Infertility is a growing problem in the United States, and it is legitimate to try to find ways to overcome it. Since children are the “crown of marriage,” it is a good thing to try to remedy whatever problem prevents their being conceived.
In 1987 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued an instruction entitled Donum Vitae (The Gift of Life). The document passed moral judgment on many of the procedures in use at the time to overcome infertility. The fundamental principle that the Church used to assess the morality of these various techniques is a rather simple one, even if its application is sometimes difficult.
In sum, Donum Vitae teaches that if an intervention assists the marriage act to attain its natural end, it is considered moral; if it replaces the marriage act, then it is immoral. One kind of “reproductive technology” that the Church has clearly and unequivocally judged to be immoral is in vitro fertilization (IVF).
Unfortunately, most Catholics are not aware that IVF is immoral, and many have already availed themselves of it. If a couple is unaware that the procedure is immoral, then of course they are not subjectively guilty of sin. Regardless of the parents’ actions, the children conceived through this procedure are children of God and worthy of our unconditional love. The procedure does violence to human dignity, however, and therefore must be avoided.
With IVF, the fertilization of the egg takes place outside the wife's body in a glass laboratory dish. In vitro is actually Latin for “in a glass.” Several eggs are aspirated from the woman's ovary after she has taken a fertility drug that causes a number to mature at the same time. Semen is collected from the man (apart from marital relations). The egg and the sperm are then joined in the glass dish where the new life develops for several days. The embryo is finally placed in the womb of the mother.
It should be clear then that IVF eliminates the marriage act rather than simply helps it. Rather than the new life being engendered through an act of love of husband and wife, it is engendered by the action of technicians in a laboratory. The husband and wife become the sources from which the “raw materials” of egg and sperm are collected, later to be manipulated by the physician in such a way that fertilization occurs. Not infrequently, “donor” eggs or sperm are used. This means that the father or mother of the child would be someone other than the husband or wife.
Although a baby may be engendered by this procedure, other lives are often snuffed out in the process.
Even if the egg and sperm come only from the spouses, there are still problems. Invariably several embryos are engendered, and only those that show the greatest promise of growing to term are implanted in the womb. The others are discarded or are used for experiments. Some may be frozen for later use. These actions constitute terrible offenses against human life. Although a baby may be engendered by this procedure, other lives are often snuffed out in the process.
Furthermore, the procedure is expensive, costing at least $10,000 with only a 20% success rate. Therefore, in a desire to hold down costs and to enhance the odds of success, doctors will sometimes implant five or more embryos to increase the likelihood of success. This sometimes results in more babies than the couple wants.
In order to avoid the problem of too many babies after several have been implanted, doctors will engage in “fetal reduction.” They will monitor the babies in the womb to see if any have any defects. They will then eliminate the unwanted babies by taking a syringe with potassium chloride, maneuvering the needle toward the baby in the womb and then thrusting it into the chest cavity. The potassium chloride will kill the preborn baby within minutes, and it will later be expelled as a miscarriage. If one baby is not less healthy than the others, the doctor will simply eliminate the baby (or babies) easiest to reach.
Human beings, as images of God, are to be venerated, even in their coming into being. Never are they to be used as a means to an end; they are not to be used even to satisfy the deepest wishes of an infertile couple. In normal marital relations the husband and wife “make love,” they do not “make babies.” They give expression to their love for one another, and a child may or may not be engendered by that act of love. The marital act is not a manufacturing process, and children are not products.
Yet with IVF children are engendered virtually through a “manufacturing process,” are subjected to “quality control,” and are eliminated if they are “defective.” We can see the dehumanizing dangers in some of these procedures to overcome infertility by the very language used: the reproductive technology industry. Children are not meant to be engendered by technology nor produced by an industry. Children are begotten, not made.
Dr. John Haas is president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Boston, Massachusetts.