In vitro fertilization is widely thought to be one of the great medical advances of the 20th century, helping women and couples have babies even if they struggle with infertility. But the procedure is not without risks.
New findings presented at the American Academy of Pediatrics' annual meeting in New Orleans on Saturday suggest that babies born through IVF, as well as other forms of assisted reproductive technology, have a slightly increased risk of birth defects, particularly those of the eye, heart, reproductive organs and urinary system.
"Couples should understand that the majority of infants born after assisted reproductive technology are perfectly healthy," Dr. Lorraine Kelley-Quon, a general surgery resident at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and an author of the new study, told The Huffington Post. "The results of our study simply imply that couples considering [it] should talk with their doctor about the potential risks ... so they can make an informed decision."
More than 1 percent of infants born in the U.S. each year are now conceived using assisted reproductive technology, or "ART," a label for medical procedures that involve the manipulation of eggs or sperm in order to treat infertility. The most common and widely known form is IVF -- the joining of a woman's egg and a man's sperm in a laboratory dish before the embryo is implanted in a woman's uterus. There are also other variations, including "ICSI," in which a needle is used to inject sperm directly into a mature egg, and "GIFT," when fertilization takes place in a woman's fallopian tubes rather than a lab dish.
The new study looked at the risk of birth defects from all forms of ART. The researchers studied babies born between 2006 and 2007 in California -- the state with the highest IVF rates in the U.S., according to the study.
Birth defects were higher among infants born using reproductive technology -- 9 percent versus 6.6 percent among babies conceived naturally. That, Kelley-Quon said, translates to a "25 percent increased risk of birth defects for infants born after ART compared to naturally-conceived infants. " She added that she and her colleagues anticipated, and found, that the rates of birth defects among all infants in the study were higher than the national average, because the women shared certain traits, like maternal age, that have been tied to birth defects.
The findings, which have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, are not the first to link reproductive technology and birth defects. Most recently, a study published in May in the venerable New England Journal of Medicine, found that the risk of birth defects for babies born from assisted conception was 8.3 percent compared to 5.8 percent among those conceived naturally.
"Keep in mind that women with a history of infertility who do not undergo treatment also have a higher rate of pregnancy complications, so it may be something about the infertile population," said Dr. Lynn Westphal, who is an associate professor in obstetrics and gynecology at the Stanford School of Medicine and did not work on the study. "It's difficult to know how much of it is related to the treatment, and how much is related to the group [of women] itself."
If it is truly assisted reproductive technology that is behind the association, she said, researchers have little to no understanding as to why the technology is linked to birth defects.
Westphal agreed with the study's authors that the increased risk of birth defects is minimal and that patients should be "reassured that most children are completely fine." The findings merely show that women and their partners should carefully discuss all potential risks with their doctors.
"In my practice, I see some women who have thought about these risks very carefully," Westphal said. "But there are a lot of patients who don't realize that there may be risks associated with it. I do see both sides."