This was published in the parish bulletin on Sunday, April 21st, 2013.
In the Sunday edition of the Topeka Capital-Journal, a front-page article featured a number of problematic statements about the practice of conceiving children by means of assisted reproductive technology (commonly referred to as “in-vitro fertilization”, or IVF). This controversial subject deals with the most intimate aspects of a couple’s relationship, and gives rise to strong emotions: the desire for a child, for fruitfulness, for joy in the creation of new life in cooperation with the Lord of all life. The Church looks upon these desires compassionately, both when they are fulfilled, and most especially when they are frustrated. As many as one in six couples in the U.S. struggle with the cross of infertility.
But the intense emotions that childbearing awakens means that we must be particularly careful in thinking through its moral quandaries. The article in the Capital-Journal concludes with the statement, “God wouldn’t have given people the ability to do this if he didn’t intend for us to use it.” With this bold statement, all decision-making has been reduced to the principle, “if we can do it, we should.” IVF and its associated techniques seem to be good; yet, artificially conceiving human life strikes at the very heart of what it means to be human. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.
The Church’s position on this issue (partially quoted in the article) isn’t just old-fashioned stubbornness. Angelique Ruhi-López, co-author of the Infertility Companion for Catholics, puts it this way: “If I have symptoms of infertility, the Church encourages me to get to the bottom of why this is happening, be it physiological, hormonal, or just a matter of timing... The Church gets a bad rap with regard to accepting modern medical technology, but it really surprised me that the Church was ahead of the game in terms of wanting us to avail ourselves of technology as long as it truly helps to heal us.” Many such resources exist, unacknowledged in the newspaper article and by the quick-fix mentality of the highly profitable and largely unregulated fertility industry.
The Church celebrates medical solutions along with those who benefit from them. But without ethical guidance, such solutions can become gravely dangerous. Something more than mere “good intentions” is necessary here. Just because someone does not intend to do harm does not change the fact that real and irreversible harm can be done. To proceed with a solution, we must have an assurance that indeed no harm will be done.
What is the harm that IVF does? Well, it is important to clarify first and foremost that the children so conceived are NOT somehow “less than human” on account of the procedure by which they were conceived. The result of IVF is a new human life. That life, once it exists, is inherently good, and its dignity is in no way "tainted" by the means by which it was brought into being.
Nonetheless, we can easily distinguish between ethical and unethical means of bringing life about. Two people that conceive a child through adultery obviously conceive by unethical means. But the child that comes into being carries with it inherent dignity; it has a right to life, and in no way is "tainted" by its origin in the eyes of God; it is a unique life, with all the possibilities of grace that any other human being has. Each child is created in God’s image and likeness. To say so is not to imply that the adultery was somehow justified on account of the new life that resulted.
A woman once related to me how Father Frank Krische responded to news of a pre-marital pregnancy. She described how she had scheduled a meeting with him to inform him that she’d gotten pregnant and was going to be an unwed mother. She was dreading his disappointment, wondering what this meant for herself, her boyfriend, and her unborn child. When she finally broke the news, he responded with a beaming expression, “Well, now—you’re going to have a baby!” She knew then and there the difference between her sin and the blessing of new life God had chosen to draw from it. So too, we should draw a clear line between the blessing of children conceived through IVF technology and the technology itself.
What, then, is the harm IVF does? In the first place, human life is treated as a commodity to be bought and sold for profit. Children are perceived not as gifts, but as property to which one has a right, and disposed of at will. Women can be exploited for the sake of financial gain through the process of harvesting eggs to be anonymously donated to infertile couples. Often, additional embryos are implanted in the uterus and aborted when they prove unsuitable. Further, as the Capital-Journal’s article mentioned, extra living embryos are frozen, reserved for future undisclosed use, or discarded at the couple’s request.
But on an even deeper level, we know that IVF disrupts God’s pattern for human procreation. That pattern has a dual purpose: the unity of the spouses and the procreation of children. As the opening chapter of Genesis proclaims, God both invites Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply,” even as they cleave to one another and “become one flesh.” If we try to isolate either one of these from the other, we begin to tear apart the very fabric of life, love, and sex. So, for instance, contraceptives are objectionable because they isolate unity of the spouses from its life-giving potential. The use of IVF does just the opposite by isolating procreation from the loving embrace of spouses.
Thus, the Church’s teaching on contraception and IVF present two sides of the same coin: God wishes that human life be passed on through the mutual self-gift of spouses. This gift of self can only take place in a personal, bodily encounter, not through the use of catheters and petri dishes, handled by laboratory technicians. In the end, IVF contributes to a culture in which love, sex, and new life simply have nothing to do with each other—despite the best of intentions. With the support of family, friends, the Church, and heartfelt prayers, infertility can become a fruitful cross, whether it is carried temporarily or permanently. In cases when couples choose to adopt, families are transformed into beautiful portrayals of the gracious gift of our own salvation.
Father Nick Blaha