely bickering about scarce health care resources being wasted on people’s preferences for biologically linked children over – say – adoptive children. I think it’s actually a morally problematic choice to produce more children by costly artificial means while children in need of adoptive parents exist in the country. Yes, I’m not talking Madonna-style purchases of babies in the developing world, but needy children in our own backyard.
At the moment tens of thousands of children in Canada are in need of adoptive parents. They are still looking for a family to call their own. Most of these kids were biologically conceived by people unable to look after them. It remains true that it is for most of us a tad bit easier to make children than to look after them. To my mind it would be decadent of any public health care system to subsidize IVF procedures while in its jurisdiction large numbers of children are in need of permanent homes. It just does not make sense to me. I readily acknowledge that the non-commercial adoption system in this country is far from perfect, but I doubt – given what’s at stake – that there can be a perfect system.
Udo Schuklenk holds the Ontario Research Chair in Bioethics and Public Policy at Queen’s, he tweets @schuklenk

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