Question 166



Several people recently have asked me what is so wrong with in vitro fertilization and embryo transfer (IVF and ET).  Couples with infertility problems naturally want to have children.  We have the technology to create human life in a laboratory (combining human sperm and ovum in a Petri dish) and then to transfer the embryo into the woman’s uterus.  “So why not use it?” they ask. 

This question forces us to probe more deeply into God’s plan for creating a new, and unrepeatable, human person.  Science and technology can perform various procedures, but they have no sense of value or morality.  We have the hydrogen bomb.  But should we ever unleash its horrendously destructive power? 

We see this moral confusion in hospitals where, in the same complex of buildings, there is a nursery to care for newborns, an abortuary where babies are mercilessly killed, and labs using artificial means to overcome infertility.  The operative principle here is “The customer is always right.  Give them whatever they can pay for.”  The prevailing attitude today is that if we can do something, then we have a compelling right to do it. 

There are various layers to the answer.  We begin with several more easily understood reasons why IVF and ET are totally immoral.  We are speaking here of homologousartificial conception (involving only a husband and wife) and not heterologousconception (involving a third party sperm or egg donor). 

Sperm is usually procured by an act of masturbation.  This could be surmounted by the retrieval of sperm from a perforated condom, after a normal marital act. 

The woman is hyper ovulated.  Drugs stimulate her ovaries to produce ten, or more, ova.  Then many embryos are formed by a technician, who combines sperm with ovum in a Petri dish.  Surplus human embryos are stored in a refrigerated tank, in case the first attempt to implant embryos in the woman’s uterus fails.  If the frozen embryos are not wanted, then eventually they are destroyed. 

In the USA today there are over 400,000 frozen human embryos in storage tanks.  Each of these embryos is a human person at his or her earliest stage of bodily life.  This is an example of technology run amok.  Today many of these human embryos are used as Guiney pigs for stem cells, or various experiments.

Usually several embryos are placed in a woman’s uterus, just in case some do not implant successfully in her endometrium, the lining of her womb.  Sometimes all the embryos implant and thrive.  Then the question arises whether to carry all of them to term.  If the decision is “No,” then there is a search and destroy mission to eliminate the unwanted human embryos.  There is no greater example of reducing a human life to a mere commodity than this. 

A human embryonic person has been reduced to a mere object, over which his or her parents and medical technicians claim to have total control.  This ignores the huge difference between an animal and a human person.  We can validly do things to animals (such as animal husbandry) that we should never do to a person, endowed with a God-given human dignity.  Yes, we are members of the animal kingdom, but we are animals of a very special kind.  Animals die and that is the end of the story.  Every human person has an immortal destiny, called by God to share in His own interpersonal communion of love, life, beauty, truth and goodness.  An unborn baby, as well as a human embryo, has the same God-given human dignity as you or I.

 Widespread abortion has calloused the general public’s attitude towards the unborn baby.  This same callousness now extends to the process of conception.  People claim the “right” to destroy, or manufacture, human life.  These alleged “rights” are groundless, and are destroying the fabric of a society where people instinctively treasure the gift of human life.

 Now we move into more complex and profound reasons for the immorality of IVF and ET.  They require some reflection and analysis.  The best articulation of these reasons is given in the Vatican document DONUM VITAE.  The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued this document in 1987 as the “Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation.”  Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the Prefect of the Congregation at that time. 

Space does not allow for a full treatment of these deeper reasons.  You can GOOGLE the document and read it in its entirety.  I shall simplify the moral argument.  God designed our human nature, as bodied persons, male and female, sexual and fertile.  We are a composite of a spiritual soul and a physical body.  He has a plan for marriage, for spousal love and for the family. 

Every marital act is to be open to the goodness of love (the unitive dimension) and to the goodness of life (the procreative aspect).   Only in the context of an act of spousal love is a new human person to be conceived.  A child has a right to be conceived by an act of love between his/her mother and father, who will then provide a loving home for the rearing of that child.  This alone does justice to all the various goods and values involved in the procreation of a new human person.

Here is one short quotation.  “… The procreation of a person must be the fruit and the result of married love.  The origin of the human being thus follows from a procreation that is ‘linked to the union, not only biological but also spiritual, of the parents, made one by the bond of marriage.’  Fertilization achieved outside the bodies of the couple remains by this very fact deprived of the meanings and the values which are expressed in the language of the body and in the union of human persons.”

There is a morally good use of medical technology in overcoming infertility.  “Homologous artificial insemination within marriage cannot be admitted except for those cases in which the technical means is not a substitute for the conjugal act, but serves to facilitate and to help so that the act attains its natural purpose.”  If the technical means facilitates the conjugal act or helps it to reach its natural objectives, it can be morally acceptable.  If, on the other hand, the procedure were to replace the conjugal act, it is morally illicit.

Couples experiencing infertility problems can find great consolation in knowing that Natural Family Planning (NFP) can also be used as a very effective, and morally good, way to overcome infertility.  NFP helps a couple locate their optimal times of fertility.   The daily charting, which is part of NFP, provides the Ob/Gyn with the gynecologic history he needs to diagnose where the deficiencies are in the woman’s fertility.  Then these can be corrected by working with nature, instead of replacing it. 

NFP trained Ob/Gyns have a remarkable record of helping couples overcome their infertility.  Using natural, and morally good, measures, they are three times as successful as methods of artificial conception, and only a fraction as expensive.  The moral approach is always the best approach.

I encourage you to get a copy of DONUM VITAE and to study it.  You will be favorably impressed with the magnificent design God has for us in cooperating with him in the act of continuing creation, which we call procreation.  Such a profound privilege demands our full respect.  We are never to presume that parents have an absolute right to a child, using any means possible to achieve this. 

The child, from its very first moment of existence, has an inviolable human dignity that is equal to his parents’ dignity.  We are never to abuse that dignity.  We are always to stay within the boundaries of God’s designs for human life.  We allow God to be God, and we acknowledge our status as his creatures, called to share love and life with other persons.