Are IVF Individuals Fully Human?

DIFFICULT MORAL QUESTIONS: Do these individuals have immortal souls? Yes, they do. And that truth only reinforces the Church’s moral teaching.

An embryologist shows an image of an ovum at the Virginia Center for Reproductive Medicine in Reston, Virginia, on June 12, 2019.
An embryologist shows an image of an ovum at the Virginia Center for Reproductive Medicine in Reston, Virginia, on June 12, 2019. (photo: Photo by IVAN COURONNE/AFP via Getty Images)

Q. When human life is conceived through reproductive technologies that replace the marital act, are the products of conception fully human? Do these individuals have immortal souls? Are they entitled to receive baptism? What if they were created only for lethal genetic research and were never intended to be given a chance for further life, does God cooperate with the scientists and create a soul? If the answer to these is Yes, then doesn’t it compromise the Church’s moral teaching? In other words, doesn’t it weaken the Church’s condemnation of IVF (in vitro fertilization) if the Church ultimately concedes to the secular conclusion that the product of the laboratory procedure is morally equivalent to the child conceived in the womb? — Father Sean Code, Johnstown, Pennsylvania

A. The answer to the first set of questions is indeed Yes. And No, teaching that the children created through the technique are fully human does not weaken the Church’s condemnation of IVF — it strengthens it.

Your doubt is a variation of the more general question of whether any child is fully human who is conceived through actions that fail to preserve the connection between unity and procreation.

Children have been conceived through extramarital intercourse, adultery and rape since the beginning of time, and continue to be so conceived, and yet God always cooperates with those illicit acts to bring into existence ensouled human beings.

He does the same with human life generated through laboratory procedures.

The fact that life is created in a petri dish is irrelevant to the intrinsic status of the life itself. This is because our full humanity — our personhood — is not a function of our surroundings, is not an attribute that comes into existence as a result of external circumstances. It is intrinsic to us.

We may ask when this intrinsic status begins?

Since humans are unified individuals composed of a body and a soul, both that body and soul must come into existence; for each to do so, an independent but correlated condition must be fulfilled.

On the biological level, the condition is fulfilled the instant a biologically human organism comes into existence. Prior to the advent of human cloning (i.e., asexual reproduction), this was ordinarily at the moment of fertilization (“ordinarily” because an identical twin comes into existence a little later). With the process of cloning, a new human organism comes into existence at the culmination of the reprogramming process, when the reprogrammed cell becomes a zygote.

On the spiritual level the condition is fulfilled when God infuses into this individual an immortal soul. He infuses the soul the instant the organism comes into existence.

The Church has never taught this authoritatively, but she has come very close. In 1987, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith taught that “no experimental datum can be in itself sufficient to bring us to the recognition of a spiritual soul; nevertheless, the conclusions of science regarding the human embryo provide a valuable indication for discerning by the use of reason a personal presence at the moment of this first appearance of a human life: how could a human individual not be a human person?” (Donum Vitae, 5). And in 2008, the same congregation stated: “The human embryo has, therefore, from the very beginning, the dignity proper to a person” (Dignitas Personae, 5).

This intrinsic dignity (sometimes also called “moral value”) begins irrespective of the external circumstances of the embryo’s coming into existence. We might say that God binds himself to infuse a human soul into any entity that becomes a human organism the instant it becomes such, irrespective of external circumstances.

Therefore, every human organism should be treated as a human person, wherever it is, whatever be the circumstances of its origin, however it looks, no matter how young or tiny or strong it is, etc., if it is a biologically human organism it should be treated with the full dignity of an ensouled human being, which includes offering him or her baptism, if possible.

What I have said here is the heart and soul of the Gospel of Life: that every person, no matter its condition, is beloved of God, intrinsically valuable and destined for beatitude in the kingdom.

Teaching this does not undermine the Church’s condemnation of IVF, but rather both grounds it and greatly enhances its power and persuasiveness.

This is because the wrongness of IVF resides precisely in the fact that the individual it exploits is fully human. Whenever we bring a human being into existence through actions other than marital sexual intercourse we instrumentalize the child we create; we treat him as a product, something to be made, rather than begotten.

But every child deserves to be begotten in love, to be brought into existence as the fruit of spousal self-giving; every child deserves to be the fresh flower that springs from the vine of a couple’s one-flesh communion. That communion — the love of husband and wife — is the one natural context fully befitting the coming-to-be of a person. Anything less depersonalizes him.

I say “deserves in the strongest sense. In justice, we owe every human life a fully personal origin. If we deny them this, we grievously wrong them. Are they still fully human? Of course. If we create, experiment on and kill them, we wrong them in their origin, wrong them in their life, and wrong them in their dying. But their full humanity, their personhood, is not compromised one iota.

While we should have great compassion on those who suffer from infertility, we should never forget that vigorously condemning these grievous wrongs is also integral to the Church’s pro-life message to infertile couples, as well as to reproductive biologists and fertility doctors. And yet, it seems that few are listening.

For an earlier Register article on the wrongfulness of IVF, go here.