IVF and the evaluation of policies that don’t affect particular persons

Over at the CLAHRC West Midlands blog, Richard Lilford (my boss, I should hasten to add!) writes about the difficulties with the economic evaluation of IVF. The post notes that there are a number of issues that “are not generally considered in the standard canon for health economic assessment” including the problems with measuring benefits, choosing an appropriate discount rate, indirect beneficiaries, and valuing the life of the as yet unborn child. Au contraire! These issues are the very bread and butter of health economics and economic evaluation research. But I would concede that their impact on estimates of cost-effectiveness are not nearly well enough integrated into standard assessments.

We’ve covered the issue of choosing a social discount rate on this blog before with regards to treatments with inter-generational effects. I want instead to consider the last point about how we should, in the most normative of senses, consider the life of the child born as a result of IVF.

It puts me in mind of the work of the late, great Derek Parfit. He could be said to have single-handedly developed the field of ethics about future people. He identified a number of ethical problems that still often don’t have satisfactory answers. Decisions like funding IVF have an impact on the very existence of persons. But these decisions do not affect the well-being or rights of any particular persons, rather, as Parfit terms them, general persons. Few would deny that we have moral obligations not to cause material harm to future generations. Most would reject the narrow view that the only relevant outcomes are those that affect actual, particular persons, the narrow person-centred view. For example, in considering the problem of global warming, we do not reject its consequences on future generations as being irrelevant. But there remains the question about how we morally treat these general, future persons. Parfit calls this the non-identity problem and it applies neatly to the issue of IVF.

To illustrate the problem of IVF consider the choice:

If we choose A Adam and Barbara will not have children Charles will not exist
If we choose B Adam and Barbara will have a child Charles will live to 70

If we ignore evidence that suggests quality of life actually declines after one has children, we will assume that Adam and Barbara having children will in fact raise their quality of life since they are fulfilling their preferences. It would then seem to be clear that the fact of Charles existing and living a healthy life would be better than him not existing at all and the net benefit of Choice B is greater. But then consider the next choice:

If we choose A Adam and Barbara will not have children Charles will not exist Dianne will not exist
If we choose B Adam and Barbara will have a child Charles will live to 70 Dianne will not exist
If we choose C Adam and Barbara will have children Charles will live to 40 Dianne will live to 40

Now, Choice C would still seem to be preferable to Choice B if all life years have the same quality of life. But we could continue adding children with shorter and shorter life expectancies until we have a large population that lives a very short life, which is certainly not a morally superior position. This is a version of Parfit’s repugnant conclusion, in which general utilitarian principles leads us to prefer a situation with a very large, very low quality of life population to a smaller, better off one. No satisfying solution has yet been proposed. For IVF this might imply increasing the probability of multiple births!

We can also consider the “opposite” of IVF, contraception. In providing contraception we are superficially choosing Choice A above, which by the same utilitarian reasoning would be a worse situation than one in which those children are born. However, contraception is often used to be able to delay fertility decisions, so the choice actually becomes between a child being born earlier and living a worse life than a child being born later in better circumstances. So for a couple, things would go worse for the general person who is their first child, if things are worse for the particular person who is actually their first child. So it clearly matters how we frame the question as well.

We have a choice about how to weigh up the different situations if we reject the ‘narrow person-centred view’. On a no difference view, the effects on general and particular persons are weighted the same. On a two-tier view, the effects on general persons only matter a fraction of those on particular persons. For IVF this relates to how we weight Charles’s (and Diane’s) life in an evaluation. But current practice is ambiguous about how we weigh up these lives, and if we have a ‘two-tier view’, how we weight the lives of general persons.

From an economic perspective, we often consider that the values we place on benefits resulting from decisions as being determined by societal preferences. Generally, we ignore the fact that for many treatments the actual beneficiaries do not yet exist, which would suggest a ‘no difference view’. For example, when assessing the benefits of providing a treatment for childhood leukaemia, we don’t value the benefits to those particular children who have the disease differently to those general persons who may have the disease in the future. Perhaps we do not consider this since the provision of the treatment does not cause a difference in who will exist in the future. But equally when assessing the effects of interventions that may cause, in a counterfactual sense, changes in fertility decisions and the existence of persons, like social welfare payments or a lifesaving treatment for a woman of childbearing age, we do not think about the effects on the general persons that may be a child of that person or household. This would then suggest a ‘narrow person-centred view’.

There is clearly some inconsistency in how we treat general persons. For IVF evaluations, in particular, many avoid this question altogether and just estimate the cost per successful pregnancy, leaving the weighing up of benefits to later decision makers. While the arguments clearly don’t point to a particular conclusion, my tentative conclusion would be a ‘no difference view’. At any rate, it is an open question. In my rare lectures, I often remark that we spend a lot more time on empirical questions than questions of normative economics. This example shows how this can result in inconsistencies in how we choose to analyse and report our findings.




  • Health economics, statistics, and health services research at the University of Warwick. Also like rock climbing and making noise on the guitar.

2 thoughts on “IVF and the evaluation of policies that don’t affect particular persons

    1. If B is preferable to A on basic utilitarian principles of total goodness of a situation then C is preferable to B because the total amount of goodness, here life years, is higher.

      Birth control prevents pregnancy. In a counterfactual world without contraception the baby would be born, so the contraception prevents (or delays) birth of a child.

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