Building Brighter Kids? Not exactly

Posted by Pete Shanks October 7, 2010
Biopolitical Times

Here's a headline designed to grab attention: "Building a Brighter Kid: Consider IVF." It appeared in Time Healthland on October 1st. It's a classic case of a headline that betrays the writer of the article, and one that could easily become the source of an urban legend. So let's try to stop it right here.

The article is based on a study published recently in Human Reproduction, with the title "Achievement test performance in children conceived by IVF." The University of Iowa, where the researchers are based, put out a press release that summed up the results:

IVF does not negatively affect academic achievement

Radio Iowa reported on this under the headline "Study finds no adverse impact on in vitro babies." The Los Angeles Times went half a step further:

Children conceived by IVF score well, often better than peers, on academic tests, study finds

Why would that be? The researchers, who studied 423 IVF-conceived children aged 8 to 17, plus 372 of their non-IVF peers, did attempt to control for socioeconomic and environmental differences, but acknowledged that they may not entirely have succeeded. Indeed there is a quote in the Time article itself from fertility specialist Dr Robert Stillman:

"Those fortunate enough to be able to afford IVF in an arena where there's little insurance coverage may very well have the means to provide a high level of education for their children."

"We are not trying to imply that [in vitro fertilization] leads to better scores," lead author Bradley Van Voorhis told the Daily Iowan. And there is good reason to think that the Time writer, Bonnie Rochman, understood this. Her article ended:

You might be interested to learn that the researchers found that single babies performed better than twins, who performed better than triplets — if only ever so slightly. But even the triplets performed better than the average score of children conceived the old-fashioned way.

Still, that's no reason to rush into IVF if you don't have to. Says Stillman: "This is an argument not for doing IVF to have brighter kids but for having insurance coverage so everyone can have a child if they're having trouble getting pregnant."

But that's not what the headline writer picked up on. Instead, we have an implication that "building" smarter children to order is not only defensible but feasible. And that is seriously misleading.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: