Need Moral Guidance on IVF? The National Catholic Bioethics Center Offers Free Personal Consultations

A growing area of the NCBC’s services is its free consultations that are guiding Catholics in making moral decisions.

In vitro fertilization
In vitro fertilization (photo: Nevodka / Shutterstock)

The exploding field of bioethics has created the need for a sound understanding of Catholic teaching regarding the dignity of the human person — especially on the trending topic of in vitro fertilization given the recent Alabama Supreme Court ruling that cryogenically frozen human embryos are considered unborn children under state law.

The National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC), based in Broomall, Pennsylvania, was created to meet this need in 1972. Originally called the Pope John XIII Medical Moral Research and Education Center, it is a unique institution dedicated to the mission of upholding the dignity of the human person in health care and biomedical research. 

A growing area of the NCBC’s services is its free personal consultations that are guiding Catholics in making moral decisions. 

One of the ethicists fielding personal consultation requests is Joe Zalot, Ph.D. “A lot of the calls we’re getting involve end-of-life situations. This can be anything from the morality of a DNR (‘Do Not Resuscitate’) order to the withdrawal of a ventilator to providing nutrition and hydration to a loved one who is at the end stages of dementia [and a lot of others]. I also get beginning-of-life issues, such as ethical interventions for ectopic pregnancy and ‘What do I do with leftover embryos from a prior IVF?’”

He added: “The issue of cryopreserved IVF embryos is particularly relevant today, with the recent Alabama Supreme Court ruling recognizing them as children. Not surprisingly, abortion supporters are attacking this commonsense, science-based ruling because they know it undermines their ability to kill preborn children.”

The number of unique visitors to the website increased by 850% in one month, to more than 2,000, ahead of the center’s decision to focus on free consultations. The massive temporary overload created a challenge that prompted a review of how the center was assisting everyday Catholics who want to do the right thing but are not sure what that is in their specific situation. Record numbers of people were guided in making faith-informed judgments in a short time, leading the NCBC to realize how many people out there need help.

Consequently, the NCBC took the steps to expand, in order to reach more individuals seeking guidance and clarity on Church teaching. 

The Personal Consultations Department was consecrated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus on June 24, 2022, the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the 50th anniversary year of the NCBC. It was also the date of the long-awaited Supreme Court’s pro-life Dobbs decision.

“Thanks to the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson decision — a major victory for the dignity of the human person — this date will be long remembered in history. What a providential alignment of events,” said John Di Camillo, Ph.D., personal consultations director and ethicist, in a phone interview with the Register.

All those involved in providing assistance or benefiting from it, as well as those who support the department, are now entrusted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Requests come from nurses, patients, health-care power of attorneys, scientific researchers, medical students or residents, or everyday people facing tough ethical decisions in health care and biomedical research. Priests, chaplains, family members or friends of someone else asked to advise on these matters are also typical of those seeking consultation.

Another category of consultations is “people who were unaware of Church teaching when they did what they did to put themselves into the situation they are now faced with,” explained Di Camillo. “This is especially the case with IVF. They are calling us because they now understand Church teaching and need help extricating themselves from a very sticky ethical challenge. In fact, we sometimes get calls from priests who are working with such people. The priest is not completely sure what is/is not Church teaching, so he looks to us to give him good information so he can direct his parishioners accordingly.”

The NCBC’s free consultations are primarily addressed by a team of ethicists, fellows and interns, with a total of 10 Ph.D.s, who are supported by independent advisers with expertise in medicine, science and law. Until recently, most people found out about the service through word of mouth, or through EWTN or radio interviews with either Father Pacholczyk or the center’s president, ethicist Joseph Meaney, Ph.D.

“Science and technology have developed so fast ... that there are many moral and ethical dilemmas that our parents and grandparents did not have to face,” Meaney told the Register in a telephone interview. “And so what the NCBC does is to help and support to help them, both to see with clarity but also to be compassionate and pastoral, to pray for them, to give them the guidance that they need to make the best possible choices that they can live and follow in good conscience.” 

Bioethics is the study of the ethical concerns stemming from advances in biology and medicine. It involves distinguishing between morally appropriate and inappropriate uses of biotechnology and medicine, often for individuals and families, and often in situations requiring an immediate decision. This wide range of issues impact not only Catholic health professionals, biomedical researchers, employers, clergy and individuals, but the wider culture and world.   

NCBC senior ethicist Father Tad Pacholczyk, whose column, “Making Sense of Bioethics” runs in diocesan papers, points to the trend in dehumanizing life when inconvenient or challenged: “I think the greatest challenge is the depersonalization of the human person, that we no longer respect the value and the integrity and the sacredness of human life.”

While the NCBC’s institutional consultations department guides dioceses, Catholic health-care organizations such as hospitals and nursing homes and others on how to apply Catholic moral teaching to policies, practices, health insurance, incidences, and programs, requests for personal assistance often come from individuals or families with specific ethical questions.

Di Camillo added that the vast majority of personal inquiries come from people who truly want to follow authentic Church teaching but may not be clear on what that is for their particular situation.  

The moral areas often needing clarity today involve abortion and treatments for pregnancy complications, infertility treatments, contraception, end-of-life issues such as ordinary and extraordinary measures or nutrition and hydration, assisted suicide, vaccines, gender identity, abortion-derived cell lines in biomedical research, hospice, informed consent, cooperation with the immoral acts of others, and vital organ donation.

While the NCBC has been fielding one-on-one consultations for years with a smaller number of ethicists and a basic system for assigning call duty and tracking responses, there was no actual department, director or efficient system for handling a large volume of these requests, nor was there any systemic effort to promote or advertise the service. With the onset of COVID, there was an enormous increase in requests for guidance, especially regarding vaccines. 

Di Camillo, already a staff ethicist for a decade, reworked the service in particular by improving data tracking and training fellows and interns, so that calls and emails for consultations are now rotated among a team of 10 to 15 scheduled responders. He set key goals for “expanded access to the moral guidance and reliable resources that are faithful to the magisterium of the Church, for those seeking to form their consciences and live saintly lives,” and training for Catholic ethicists through real-life experience field consults under the guidance of seasoned NCBC ethicists.  

With DNR, a determination has to be made whether resuscitative measures (chest compressions, defibrillation, intubation, etc.) constitute ordinary or extraordinary care in the individual’s situation.  

“Will the intervention bring this person back to a state of health? If yes, do the perceived benefits outweigh the burdens? For instance, for a 56-year-old healthy person whose heart stopped, CPR would likely be an ordinary means of care. For a 95-year-old, CPR could easily break ribs, and so resuscitation could be an extraordinary means of care.”

A number of consultations involve issues surrounding dementia and, increasingly, cutting-edge genetics. “We have a Ph.D. in genetics to field these requests,” Zalot explained.

Zalot shared that he has “noticed that since COVID there has been an increase in cooperation-with-evil related questions. This can be from clinicians [particularly early-career ones] who are faced with participating in an immoral medical intervention, or researchers who are working with abortion-derived cell lines or other ‘biological material of illicit origin’ [to quote Dignitas Personae].”

He added that “people are starting to ask about abortion-derived cell lines. Am I participating in evil by taking the COVID vaccine, or by prescribing the vaccine, or in working for the company that produces it or other abortion-derived drugs or other products?”

Other consultations, he continued, “could be about a particular intervention a doctor is talking about, such as putting the person on a ventilator. A lot of nutrition-and-hydration challenges come in. We reference the ‘Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services’ from the USCCB. For example, Directive 58 says there is a general obligation to provide medically assisted nutrition and hydration to patients who cannot take food orally, but there are also situations where a person can no longer assimilate water or food or where providing these could prove worse for them. In such cases, it can be acceptable to withhold or withdraw nutrition and hydration. People typically need help understanding whether their loved one’s specific situation calls for providing or allows for withholding.”

In addition to consultations, the NCBC offers a wealth of information, including online resources and two periodicals, the monthly publication Ethics & Medics and the scholarly journal The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly; interviews and podcasts, and an online store for books and guides — including the model advance directive in A Catholic Guide to End-of-Life Decisions.

According to Zalot, in most personal consultations, the issue is “resolved” by the end of the consult, with people saying that they have a much clearer perspective on how to move forward. Their gratitude and sense of relief is evident, he reported.

“People will say, ‘Thank you; thank you’ at the end of the consult or in a follow-up phone or email message, saying that the consultation was very beneficial in helping them to address the particular moral challenge. These thank-yous are personally very rewarding.”