The Purvis Society was delighted to welcome over 80 Cranleighans, of all age groups, to a talk given by Mrs Laura Witjens entitled “Ethical Challenge in Assisted Reproduction”. Setting the scene with the intriguing idea that medical ethics were not fixed in stone, she swiftly moved on to talk about assisted reproduction technology, explaining that this entailed making babies in a petri dish and not “the natural way”. We in the UK are now in a position to assist the one in six couples for whom the natural way was proving an insurmountable obstacle: one year of trying is likely to lead a childless couple to a specialist who could point them towards any one of eleven combinations involving egg donation, sperm donation, embryo donation or surrogacy as a method of obtaining a baby. The point was strongly made that creating a baby for other people was a wonderful thing, but that technology was rushing ahead of the law and that there were serious ethical problems associated with this. For instance, taking one of the most extreme cases, five separate people could end up being termed a “parent” by the resulting child (the sperm donor, the egg donor, the surrogate mother and the couple whose lives were to be thus enriched).

Audience participation was now invited as Cranleighans reviewed some of the ethical issues, including the destruction of “surplus” embryos, the issue of over-population, finances, one’s inalienable right to have a child, and whether adoption was a better alternative (a pet hate of our speaker, this one!). We then surged on through the thorny subject of screening (not the manufacture of “designer babies”), same-sex couples, single parenting, ethnicity and whether the identity of the donor or donors should be concealed from the child, and concluded with the horror of eugenics.

Mrs Witjens’s knowledge, experience and passion were plain for all to see and our eyes were opened to questions and ideas not previously encountered by the majority of the assembly. She pointed out that we should be proud to be British not only because the original technology was British (Prof. Robert G. Edwards was awarded a Nobel Prize last year) but because we have an ethical framework in place not even emulated by the Americans; we truly are world-beaters in this field. To draw the evening to a close she pointed out that further developments in policy were going to be in the hands of our young audience: another thought-provoking statement!

Mrs Witjens describes herself as a “cage-rattler and change-maker with a 3-D approach: Dutch, Direct and Delivers”, and that is precisely what we experienced. This was a truly stimulating presentation with a wide-ranging discussion that continued over a formal dinner superbly prepared by our Executive Chef, John Smith.

JCEM