With more and more parents facing infertility, assisted fertility has become big medical business. IVF has become a commonplace, and expensive, treatment for infertility. Society has accepted this procedure without much thought, but the Catholic Church understands that IVF presents serious moral problems that affect not only the infertile couple, but also society at large.
The emotional appeal of IVF is considerable. Who could possibly be against assisting a couple that wants to bring a new life into the world? The secular world has unquestioningly embraced IVF as a great advance in medical science; it views Church opposition as silly and medieval, if not out-and-out cruel.
It’s up to lay Catholics to bear the message of the Church to a world that increasingly needs it. Understanding the reasons the Church opposes IVF brings a deeper understanding of the great dignity the Church ascribes to the human person, even at the earliest stages of life, something the world at large needs desperately.
Briefly, the Church opposes IVF because:
Children are a gift and not a right. Much of the support of IVF starts with the premise that anyone who wants children ought to be able to have them. The Church views it differently. Children are gifts from God, to be accepted if they come, but the fact of marriage does not guarantee children will come. Viewing having children as a right rather than a gift creates a subtle shift in perspective. We acquire commodities; we accept gifts. That basic difference in understanding makes a difference in how we view not only conception, but also each other. The “commodification” of people is a major problem of the modern age: treating people not as individuals made in God’s image but as things to be manipulated.
Children—as persons—have the right to be conceived in an act of love within marriage. It is for this reason the Church insists that the unitive and procreative aspects of sex not be separated. God has established the manner in which children are to be brought into the world. Donum Vitae states that it is “the right of every person to be conceived and to be born within marriage and from marriage.” It is permissible to assist the natural process, but not to circumvent it. There are assisted fertility procedures that are acceptable under Church teaching (lower tubal ovum transfer, and possibly gamete intrafallopian transfer), but IVF is not one of them.
IVF completely disrupts the natural process and conception occurs, not within the woman’s body, but in the sterile environment of a petri dish. The process also involves the artificial manipulation of the woman’s body to increase the harvest of eggs and to prepare the uterus for implantation, something even secular researchers are beginning to question. It’s not the simple, easy process that many imagine it to be. The physical and emotional effects can be staggering and we are just beginning to understand them.
Children have a right to know who their parents are. IVF often involves donation of eggs or sperm from a stranger to the marriage, effectively introducing a third party into the intimacy of the marriage. This can have profound psychological effects on the children as they grow, particularly when they discover their conception involved payments and if they have no relationship with the donors.
IVF separates the unitive and procreative aspects of sex. As such it is morally impermissible under Catholic thinking.
In general, more embryos are created than are used. The Church teaches that from the moment of conception, a fertilized egg, and later an embryo, are entitled to the dignity of human personhood. The vast majority of embryos created are never implanted or come to birth; most of them are either discarded or frozen for future use.
Some implanted embryos may be aborted in an effort to ensure a healthy, single pregnancy. Thus, IVF is often, if not usually, associated with abortion, which the Church teaches is itself a grave evil.
Simply put, IVF dehumanizes the human person. Embryos are selected for implantation depending on their “quality,’ quite apart from their value as a unique and precious person made in God’s image. The law treats embryos—human persons—as commodities to be divided and awarded in divorce settlements, and grants the owner the right to destroy them. As technology develops, we face the prospect of children being created simply to be destroyed for their parts, to be used in medical treatments. This technology encourages a view of people as things to be manipulated for the use of others and that view will necessarily spill over to other aspects of society.
That said, the child brought into the world by IVF is still unique, precious, and unrepeatable, regardless of the way he was conceived. Children are to be welcomed and celebrated regardless of the circumstances of their birth. Decisions made cannot be undone, and simply criticizing the decision of parents who undertook IVF without understanding the moral problems it presents does little to build up the Christian community.
It is not sufficient just to oppose IVF and the grave moral evil that it is. It’s also critical for the people of God to understand the great pain of infertility and to do what they can to share the burden of those who face it on a daily basis. That requires continuing friendship and personal relationship; burdens can only be shared when two people are close enough for one to pass the load to the other. Only in that way is it possible to assist those who suffer from infertility to find a way to live their lives, pain and all, in joy and in conformity with Church teaching on the dignity of the human person.
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Barbara Golder had a 40-year career in medicine and law, including health care ethics. She is now the award-winning author of the ‘Lady Doc’ mystery series and serves as Director of Adult Faith Formation and Evangelization at the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She blogs at ladydoclawyer.com.