GLBT Family Health: How In Vitro Fertilization Affects Your Baby’s Health

by Katharine Swan

Many GLBT families use in vitro fertilization, also known as IVF, to realize their dreams of having biological children. The process was initially developed to help infertile heterosexual couples to get pregnant, but the technology has proven useful for the gay and lesbian community as well. Whether they use a sperm bank or make an arrangement with a gay would-be father, many lesbian women find it difficult to conceive via artificial insemination. In vitro fertilization takes the guesswork out of getting pregnant by fertilizing the eggs outside of the womb, and then transplanting the zygotes into the lesbian mother’s uterus.

Unfortunately, researchers are now finding that IVF babies are not as healthy as their normally conceived counterparts. If you and your partner opt for in vitro fertilization, how will it likely affect the health of your child?

IVF Babies’ Health Risks

Until recently, doctors and scientists believed that IVF babies fared no worse, health-wise, than did children who were conceived in the normal fashion. It has only been in the last ten years that researchers started digging deeper, following IVF babies and comparing their medical records to those of other children.

Healthy Newborn

For example, a European study that was performed in 2003 found that while 2.4 percent of normally conceived children had birth defects, 6.2 percent of IVF babies had birth defects. Another study found that IVF babies are three times more likely to have cerebral palsy than a normally conceived child. A study of how in vitro fertilization affects mice found that mice conceived in vitro exhibited behavioral problems as adults.

In general, IVF babies have greater chances of:

  • Asthma
  • Infection
  • Behavioral problems
  • Emotional problems
  • Birth defects
  • Disabilities
  • Hospitalization
  • Surgery
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Death

In vitro fertilization also poses higher risks for the mother. For example, IVF births are more likely to be performed via Caesarian section, and mothers tend to spend more time in the hospital following the birth of IVF babies.

These risks are especially pertinent for families who are more likely to choose in vitro fertilization as a way of conceiving a biological child, such as those in the GLBT community.

Possible Causes

Since in vitro fertilization has only been practiced for about 30 years, we have yet to acquire any long-term data. However, doctors and scientists have speculated on a few different reasons that IVF babies may be less healthy than normally conceived children. It is believed that something in the IVF procedure is causing what is known as an epigenetic effect, where the baby’s genes act differently than they are supposed to.

Ovulation Hormones

In order for in vitro fertilization to begin, the doctor first has to withdraw several eggs from the mother’s body. Because a woman’s body usually only releases one egg each month, the mother is given hormones to speed up ovulation.

Some doctors are now wondering if these drugs are actually harming the eggs. Early in a woman’s life, her eggs go through an “imprinting” process, where her body essentially preprograms them for the task of becoming a human being after fertilization. However, some doctors have discussed the possibility that imprinting is finished just prior to ovulation, and that the ovulation drugs are therefore disrupting the natural process.

Artificial Environment

The laboratory environment may also be responsible for causing the epigenetic effect. In the woman’s body, fluids from the oviduct protect the egg until it is implanted in the uterus wall. In the lab, an artificial form of this fluid, called culture medium, is used instead.

Unfortunately, this fluid varies significantly between batches, so not all in vitro fertilization occurs in the exact same solution. Some scientists believe that even minor changes in the egg’s environment can cause the genes to act differently, ultimately impacting the IVF baby’s health.

Multiple Births

There is also a theory that the health problems associated with IVF children have to do with the fact that most of them come from multiple births. Typically, between two and four eggs are returned to the mother’s uterus after in vitro fertilization. This is meant to increase the odds that at least one of the eggs will take hold inside the uterus.

Unfortunately, if two or more of the fertilized eggs take hold, that means the embryos must share resources. The babies’ health risks go up with each baby that is carried in the uterus simultaneously, even in normally conceived children. Therefore, many doctors are now recommending that fewer fertilized eggs be transplanted into the uterus, in the hopes of improving IVF babies’ health.

Protecting Your GLBT Family’s Health

Because in vitro fertilization is one of the main options available to gay and lesbian parents, it is important for the GLBT community to understand the health risks involved. Of course, if you and your partner want a biological child, IVF may be one of your only options. If you feel that may be the case, be sure you, your partner, your donor or surrogate, and your doctor all sit down to discuss what you can do to improve your IVF baby’s chances for a healthy life.

Information published on The Rainbow Babies website is not a substitute for proper medical advice, diagnosis, treatment or care. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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