A number of IVF related stories have hit the headlines this week, giving newspaper columnists much to contemplate at the weekend. One case the commentators have concentrated upon is the case of a couple who have become parents to IVF twins. The twist to this particular tale is that the woman, because of a medical condition, was unable to have the embryos transferred to her womb and so she asked her own mother to carry the pregnancy on her behalf. As the newspapers were quick to point out, this meant that a woman gave birth to her own grandchildren, with one tabloid calling her 'surrogran'.
But despite the invention of this peculiar term, the tabloid newspapers, assumed by many to be the most critical of reproductive technologies, were rather supportive of this couple and their attempts to start a family. Instead, it was the turn of the broadsheet columnists to pour scorn on this unusual surrogacy arrangement.
Some commentators thought that the couple's motivations were all wrong. Madeleine Bunting, writing in the Guardian, suggested that 'the desire to have a baby overrode every other consideration'. Others were concerned about the psychological impact on the children. Yvonne Roberts, writing in the Independent on Sunday, wondered, 'How will the conception be explained, if at all, to the twins?'. She added: 'Emotional honesty is essential for a child's wellbeing but, too often, families instead prefer to make the cupboard bigger and add to the number of skeletons inside.'
Campaigners, too, thought the only likely outcome was negative. Nuala Scarisbrick, of the pro-life group Life, said: 'This case will disturb most right-minded people. These children will suffer psychological difficulties in the future as they try to work out just who their various carers are.' Josephine Quintavalle, of pro-life group Comment on Reproductive Ethics, continued, 'The major issue is the confusion about social roles... It will be very difficult for the children to come to terms with their situation.'
What unites all these commentators is the assumption that a surrogacy arrangement between a mother and daughter can only end in tears. Of course, when family members are involved in potentially stressful situations, there is a chance that conflict will arise. But there is surely an equal chance that such an arrangement will bring families closer together and will have a positive outcome. As Ulrika Jonsson, in her News of the World column, observed, it all depends upon how the issue is dealt with in the family. She suggested that 'when the twins learn that granny grew them in her tummy because their mum and dad wanted them so much they will feel extra special.' Similarly, Jacqui Thornton, health editor of the Sun newspaper, suggested that the children might take a positive view. 'Won't they just feel proud of their gran that she loved their mum so much she agreed to go through with it?'
The truth is that we just don't know what the outcome will be for these particular twins. So why should we assume the worst? As research on assisted conception families consistently shows, those people who have had to go to great lengths to have a child, tend to have spent more time than the fertile population thinking about the benefits and disadvantages of their choices. So, if anything, we have reason to be optimistic instead of pessimistic about the future prospects of children born as a result of non-traditional forms of reproduction. There is, however, one thing to be worried about. If the views of commentators such as those mentioned above come to dominate our thinking on this issue, the concern about psychological damage could end up being a self-fulfilling prophesy. If parents are surrounded by people expecting the worst, they too might start to look for problems. If anything, it is this kind of external influence which might end up having a detrimental effect upon the children.