Assisted Conception: Medical Miracle or Ticking Time Bomb?

by Amy House


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As fertility treatments have advanced over the years, “miracle babies” have become more and more commonplace – 5 million humans have been conceived through in-vitro fertilization (or IVF) to date, and the numbers are ever rising. IVF, among other treatments and drugs, have made many a couple’s dream of a family come true and allowed millions around the globe the chance to have their very own dream baby.

Sounds pretty perfect, right? Unfortunately, it isn’t. With the good comes also the bad, and in this case, these fertility treatments could have some pretty substantial downsides.

Recent studies have potentially linked popular fertility therapies with birth defects, low birth weight, prematurity and increased risk of childhood cancer, among other medical issues.

In a recent Swedish study, scientists searched for correlations between childhood cancers and children whose conception was assisted, factoring in variables such as birth weight, date of birth, and parental dates of birth in order to pinpoint any linkages. They found that children of assisted conception were more likely to get certain types of cancers (hepatoblastoma and rhabdomyosarcoma, specifically.)


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Another study, this time in Australia, found that women who conceived with assistance were more likely to have a stillbirth, deliver by cesarean section, deliver prematurely, and/or have a lower mean birth weight. The records of patients who had undergone assisted fertility treatment history were screened for birth defects, stillbirth, and abortion due to birth defects. They included in their study any birth and congenital defects discovered up until the child’s fifth birthday.

In this study, birth defects were found to be much more common in cases of assisted conception – 8.3% of pregnancies as compared to 5.8% associated with natural conception. The risks were higher in women with a history of infertility, when fresh embryos were used, with use of the fertility drug clomiphene citrate, and in patients who had used a specific method of treatment, Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection (ICSI), in which a sperm cell is directly injected into an egg. Although problems stemming from in-vitro fertilization could also be attributed to other factors such as advanced maternal age, through all the screening processes ICSI persistently was found to have a higher likelihood of these defects and issues.

The question at hand is a bit of a “chicken or the egg” scenario. Does the increased risk of defects stem from the assisted fertility treatments themselves, or from preexisting factors which contributed to the couples’ infertility in the first place? Women who undergo fertility treatments are often older and have their own health issues, which likely contribute to this increased risk, along with a slew of other seen and unforeseen factors. The issue at hand is not black and white – we don’t exactly know the precise causes for these health risks.

Although the risk was only shown to be increased by a small margin, this does beg the question, what other potential risks could come of fertility treatments such as IVF and ICSI? Could there be a significant long-term danger associated with these treatments? As they are relatively new procedures, only time will tell.

Additional Reading: 

5 Myths About Fertility Treatments
Artificial Wombs
Baby Born From 20-Year-Old Frozen Embryo 


Sutcliffe, Alastair G, et. al. “Cancer Risk among Children Born after Assisted Conception.” New England Journal of Medicine: 1819-1827. Print.

DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1301675

Davies, Michael, et. al. “Reproductive Technologies and the Risk of Birth Defects.” New England Journal of Medicine: 874-876. Print.

DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1008095