Outwitting Cancer

The Ethics of Oncofertility Treatments

Recently I was asked to serve on an advisory committee of a research group developing new techniques to preserve fertility for cancer patients. The research is cutting-edge, scientifically elegant, and enormously promising. It is also likely to be controversial. And so before it moves from the laboratory to the clinic, we ought to think carefully about its moral implications. Catholic teaching has something useful to say about this research. But the treatments involved are complicated, and Catholic moral teaching on the subject of conception isn’t the simplest either. What happens when the two collide requires a bit of explication.

The techniques I wish to discuss arise from an emerging medical field sometimes referred to as “oncofertility.” This interdisciplinary field has developed in response to the growing success of treatment regimens for childhood cancers. Where a diagnosis of cancer for a child was once tantamount to a death sentence, there now exist very good treatment options for most childhood cancers. Indeed, it is estimated that by 2010, one in every 250 adults in this country under the age of forty-five will be a survivor of a childhood cancer. Yet this success comes at a price, since for many young cancer patients, the treatment that saves their lives also destroys their fertility. This reality has given rise to oncofertility.

According to the American Society for Reproductive...

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