In January this year an In Vitro Fertilization clinic opened at Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre. This prompted meetings and considerable correspondence between members of the IVF team and the League of Life in Manitoba. As a result;, the recent Vatican document, “On Respect for Human Life and its Origins and the Dignity and Procreation,” which formally condemned IVF, has created more than a simple academic controversy in the city. It is a tragic irony that a costly, and dangerously invasive technique to ‘create’ babies, is being established in a hospital which annually destroys 2,000 healthy babies because they are ‘socially or economically inconvenient or unwanted.’

Canada’s only nationally-read newspaper, the Globe and Mail, quickly fuelled the fires of controversy surrounding the document. An editorial (March 12) stated, “it came as a shock this week when the Vatican . . . outlawed in-vitro fertilization.” This indicates a certain ignorance on the part of the editorial writer. In reality, the document merely formalized many recent pronouncements by the Church, all of which are rooted in her constant vision of the nature of marriage, the family and the dignity of the human person. The real shock would have been if the Church accepted IVF.

Using tactics reminiscent on their attempt to influence public – particularly Catholic – opinion on two related issues, contraception and abortion, the Globe editorial avoided any intellectually taxing examination of moral an ethical implications of IVF, and settled instead for an emotional, knee-jerk response. The Church, the editorial charged, was “callous, ‘punitive” and “lacking in compassion” toward infertile couples. The one door offering hope to childless couples had been closed by an insensitive, heartless Church, it claimed.

Trendy comments

The Winnipeg Free Press (March 11) contributed more fuel to the fire with an article attempting to emphasize the depth of the Church’s insensitivity. Moral theologian and ex-priest Daniel Maguire (now active with “Catholics for Choice”) received prominent coverage for his criticism of the document as the opinion of celibate men pronouncing on the reproductive rights of women . . . .” The superficiality of this trendy comment will be obvious to anyone who has made even a cursory examination of the issue. IVF technology has ramifications for society far beyond the narrower issue of women’s reproductive rights.

Encouraging research

The Vatican document clearly confirms the Church’s sensitivity and concern for the problem confronting the infertile couples. “The difficult trial” created by this “sad situation” is fully acknowledged. The document exhorts “the community of believers . . . (to) support, in their suffering, those unable to fulfill their legitimate aspirations” to be parents. It encourages scientists “to continue their research with the aim of preventing the causes of sterility and being able to remedy them so the sterile couples will be able to procreate in full respect for their own personal dignity and that of the child to be born.”

IVF – what is it?

In simple terms, IVF is designed to circumvent the causes of infertility, most often blocked or damaged tubes in women and low sperm count in men. The woman is given drug therapy, stimulating the ovaries to produce multiple mature ova or eggs. The maturation of the eggs is monitored by means of ultrasound, and at the appropriate time the eggs, usually six to eight, are retrieved by aspirating them from the ovaries. The eggs are then fertilized in vitro, (glass dish), with sperm obtained by masturbation either from the husband or a donor. (It is at the time of fertilization that anew, individual human life begins). The fertilized ova or embryos are then re-implanted in the womb (generally no more than four are returned because of the risks to the mother associated with multiple births). Prior to implantation, the embryos are screened for “suitability,” and “unsuitable” embryos are destroyed.

When more than four embryos have been “created,” the remainder may be frozen in a process called cryo-preservation, and then stored for future use. In some case “spare” or “surplus” embryos have been used by experimental purposes, not to their own benefit, but some alleged benefit to someone else at some future time.

The Medical Research Council of Canada recently proposed that ‘for the present’ experimentation on human embryos be limited to 17 days after conception. This position marks a radical departure from medicine’s time-honoured ethics, “first do no harm.” Embryo freezing has been condemned by the Church, and many others, including the ethicist Paul Ramsey, oppose leaving human beings in a state of suspended animation with no guarantee that hey will survive the freezing or thawing process. The process is still considered by most scientists to be highly experimental and countless human embryos will continue to be destroyed in efforts to improve this technique.

What are the dangers of IVF?

From a Catholic perspective, masturbation and subsequent artificial insemination, re both judged to be morally unacceptable and therefore evil. Nor can one do an evil act even in order to achieve a ‘good’ end, that is the birth of a child. Additionally, IVF attacks the fundamental nature of the conjugal act just as contraception does it separates the “unitive” and “procreative” elements essential to each conjugal act.

In a still wider context, a major problem with IVF is the loss of, and disregard for, human life, implicit in this procedure. This destruction is completely unacceptable to all those who are concerned with the protection of innocent human life. The ‘creation’ of “spare surplus of embryos” is virtually unavoidable in IVF technology. Frozen embryo banks, wherein the human embryo is viewed as commodity available in various colours with the choice of a male or female, reduced the child to the level of an object.

Using human embryos for “cell cultures” and “organ donors” has already generated considerable scientific interest and media attention. Inherent in this technology is the threat of adversely manipulating human life, not only at an individual level, but for all generations to come. Gene splicing, cloning and the creation of “chimeras” all loom on the scientific horizon. Dr. R. J. Edwards, of the famous Steptoe and Edwards team, has already asked whether the principles of medical ethics can be stretched to justify “the more remote techniques of modifying embryos.”

As with abortion, infanticide and euthanasia, IVF is an attack on human life at its origins, as well as an assault on marriage, the family, and the dignity of the human person be they woman, child or man.

The validity of the Church’s condemnation of IVF is not of course dependent on the existence of possible alternatives to IVF. At the same time in her traditionally-recognized role as Mother, Holy Mother Church has always had concern for the difficulties  faced by those anxious to live by her teaching. In the perennially-favorite movie, The Sound of Music, Maria comments, “whenever the Lord closes a door. He always opens a window.”

Toward Moral Alternatives

The Pope John Centre for Bio-ethics, in Massachusetts, has reported extensively on new techniques for treating infertility which are compatible with Catholic moral teaching. Two of the most promising techniques are Gamete Intra Fallopian Transfer, referred to as FIG, and Tubal Ovum Transfer or TOT. With some adaptations, both of these procedures appear to meet the moral requirements of the Church. They differ from IVF in a number of crucial areas.

No “spare” embryos

A singularly important advantage in these recent techniques is that they eliminate the possibility of “spare or surplus embryos.” In both TOT and GIFT, fertilization takes place within the woman’s body, (in vivo) and not in a glass dish (in vitro).

A second moral hurdle, masturbation, may also be overcome by collecting sperm (if necessary) within the framework of the conjugal act. Although the Church has not commented officially, the use of the perforated Silastic sheath appears to meet the requirements of official Catholic moral teaching. The sheath would not appear to compromise the integrity of the conjugal act, as sperm, more than sufficient for fertilization is released into the vagina before the perforations are sealed by the coagulating semen. The procreative element is thereby preserved and the unitive act of husband and wife remains “open to the transmission of life.”

Gamete Intrafallopian Transfer – GIFT

As with IVF, drugs are administered to stimulate the maturation of a number of eggs which are monitored and aspirated at the appropriate time. After this point the procedures diverge. Sperm (obtained in an acceptable manner) is then prepared as required. The sperm is drawn into a hallow tube or catheter, followed by an air gap and then the eggs. (The air gap prevent fertilization from occurring within the catheter). The sperm and eggs are then deposited into the fallopian tube where fertilization normally occurs. In this way the GIFT technique is understood to be assisting normal intercourse rather than replacing it with a laboratory procedure. According to Dr. Richardo Asch of the University of Texas, GIFT will become the most effective treatment for women whose infertility is unexplained, or for husbands with low sperm counts. GIFT is not suitable for one-in-five candidates whose fallopian tubes are blocked or absent.

Tubal Ovum Transfer – TOT

In 1983, at the St. Elizabeth Centre in Dayton Ohio, work began on a promising new technique known as low tubal ovum transfer. The procedure has since been modified and is simply called tubal ovum transfer. This technique is designed to circumvent blocked and/or damaged fallopian tubes. The procedure begins with the couple having marital intercourse before coming to the out-patient department. The day is chosen to coincide with the wife’s time of ovulation. Under general anesthetic the mature eggs are retrieved by laprosocpy and repositioned to bypass the blockage or damage in the tubes. The coupe return home and repeat the act of intercourse allowing fertilization to be part of the natural act. This procedure has already been successful in achieving a number of pregnancies.

A call to courage

Clearly, ongoing research is necessary to improve these procedures and assure their harmony with Catholic teaching. They are however, the “window’ of hope, not only for Catholic couples, but for the thousands who are deeply disturbed by IVF procedures. Catholic and non-Catholic alike would do well to heed the challenge of Justice Michael D. Kirby, Chairman of the Australian Law Reform Commission:

“Let it not be the epitaph of our generation that we proved ourselves brilliant in the dazzling field of scientific endeavor but so morally bankrupt and legally incompetent that we could not bother or did not have the courage to sort out the consequences for our society and for the human species.”