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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

NATURAL SELECTIONS

EMBRYO DEATHS IN FOCUS

Philosopher reignites debate over contraception


When it was reported last month that Hollywood actor Tom Cruise intended to eat his wife's placenta raw, I thought it was one of the stranger stories going round at the time. Another, according to some newspapers, was that Cruise had bought his wife, actress Katie Holmes, an adult-sized pacifier to ensure that she didn't make any noise as she gave birth.

News photo
Hollywood Stars Tom Cruise and wife, Katie Holmes in Rome in April 2005. As a Scientologist, Cruise reportedly believes in eating his wife's placenta raw and her being silent during childbirth.

Scientologists -- Cruise is a follower of the "religion" set up by pulp science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in 1952 -- believe the delivery room should be a quiet place, and that apparently means the mother should be quiet, too. Hubbard said she should be given as little anesthetic as possible. "It's basically just respecting the mother, you know," Cruise reportedly said at the time. Holmes was raised as a Roman Catholic before succumbing to Scientology after meeting Cruise.

His words, and the belief systems of both Scientology and Roman Catholicism, came back to me this week when a London philosopher published a provocative paper.

Luc Bovens, of the London School of Economics, said that the so-called rhythm method, the only form of birth control permitted by the Catholic church, leads to more embryo deaths than other forms of contraception.

The rhythm method doesn't involve barriers (such as condoms) or hormonal suppression of fertility (such as the pill), but it aims to prevent conception by allowing sex only when the woman is outside her fertile period. This usually means no sex between days 10 and 17 of the woman's cycle. The problem, says Bovens, is that because the fertile period fades in and out over several days, the rhythm method does in fact lead to fertilization and embryo formation.

However, the sperm and eggs that meet outside the peak period of fertility form less viable embryos. Either sperm have been hanging around inside the woman, and when they are old and weary, they meet a newly arrived egg. Or else an egg that was ovulated some days before may meet a batch of newly arrived sperm. Either way, the resulting embryos aren't as healthy as they might be. Many of them, says Bovens, die.

"Even a policy of practicing condom usage and having an abortion in case of failure would cause less embryonic deaths than the rhythm method," writes Bovens, in the Journal of Medical Ethics.

Bovens makes two assumptions in his calculation. First, he assumes that the rhythm method is 90 percent effective (an assumption many consider to be overly generous). Second, he estimates that conceptions outside the fertile period are about twice as likely to fail compared to fertile-period conceptions. Given this, he says, "millions of rhythm method cycles per year globally depend for their success on massive embryonic death".

"What has gone unnoticed is that if one is willing to make a few relatively innocent assumptions, then the rhythm method may be responsible for massive embryonic death, and the same logic that turned pro-lifers away from morning-after pills, IUDs and pill usage should also make them nervous as to the rhythm method," writes Bovens.

For strict Catholics, and others who believe that human life begins at conception, this will pose a problem. Many people believe there is such a thing as the "soul," and that it is implanted at conception. If Bovens is right, that's a lot of lost souls floating about as a result of the rhythm method.

There have been reports that Catholics have more miscarriages than people of other faiths, or people who aren't religious. Catholics respond that they tend to have more children than others, so it's no surprise that there should be more miscarriages. Bovens' work, however, will raise questions. Perhaps Catholics have more miscarriages because, among those that practice the rhythm method, there are more conceptions with old sperm or eggs, and more non-viable fetuses form as a result.

In Japan, souls of unborn children lost as miscarriages or abortions are called mizuko (literally, "water children"). Religiously inclined parents honor them with a practice called mizuko jizo, which apologizes for not being able to raise the child, and exhorts Jizo, a Buddhist deity, to protect the child's soul. Jizo gets a lot of work, as the number of abortions in Japan is far higher than in Western Europe. In contrast to the West, abortion in Japan is considered to be quite a straightforward process on which a woman decides individually, without there being any great social or ethical dimension. Some foreign women have praised this aspect of the process in Japan.

In Scientology, lost souls play a major part too. According to its doctrines (remember, its founder was a sci-fi writer), an alien ruler, Xenu, arrived on Earth 75 million years ago in a fleet of space planes similar to DC-8s, carrying billions of humans. Because his galactic empire was overpopulated, he then blew them all up with a hydrogen bomb, and sucked up all their souls into a giant cinema. There, they were implanted with, among other things, the image of the crucifixion of Jesus and the doctrines of Roman Catholicism.

All in all, the three belief systems (Catholicism, Japanese Buddhism and Scientology) put an awful lot of weight on the concept of the soul, and of what it means to lose it.

Let's make it easier, and put aside the slippery question of whether the soul exists. Instead, consider only the number of embryos lost around the world. Is it better to prevent their formation in the first place (by using a condom, the pill or an IUD)? Or is it better to allow their formation, but, if Bovens is right, accept that many will die?

Of course, if you accept the latter, as the Roman Catholic Church and, presumably, pro-lifers do, then why not allow condoms instead, as they also prevent sexually transmitted infections?

A book of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese, "Nou to sekkusu no seibutsugaku (Evolution, Sex and the Brain)," is published by Shinchosha. Rowan Hooper is a biologist at Trinity College, Dublin. He welcomes comments at rowan.hooper@tcd.ie


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