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Treating Infertility: In Vitro Fertilization

Treating Infertility: In Vitro Fertilization

In our last post,[1] we discussed the difference between infertility and impotence, stressing that infertility is not an impediment to marriage and that infertile couples can still be fruitful and open to life. We ended our last discussion by considering the fact that some methods of treating infertility may be perfectly acceptable and even praiseworthy, while others are seriously immoral. In this post, we will consider one such treatment: In vitro fertilization (IVF). While it has become a commonplace treatment for infertility, IVF is not compatible with the ends of marriage nor the human good as such.

So, what is IVF? In vitro fertilization is the process by which several human eggs are aspirated from a woman’s ovary, mingled with her partner’s (or someone else’s) sperm, and then grown in a petri dish (in vitro is Latin for “in glass”). When conception takes place, the embryos are then implanted in the woman’s womb in the hope that at least one of the embryos will survive. This process is gravely immoral for several reasons.

First, IVF bypasses the conjugal act between husband and wife. The embryo is not “generated” through an act of love; instead, it is “generated” through a highly controlled laboratory procedure.[2] The doctors and lab technicians are the agents of conception, while the husband and wife merely supply the sperm and egg, the necessary “ingredients.” The husband and wife watch the conception of their child “from a distance,” so to speak, and the act of conception thereby becomes a thoroughly un-intimate and impersonal process.

Secondly, the means by which the “ingredients” for IVF are obtained are gravely immoral. The sperm is often collected by masturbation, which is in itself a serious abuse of the reproductive organs and an act of unchastity. It is not uncommon that clinics provide pornographic materials to those providing sperm samples. In this way, pornography and masturbation become normalized, viewed as a part of a medical procedure. Furthermore, if the man who provides the sperm is the woman’s husband, masturbating (especially with the aid of pornography) is also an act of adultery.

Thirdly, because the doctor aspirates multiple eggs from the woman’s womb, multiple embryos – each a human life – are grown in the petri dish. The doctors and technicians generate multiple embryos because they know that most if not all of the embryos will die inside the womb. Many women also freeze extra embryos, which are often disposed of later. These extra embryos exist as “insurance” in the event of embryonic failure, but they are not valued in themselves; they are not seen and cared for as the individual human lives that they are. Because the conception of a human life is the goal of IVF, participants may feel that they view human life as extraordinarily valuable. In reality, however, IVF is radically anti-life. When multiple embryos are generated, the participants are full of hope and value each embryo as a “potential human being.” When an embryo dies, however, it becomes “useless,” and the participants suddenly cease to view the embryo as valuable. After the process is complete, they may convince themselves that only the successful embryo was a human being all along. There are also cases in which multiple embryos are successful, but the husband and wife only want one child. This is called “selective reduction.” In this case, the participants may choose which of the babies they want, and the doctor then kills the “extra” or “undesired” babies.

The participants of IVF essentially deem some embryos human beings and not others; they only care about the successful embryo, but they do not effectively value human life as such. And if more than one embryo is successful, some participants may also arbitrarily decide which baby is worth keeping. In both cases, the participants think their personal discretion is what determines whether the embryos or fetuses are human beings.

In a word, IVF reduces the procreative end of marriage to a technical process whereby many human lives are discarded. Rather than elevating or helping the natural process of conception, IVF eliminates it. The husband and wife’s desire for children, while natural and praiseworthy, does not justify the immoral means by which they achieve this end. With this being said, we cannot understate the inherent dignity and value of children conceived through IVF. All children, regardless of how they were conceived, are made in the image and likeness of God. However, the means by which a child is conceived may not always respect the child’s right to be born of a loving marital act of a husband and wife.[3]

[1] Infertility vs. Impotency

[2] Check out this Church document for a more detailed discussion of this point. “The child has the right to be conceived, carried in the womb, brought into the world and brought up within marriage: it is through the secure and recognized relationship to his own parents that the child can discover his own identity and achieve his own proper human development. The parents find in their child a confirmation and completion of their reciprocal self-giving: the child is the living image of their love, the permanent sign of their conjugal union, the living and indissoluble concrete expression of their paternity and maternity.” Also check out this list of resources from the USCCB on reproductive technology.

[3] Check out Life-Giving Love in an Age of Technology, esp. 13-14.

About the Author: Bridget Groff is an M.A./Ph.D. student in the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America. She currently works part-time at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as an intern for the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.

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