Critics Say Infertility Treatments Need More Regulation

A T L A N T A, Aug. 2, 2004 -- Infertility treatment is a $4 billion-a-year business that uses controversial drugs and experimental techniques, and yet is virtually unregulated. Thousands of women each year turn to it in hopes of having a baby, but many scientists, ethicists and policymakers now believe safety concerns are not keeping pace with the rapid growth in the industry.

Kelli and Bob Yonker of Dallas are typical of most couples who try "assisted reproduction." They've spent months on a grueling drug regimen with a price tag of $30,000.

"They always talk about their positive results, and they don't really tell you the negatives," said Kelli.

"When you go to these doctors they expect the money immediately," said Bob. "There's no payment plan."

And for them — no baby.

In fact, according to a recent report, the vast majority — 73 percent — of assisted reproduction treatments fail to produce a baby. Serious questions are being raised about safety and the very loose regulation of the industry.

The report by the President's Council on Bioethics calls for much stricter controls, charging that many infertility researchers are moving "from the experimental" stage "to clinical practice with relatively little oversight" or understanding of the long-term health effects.

"We need to know what the health effects on women are. And frankly, we lack the information right now," said Robert George, member of the President's Council on Bioethics.

Dangerous Drug Cocktail?

Critics say the drugs administered to women to boost their egg production can have adverse side effects, such as enlarged ovaries, thinning of the uterine lining and multiple gestation pregnancies.

"You're not thinking about what could these drugs do to me, and you take so many, and so many different kinds," Kelli said.

There are very few studies looking at the effects of those drugs. Some have raised concern about a possible cervical cancer link, but others point out that this has never been proven.

There are also growing concerns about the children conceived through assisted reproduction.

"Children conceived in in-vitro fertilization may, we're not sure, may have a significantly higher rate of disease and affliction over the long term," George said. "All of these facts mean that it's important for the public to have access to information."

The industry argues that its doctors are licensed, with as much oversight as any standard medical practice. Infertility doctors worry that regulating their specifically could make it more difficult for women who want the treatments.

"The problem is, of course, you don't want to interfere too much with the patient's choice and decision-making in terms of their own care," said Owen Davis of the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology.

Parents whose children were born thanks to assisted reproduction feel the results are worth the risks. But many still believe those risks are not fully known, and won't be until the industry is much more closely monitored.

ABC News' Erin Hayes filed this report for World News Tonight.