There was a terrific article in yesterday’s Washington Post that clearly lays out the evidence that federal bans on embryonic research – such as the stem cell research ban – are actually causing an increase in birth defects. (HT: Mahablog.)

The gist of the story is that the human reproductive system is optimized for a single fetus – not the litter-sized batches common with IVF. And multiple-births are on the rise.

Yet in the past 30 years, this country has experienced a stunning escalation in multiple births. The number of babies born as triplets, quadruplets or even more rose from about 900 in 1972 to 7,275 in 2004. That same year, the highest number of twins ever were born — 132,000, nearly double the number born in 1980. Not coincidentally, there has also been a rise in premature births, infants born with low birth weights and disorders — such as cerebral palsy — that can occur when a premature baby’s brain is insufficiently developed.

In “litters”, a system optimized for one fetus has 2, 3, 4 or more crammed in it, sharing the same resources. Less space, less oxygen, means less fetal development.

Twins are six times more likely to suffer from cerebral palsy than are singletons, triplets 20 times more. Infant mortality — death in the first year — is substantially higher in multiple births. One study found that at least one disabled child was produced in 7.4 percent of twin pregnancies, 21.6 percent of triplet pregnancies and 50 percent of quadruplet pregnancies.

And don’t forget about the mothers. Among women pregnant with twins, the risks of post-partum hemorrhage and infection are doubled, the risk of death quadrupled. A woman pregnant with twins or triplets is more susceptible to the most dreaded complications of pregnancy, including preeclampsia.

And why do IVF pregnancies often result in multiple-births? Because scientists don’t know enough about embryos to be able to tell which ones are viable and which aren’t, so they implant multiple embryos hoping one “takes”, and sometimes many of them do. And the research to better understand fetal development is banned.

In 1996 a law known as the Dickey-Wicker Amendment took effect prohibiting funding research involving the creation or destruction of embryos. The provision is regularly passed as part of the Department of Health and Human Services appropriations bill. It has become a conservative touchstone.

The upshot is that scientists who receive federal funding ? and most good scientists do ? cannot use any part of it, even indirectly, to study the embryos that IVF creates so as to learn how to better assess their viability. ?There is so much we do not know about the human embryo that we need to,? said scientist James Trimarchi. ?The truth is, we really don?t know anything.?

I can’t really top Liza Mundy’s conclusion, so I’ll just paste a copy here:

Children are born every day whose health and well-being are permanently affected by the funding ban for embryo research. It is puzzling that no advocate has arisen willing to take it on in the name of public health. In England, state-licensed research on IVF embryos is permitted for 14 days after their creation. This limit seems reasonable and worth emulating. Embryos do deserve special moral status. But so does the other group that lacks a voice in this debate: children who owe their lives — and perhaps their afflictions — to the science that made them.

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