The tank pictured here contains frozen embryos left over from in-vitro fertilization.
This is probably one of the most difficult Church teachings to discuss with others for two reasons. For one, almost everyone knows a relative or close friend who has had trouble conceiving and has pursued, successfully or not, in-vitro fertilization. Secondly, unlike with contraception, which is a rejection of life, couples who use in-vitro fertilization are doing the opposite – attempting to welcome a new life into the world and into the love of their family.
Catholic couples that use in-vitro fertilization often do so without even realizing that the Church speaks against it (Catechism No. 2377). Rather, these sincere men and women are following what they perceive to be the Christian principles of being fruitful and demonstrating the love of Christ.
For that reason, this explanation isn’t meant to be judgmental toward any who have tried or who have succeeded with this method of fertilization. Children conceived in this way are still children of God, and these couples should be admired for their desire to bring life into the world (at a time when so many view children as a burden). At the same time, through a close examination of in-vitro fertilization, one can see that it is an immoral means to that end. A father, for example, may desire to put food on his family’s table. There is a moral means of doing this (working an extra job and cutting back on expenses) and an immoral means (robbing a bank). We must not fall into the trap of having the end justify the means as we attempt to discern morality.
On the other hand, we have to honest about the fact that there are some who are aware of a church teaching, but chose not to follow it anyway. “It’s just a man-made rule,” they may argue. We know, of course, that Scripture is very clear in stating that the leaders of the church have been entrusted to shepherd the flock (John 12), that these leaders had the power to bind and loosen (Matthew 6), and that the Holy Spirit would guide them to all truth in executing this power (John 6). When the church speaks on a given issue, we are called to trust in the guidance of God – that he would not have established a Church that would lead us astray in issues of morality.
Before examining in-vitro fertilization, it should be pointed out that there are many morally acceptable means of assisting couples that are having difficult conceiving. NaPro Technology (Natural Procreative Technology) has been very effecting in helping struggling couples to identify physical obstacles to conception – obstacles that can then be treated medically. By extension, then, medical steps, such as fertilization drugs and egg-stimulation are fine as long as they do not propose a danger to the mother and child that is disproportionate to the benefit of the treatment. Given the surprising fact that less than 45% of infertile couples benefit from in-vitro fertilization (after much expense and stress), the following factors with this method testify to the intrinsic immorality of this method:
1. It bypasses the marital act – The church opposes contraception, of course, because the primary ends of intercourse are procreation and unity. Contraception destroys both of these (which is why the birth rate is so low and the divorce rate is so high among couples who contracept). We cannot remove either the possibility of life or the complete self-giving from the marital act without consequently removing its inherent sanctity. Likewise, once we understand that children are a physical sign of their parents’ love, it becomes clear that we must not have conception without the sexual act – the act of unity. Secular society has done a good job of convincing us that we are owed children, which we see in the number of same-sex couples and single individuals who undergo artificial insemination. Sometimes couples are unable to conceive, even with the assistance of modern medicine. This is a truly sad fact of life. However, the act of baby-making is sacramentally tied to marital act. Just as the Father and the Son love each other so completely that a third eternal person, the Holy Spirit, spirates forth, a husband and wife are called to love each other so completely that a third human person is conceived. We mustn’t use this as a reason to upset God’s plan for marriage and procreation.
2. It violates the exclusivity of the marital covenant – Marriage is a covenant between two individuals, a husband and wife. As explained in the last paragraph, children are a sacramental expression of that mutual and complete love. When a third party, such as a fertility doctor, enters into the act of conception (and actually completes the act of conception apart from the couple in a laboratory setting), the exclusivity of the marital covenant is violated. It is one thing, a perfectly acceptable thing, for a doctor to assist through medicine or surgery – the couple must still complete the marital act independently of his assistance. In-vitro fertilization makes the husband and wife secondary and passive participators.
3. It uses an immoral means – Masturbation, of self-love, is inherently evil. By simulating the sexual act, it makes a mockery of act of intercourse. Masturbation is necessary for a doctor to collect sperm for in-vitro fertilization. Of course, the goal here is not selfish self-pleasure on the part of the husband, but we have to remember that an immoral means is not justified by the end in mind.
4. It manufactures life – As explained above, children are meant to be a sacramental sign of his parent’s love. For conception to take place in a sterile laboratory setting at the hands of a man or woman in a white coat is perversely oppose to the idea that conception should take place between a husband and wife in the intimacy of their bedroom. When we allow children to be “manufactured” in this way, this adds fuel to the desensitizing of our society toward life. We must not allow any slack in the fight to hold onto the sanctity of life. If children can be manufactured simply because they are desired (as opposed to being a sign of the unbreakable bond between husband and wife), can they not be disposed of when they are not desired, such as we see in abortion?
5. It creates frozen embryos – Anytime something is “manufactured”, there are discarded or defective products. In the process of in-vitro fertilization, not just one – but numerous embryos are created. Actual human children are created, but not implanted in the mother. Some of them are destroyed. Some of them are frozen and kept in that state as long as someone will provide financial support. For every child who is conceived through in-vitro fertilization, there are a number who have been discarded or stored away. If for no other reason, in-vitro fertilization should be opposed because of the casual way in which newly conceived human life is abandoned in the laboratory.
6. It results in a higher number of birth defects - Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, writes, “Studies have shown a six-fold elevated risk for in-vitro fertilization for children contracting an eye disease called retinal blastoma versus normally conceived babies. In-vitro fertilization is very unnatural. You’re extracting ova from the woman, culturing them and inspecting the developing embryo in a laboratory setting. They are in a completely unnatural environment for a very long time before they are put back into the womb.”