What Is the Catholic Church’s Position on IVF?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that IVF is ‘morally unacceptable’ because it separates the marriage act from procreation and establishes ‘the domination of technology’ over human life.

The use of IVF is contrary to Catholic teachings.
The use of IVF is contrary to Catholic teachings. (photo: Shutterstock)

Since the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that embryos created through in vitro fertilization (IVF) are human children, debate over fertility treatment has erupted anew.

Here’s everything you need to know.

What is IVF?

IVF is a medical procedure that fuses sperm and egg in a lab environment to conceive a child outside of the sexual act. The live embryo is then later implanted into a uterus to continue developing until birth.

According to the Mayo Clinic, IVF is typically used as a “treatment for infertility” that “also can be used to prevent passing on genetic problems to a child.”

Is the Catholic Church against IVF?

Yes. While the Church encourages certain fertility treatments for couples struggling to have children, the use of IVF is contrary to Catholic teachings.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2377) states that IVF is “morally unacceptable” because it separates the marriage act from procreation and establishes “the domination of technology” over human life.

According to Joseph Meaney, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, the 1987 Vatican document Donum Vitae established the moral framework for Catholics with regard to IVF. Donum Vitae said that “the gift of human life must be actualized in marriage through the specific and exclusive acts of husband and wife, in accordance with the laws inscribed in their persons and in their union.”

This teaching, Meaney told CNA, laid out a “fundamental distinction” between treatments meant to assist the marital act in conceiving a child versus treatments that replace the marital act.

Donum Vitae compares IVF to abortion, saying that “through these procedures, with apparently contrary purposes, life and death are subjected to the decision of man, who thus sets himself up as the giver of life and death by decree.”

Meaney explained that in IVF “there‘s an objectification of the child because essentially they’re producing children almost on an industrial scale.”

“It's treating the human person not as a gift, but rather as an object to be created and that can be subjected to quality control and discarded.”

How does IVF separate sex from procreation?

An IVF pregnancy is achieved through the removal of some of a woman’s eggs, collected by inducing what is called “superovulation,” where a drug is administered so the woman releases multiple eggs in one cycle. The eggs are combined with a man’s sperm retrieved through masturbation.

Ultimately, IVF involves the use of artificial means to achieve pregnancy outside of the marriage act. The Church holds that this disassociation is contrary to the dignity of parents and children.

Donum Vitae says that because conception through IVF is “brought about outside the bodies of the couple through actions of third parties,” such fertilization “entrusts the life and identity of the embryo into the power of doctors and biologists and establishes the domination of technology over the origin and destiny of the human person.”

“Only respect for the link between the meanings of the conjugal act and respect for the unity of the human being make possible procreation in conformity with the dignity of the human person,” Donum Vitae teaches.

How are children harmed through IVF?

During the IVF process, multiple human embryos are made and then evaluated in a “grading” process that determines their cellular “quality.” There are multiple grading methods that IVF providers use to examine embryos with an eye for which may be the most suitable for implantation into the uterus.

Almost half of the human embryos created through IVF are “discarded” during the process, according to the Center for Genetics and Society. This has led to millions of human embryos being discarded, something that in the Church’s eyes amounts to the killing of millions of innocent lives.

Additionally, the use of IVF has resulted in a surplus of an estimated 1 million human embryos being kept frozen in laboratories across the country where they are often stored indefinitely or destroyed in embryonic scientific research.

Aren’t more children good?

The Church supports a couple's desire for children. The problem arises when that desire leads couples to seek children by any means.

John Di Camillo, an ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, explained to CNA that “we cannot do evil that good may come.”

“The Church teaches that children have a right to be conceived, gestated, born and raised within marriage,” he said. “Each human person is in the image and likeness of God, made by God — a body-soul unity of infinite value to be welcomed, loved and cherished rather than forcibly produced.”

What are the alternatives to IVF for Catholics?

The Catechism (2375) teaches that “research aimed at reducing human sterility is to be encouraged.”

According to Donum Vitae, fertility treatments meant to replace the marriage act are morally wrong while those meant to assist it in conceiving life may be permitted.

Methods such as Natural Procreative Technology (NaPro Technology) that focus on treating the underlying bodily or hormonal issues causing infertility rather than attempting to skirt around them are considered morally licit by the Church.

According to Veritas Fertility & Surgery, NaPro Technology treatments often involve medications to improve ovulation and hormone levels for a woman as well as “improve sperm count or quality” for men. NaPro Technology can also involve surgical interventions aimed at restoring the natural procreative functions of the body.

The Church also encourages couples to use natural family planning (NFP), which tracks the fertile and infertile cycles of a woman’s body to either achieve or postpone pregnancy. There are multiple NFP tracking methods such as the Creighton Model Fertility Care System and Billings Ovulation Method that are considered licit by the Church.

“The Church supports married couples struggling with the cross of infertility by encouraging medical interventions to heal the couple, restoring their health and fertility so they are more likely to receive the gift of a child through sexual intercourse,” Di Camillo explained.

What is the Alabama IVF ruling?

The Alabama Supreme Court ruled on Feb. 20 that frozen human embryos constitute children under state statute, a decision that could affect the way IVF clinics operate in the state.

The 8-1 ruling said that the state’s “Wrongful Death of a Minor Act” “applies to all children, born and unborn, without limitation” and “regardless of their location.”

It should be noted that the Alabama ruling is not part of a federal case and so only affects the law within the state, leaving all other states unaffected.

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COMMENTARY: ‘Man alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God’s own life ... This is the fundamental reason for his dignity. Being in the image of God, the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone.” (CCC 356)