As a presenter with Family Honor, Inc., I travel around the country getting to meet wonderful parents who are very interested in learning more about the Catholic faith. One of the programs we offer is for parents only, which gives us a chance to get into some very meaty conversations about a whole host of behaviors related to sexual morality where we discuss what and why the Church teaches what it does.
To my surprise, the topics you’d think would be the most challenging really aren’t – namely artificial contraception and homosexuality. Once we have a better understanding of natural law and of what God’s plan is for sex and marriage, the Church’s timeless wisdom on these subjects simply makes sense – though some still initially disagree with those teachings.
Without exception, the topic about which we get the most raised eyebrows is artificial reproductive technologies – most notably IVF (In-Vitro Fertilization). From a sentimental standpoint, it seems cold and uncompassionate for the Church to not support a couple who simply wants to have a baby! What could be wrong with that? As it turns out, plenty.
Without even bringing morality into the conversation, a very strong medical/scientific argument can be made against this practice. Resorting to IVF (or artificial insemination, et. al.) raises a fundamental question – what is the reason for the infertility? There is usually a medical explanation. And there is often a licit, medically-sound procedure that can correct this, but you won’t hear this from most IVF clinics. Instead, a couple is likely to hear, “IVF is the only way you will get pregnant.” And left in the hands of a doctor who hasn’t been trained or educated about the alternatives, that may well be true. And sadly, techniques like IVF do nothing to correct the underlying problem.
To put it bluntly, IVF is bad medicine. Let’s look at some of the more common conditions that contribute to infertility. For a woman who has an obstruction of a fallopian tube, the procedure of micro-surgical connection of tubal adhesions resulted in a 29% “per woman” pregnancy rate even back in the same year the first baby was born as a result of IVF – 1978. 23 years after IVF was first successful, it could muster no more than a 27.5% pregnancy rate, while the success rate with micro-surgery improved.
What about endometriosis? Way back in 1981, women who had received conservative surgical management of this condition had a pregnancy rate of 53%. By 2010, women with this condition using IVF only had a pregnancy rate of 30.8%.
How about polycystic ovaries? Even back in 1950, a “wedge resection” procedure used by doctors helped women with this condition achieve pregnancy 66% of the time. (This technique now results in a nearly 80% success rate.) For IVF? Not even 30%. Successful pregnancy rates for artificial insemination are even lower (less than 20% as acknowledged here by a pro-artificial insemination website). (Data sourced from the book, “Blinders,” by Thomas W. Hilgers, MD.)
To add insult to injury, children conceived by IVF and by artificial insemination (intracytoplasmic sperm injection, or ICSI) are subject to much higher rates of birth defects. Additionally, parents tend to run into increased difficulties, which include breastfeeding difficulties, management of unsettled infant behavior, social isolation and postpartum anxiety.
Further exacerbating the pain of infertility for the couple resorting to IVF is the cost. For one round of treatments, a typical out-of-pocket cost is in the neighborhood of $19,000. If donor eggs are needed, the cost can easily double. (Remember the very low rates of success in getting pregnant after all that, as noted above.) But consider the stress this puts the couple under. For couples with failed IVF treatments (in other words, most of them), there is a 300% increased risk of divorce.
Finally, there’s this to consider – nearly 81% of those little babies are never implanted so as to have the chance to be born. Instead, roughly 250,000 babies conceived from IVF each year are discarded or frozen, and the rate of babies dying in-utero or being selectively aborted is also much higher than with traditional conception. This collateral damage would not seem to be what most of these couples were seeking.
So, from a purely medical standpoint, the Church is spot-on in its teaching about artificial conception techniques like these being wrong. But, what exactly does the Church teach on this and why, from a moral perspective? More on that in the second post in this series.