What every Catholic should know about IVF
“The human being must be respected – as a person – from the very first instant of his existence.” (Donum vitae)
Infertility is very real and runs deep
The ability to produce offspring touches the deepest parts of our very being. Whilst we understand that a child is a gift and not a right, the pain of longing for a biological child runs deep. It can be all-consuming, and suddenly you’re surrounded by diaper advertisements or multiple pregnant women you would never have noticed before you were trying to conceive. No matter your worldly success such as wealth or status, the pregnancy test continues to be negative. This touches on our other natural human desire: to be in control. Pregnancy achieved naturally through the sexual embrace with your spouse is something that you can't control. It is important to remember that all human life from the moment of conception should be treated with respect and dignity, regardless of their creation story.
With IVF and other forms of ART becoming more commonplace and more widely spoken about, many Catholic couples feel tempted to consider these options. It is only with God's help that we can grapple with and understand why turning to ART (Artificial Reproductive Technology) like IVF is not a good option. The tangled web of IVF contains a minefield of ethical issues. We’ve explored some of them below.
Catholic objections to IVF
IVF disassociates the sexual act from the procreative act
Conception by IVF is a technological process, rather than the result of a unique manifestation of the physical expression of love, embodiment of union of two bodies of a father and mother in a mutual exchange of self-gift. The process always involves a third party, where the moment of conception occurs in a lab. Intrusion of other third parties could include donation of sperm or eggs, or a surrogate uterus, continuing to disassociate the husband and wife from their marital union and create ethical issues.
Industrial and production mindset
The goal of IVF is production: to procure material and technically to force an event to occur, to go through multiple attempts industrially to get the product you want, deciding which embryos to keep and which embryos to transfer. Typically, fertilization will be attempted on 8 to 20 of the retrieved eggs. From there, successful sperm and egg unions (embryos) are selected because they fit the product goals: they are subjected to genetic testing to rule out conditions like Down Syndrome or other abnormalities, at which point they may be discarded as medical waste. Single embryo transfer is now considered the gold standard in the US, as opposed to in the past where a mother might have had multiple embryos transferred, resulting in multiple pregnancies which might have led to a "selective reduction" and the loss of life to the child.
Absurd fate of embryos
Some embryos will die in the process, as there are risks associated with the freezing, thawing and transfer process. When a couple has determined they have gestated all the embryos they plan to (for reasons such as they believe their family is complete or the advancing age of the mom), that begs the question of the fate of the remaining embryos for which they have no plans to gestate. Some of the embryos become abandoned, meaning they remain in cryopreservation with no contact with the biological parents. Dignitas Persona calls the thousands of abandoned embryos a "situation of injustice which in fact cannot be resolved." (Dignitas Persona, 19) There are many options but not all of them are morally acceptable and there are varying ethical views on the options. The key debate at this point is what is the best or clearest way to try to respect and love the embryo as a true child and human being?
Using embryos for medical research is unacceptable "because they treat the embryos as mere ‘biological material’ and result in their destruction.” (Dignitas Persona, 19)
While praiseworthy in intention, embryo adoption presents issues. Some say it may never be legitimate because of moral problems with the embryo transfer act itself, while others think it might be acceptable in certain circumstances. (See Dignitas Persona, 19)
Preventing these embryos from dying by using cryopreservation as an intervention begs the question of how long they will remain in cryopreservation and how to ensure they remain frozen for that duration. Will they remain frozen forever?
Thawing and burial
There are burial options available for embryos but discarding as medical waste is never acceptable. The main arguments against thawing these living children are concerned with the fact that it could be a deliberate choice of death. Some parents may choose to name their embryos, have a funeral and have them buried.
Treatment options for infertile couples
Some well-meaning doctors are trained to send women down an IVF path and never learned how to treat the cause of infertility. Unlike medications, devices or procedures that restore a body’s organ or functioning, IVF does not actually treat infertility. The goal of the IVF procedure is to create new human beings in a lab. While the hoped for result of IVF at fertility centers is a baby, the patient’s condition of infertility has not changed. IVF no more treats infertility than does adoption. (Incidentally, adoption is a viable option that couples should be encouraged to discern.) There are technologies like NaProTechnology that can treat the underlying condition, which has proven successful for many couples who have undergone IVF and been unsuccessful. NaPro provides treatment that values the dignity of each human person.
What can we do?
Educate others on the harm that IVF creates, options to treat underlying infertility, and options such as adoption.
Look for inspiration from others who have found strength in their infertility and be open to other vocations we would not have had if we were called to biological motherhood.
Get involved at the legislative level to restrict IVF. Some states are approving legislation that expands IVF treatment. When reviewing bills you can look for opportunities to restrict the number of embryos that are created and involvement of third parties.
Suggested supplemental reading: paragraphs 11-16, 18-21 of Dignitas Personae