What Every Catholic Needs to Know About IVF and Moral Cooperation With Evil

DIFFICULT MORAL QUESTIONS: IVF clinics are places of unspeakable evil. Although embryos are tiny, easily manipulated and bloodlessly killed, don’t let appearances fool you. These businesses are homicide factories.

Liquid nitrogen bank containing sperm and egg samples
Liquid nitrogen bank containing sperm and egg samples (photo: HealthyCapture Studio / Shutterstock)

Q. I need help in deciding whether I may lend money to a person who wants to use it to get pregnant using in-vitro fertilization (IVF). Knowing what the money would be used for, would it be wrong for me to lend her the money? — Manuel

A. Dear brother, to lend her money so she can use it to do something morally illicit, even if you have misgivings, is morally speaking to share her guilt for the evildoing. You might say, “But I don’t want her to use it for IVF, I just feel sorry for her.” But feeling sorry is not an act of the will — it’s an emotion. And I don’t doubt that you emotionally sympathize with her desire for a child; perhaps you have helped her carry the severe cross of infertility and shared her frustration and suffering at failed attempts to get pregnant. This sort of closeness to her suffering — this bearing her cross with her — is a blessed thing. It’s what St. Simon of Cyrene did for Jesus on the way to Calvary. 

But by giving her money in order to perform IVF, you necessarily agree — not emotionally but volitionally — that she uses the money to do what you have given it to her to do. To freely choose to pay for her sinful action, you choose with her what she chooses. And since she chooses evil, so do you. Catholic tradition calls this formal cooperation.

No doubt this would be plainer to see if she were choosing something more obviously evil. If she came to you and asked you to buy her a .40-caliber pistol because she wanted to “do in” her mother-in-law, you’d be correct to refuse, knowing that in purchasing the gun for her for that purpose, not only she but you would be a murderer. 

But the wrongness of IVF is not always so transparent to us. We disproportionately focus on the good that could be achieved through the process. How could wanting a baby be wrong? Aren’t Catholics pro-life and pro-baby? Don’t they want us to have children?

Wanting a baby of course is not wrong. Nor is wanting intimacy with another person. Nor is the desire for financial security. Nor is the wish to be free from incarceration. But just as having sex outside of marriage to achieve intimacy, or robbing a bank to achieve financial security, or lying on the witness stand to avoid incarceration, are bad means to good ends, so too, making a child in a laboratory in order to “get” a baby is a bad means to a good end. 

It’s bad because it treats the child like a thing, like an object. Objects are made and manipulated by technicians and discarded when they fail quality control. IVF treats human beings at the embryonic stage of development like laboratory material. 

From start to finish, IVF is dehumanizing. To get the required gametes, men usually masturbate and women’s ovaries have to be dangerously stimulated by powerful drugs. Technicians then examine the semen and eggs and select the “healthiest” and create with them multiple human embryos — human beings — in petri dishes. The embryonic children are then examined under microscopes and any that exhibit obvious defects are killed. “Healthy” embryos are grown for a few days, tests are performed on them to make sure they “pass” quality control, and a few are selected for transfer to the woman’s womb. Excess embryos are either killed or frozen and “earmarked” for various purposes, including for future pregnancies, embryo-destructive research or donation to other patients.

Need I ask why all this is wrong? Because men shouldn’t masturbate and women shouldn’t be subjected to dangerous super-stimulation drugs; children shouldn’t be made like widgets in a lab, they should be begotten in and through the one-flesh love of spouses; weak human beings shouldn’t be put to death because of their disabilities and children, no matter how small, should never be frozen. 

Catholic teaching has reaffirmed this time and time again over the last 40 years. The most complete treatment of IVF is found in the 1987 document Donum Vitae, Parts I-II, authored by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The text can get difficult in places, but the overall message is that IVF is a flagrant offense against the dignity of human life in its embryonic stage of existence and against the natural right of every human being to come into existence as the fruit of marital love and not as a product in a laboratory. 

The numbers are rather startling. There are more than 450 IVF clinics in the United States. In 2021 (the most recent year of CDC reporting), approximately 238,000 women had IVF performed on them. The process of achieving a successful pregnancy usually takes more than one “cycle” (IVF attempt). More than 413,000 cycles took place in 2021, resulting in 97,128 live-born infants just in the U.S. alone.

The vast majority of those cycles were performed at clinics that eugenically screen the embryos before implanting them, killing unfit children and freezing excess healthy ones that were deemed “no longer needed.” 

Between 12-15 embryos are produced per woman per IVF treatment, resulting usually in no more than one viable pregnancy. Using the conservative number of 12, if we multiply it by 238,000 women, and then subtract 97,000 from it (the number of children fortunate enough to be born alive), we get more than two and a half million human beings (who weren’t so fortunate). These were either killed or frozen in a single year in our country to fuel this sordid industry. (Note: compare with the approximately 930,000 abortions performed in the U.S. in 2020; see Guttmacher Institute; numbers aren’t out for 2021).

Conclusion? IVF clinics, whether at the doctor’s office around the corner, at our local community hospital or in free-standing fertility clinics, are places of unspeakable evil, arguably worse than abortion facilities. Although embryos are tiny, easily manipulated and bloodlessly killed, don’t let appearances fool you. These businesses are homicide factories.

IVF has done incalculable damage to people, marriages and families. Yes, it frequently also gets people what they want. But at what cost? 

It’s also done incalculable damage to the unity of the Catholic Church, since wide numbers of Catholics, through ignorance or bad will, reject the Church’s unambiguous teaching on IVF’s immorality; many, many Catholics, probably millions since IVF’s dubious arrival in 1978 on the public scene, have used it to make their children. 

I urge you to be St. Simon of Cyrene to your friend. Simon never helped Jesus abandon his cross; if he had, he’d be remembered like Judas. He helped Jesus fulfill the Father’s will for his life, even though it was terribly painful.

Help your friend carry her cross. Do whatever you can to recommend and help her to choose good options — adoption, foster care, ministry to disabled children, even embryo adoption. Draw her attention to medical opportunities using technology consistent with good morals that assist women with infertility.

Gently help her to see how the powerful desire to have a child can frequently blind us to the harms and wrongs caused by socially sanctioned but morally bad options available for achieving that desire.

Finally, pray for her, especially through the intercession of the Holy Innocents.

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