Since any begetting or production of a human being is wrong outside of marriage, we shall discuss here in vitro fertilization (IVF) only of the egg of a woman by the sperm of her husband. When the egg is fertilized in a dish by a doctor adding the husband’s sperm to it, it is said to take place in vitro, which is the Latin for “in a dish.”
It should be stated at the outset that a fertilized egg is a human person, whether the fertilization takes place in or outside a woman’s body. Certainly any such fertilization, apart from the purpose of transferring the new life to its mother, is morally wrong. We know that many doctors today are producing such human beings for the purpose of experimenting on them, studying them so that medical science can advance. When the experimentation is finished, the human beings are killed and thrown out. And many countries, after establishing “ethics committees,” have approved of such experimentation.
The only problem that remains, then, is whether IVF is allowed for the purpose of enabling a couple to have a child when they cannot have one (or another one) through intercourse.
Now, IVF is wrong in practice even if, speaking about it as an abstract ideal, it might be all right. Whether or not it is all right in the ideal situation we will consider later. The reason it is wrong in practice is that, in order to make sure that the fertilized egg continues to live in its mother’s womb, the doctor gets the mother to produce a large number of eggs so that at least one will continue to live. Thus many human beings are produced in order that one might live in its mother’s womb. It is therefore known that all but one of them will die, either because they do not “take” in the womb, or because one does “take” and the others are killed. If the one that does “take” turns out to be an “undesirable offspring,” it is usually killed also.
Let’s look at the mental attitude of the parents of these human beings. They are willing to produce many children and let all but one of them die or be killed. But as easily as not the parents could have had the one who lived killed through the agency of their doctor. What kind of love do they have for such a child? And what kind of love did they have for its brothers and sisters? It can be seen that their desire for a child is purely selfish, so selfish that they will not stop at murder to achieve it. Such parents are abortionists, usually multiple abortionists. And very often it is to no avail anyway, since IVF is frequently a failure.
We know it is common nowadays for a twin to be killed in the womb if only one child is desired, or if the death of one will improve the “biological welfare” of the other. Parents wanting IVF children are guilty of a similar practice, though usually on a bigger scale.
When the Vatican document on IVF was issued in February, 1987, some Catholic hospitals said that they would not follow its absolute prohibition of IVF but would limit the practice of trying with one fertilized egg at a time. It seems to me that, even if IVF were allowed in the ideal situation, it would still be wrong because the chance of one egg “taking” in its mother’s womb is not very high, and many eggs would be used, not all at the same time but sequentially. This practice would be better than the previous one, since no more eggs would be fertilized once one “took” (unless it proved “defective” and was killed). Thus, on the average, fewer eggs would be used than previously. Nevertheless it would not be right to take such a chance with human life. We are not allowed to risk unborn life any more than we are allowed to risk the lives of human beings who have been born.
Product of technology
We come now to the question whether IVF is allowed even if we could be completely certain that only one fertilized egg would be used and that it would “take.” The difference between this and the normal way of having a child is that in IVF the child is produced by the doctor; it is not the fruit of the act of loving surrender to one another and to God that is the normal way of having a child. In IVF the child is produced; in marital intercourse the child is begotten. In IVF the child as a product of technology; in marital intercourse it is not a product at all but the fruit of love. In IVF the child is like a “thing’”; in marital intercourse it is a person. In IVF it is like a purchase; in marital intercourse it is a gift.
It should be pointed out that there is nothing wrong with technology itself, but that there are limits on its proper use. When it retains its proper nature, technology may be used to achieve the goal of having a child. However, if the technology replaces the marital act, it changes the essential nature of the way in which a child is brought into the world. As the Vatican document says, the child must be “the fruit of the mutual self-giving of the spouses… The fidelity of the spouses in the unity of marriage involves the reciprocal respect of each other… The one conceived must be the fruit of his or her parents’ love.” There are essential connections amongst marital intercourse, the self-giving of the spouses to one another, and the child which is the fruit of that self-giving, that love.
Catholics are more fortunate than other believers. Their Church is able to speak with authority on such different matters. God would have been lacking in wisdom or power or providence if He did not provide a means whereby His followers could know for sure the answers to the pressing questions which arise over the centuries, and which arise at the present time. And the Catholic Church has spoken clearly concerning IVF. Though it is a laudable desire of parents to want children, it is not laudable to use IVF to obtain them.
Leonard A. Kennedy is a Catholic priest and a member of the Congregation of St. Basil