IVF – Why the Catholic Church is 100% Correct
By Vincent Weaver
Used with permission
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.
With great consistency, 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.) begs 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 considerably.
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).
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?
As mentioned previously, this is one of the toughest issues on sexual morality to discuss, even with Catholic audiences. If a couple wants a baby, why is that problem? Shouldn’t they be able to use any legal means necessary to have that baby? Isn’t it good to bring more children into the world?
While these are all valid, understandable questions, it’s good to remember that from a moral perspective, the ends don’t justify the means. IVF (et. al.) is all about the means. So, a couple wants to have a baby. They’re having issues with infertility. As explained by Dr. John Haas in an article for the USCCB, in 1987, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a document known as Donum Vitae (“The Gift of Life”), which addressed the morality of many modern fertility procedures. The document did not judge the use of technology to overcome infertility as wrong in itself. It concluded that some methods are moral, while others—because they do violence to the dignity of the human person and the institution of marriage—are immoral. Donum Vitae teaches that if a given medical intervention helps or assists the marriage act to achieve pregnancy, it may be considered moral; if the intervention replaces the marriage act in order to engender life, it is not moral. The Church makes it clear that because it eliminates the marital act as the means of achieving pregnancy, in vitro fertilization (IVF) is immoral. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 2376-77) has more to say on this overall issue:
“Techniques that entail the dissociation of husband and wife, by the intrusion of a person other than the couple (donation of sperm or ovum, surrogate uterus), are gravely immoral. These techniques (heterologous artificial insemination and fertilization) infringe the child’s right to be born of a father and mother known to him and bound to each other by marriage. They betray the spouses’ “right to become a father and a mother only through each other.”
“Techniques involving only the married couple (homologous artificial insemination and fertilization) are perhaps less reprehensible, yet remain morally unacceptable. They dissociate the sexual act from the procreative act. The act which brings the child into existence is no longer an act by which two persons give themselves to one another, but one that 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. Such a relationship of domination is in itself contrary to the dignity and equality that must be common to parents and children. Under the moral aspect procreation is deprived of its proper perfection when it is not willed as the fruit of the conjugal act, that is to say, of the specific act of the spouses’ union . . . 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 person.”
God makes it clear to us that sex is a gift (CCC 2378), and that children are a “gift of that gift”, so to speak. As Giver, He also wants us to understand those gifts so we can better appreciate them, and consequently find maximum enjoyment in them. Not everyone is called to receive either of these gifts, though (Mt 19:12). To demand either as our right will invariably bring about unintended consequences. Sex outside of marriage brings about broken trust, higher divorce rates, greater rates of depression, and a sense that fertility is a disease to be treated rather than a gift to be embraced. Grasping at children at any cost also can lead to many such unintended consequences. Though many have already been spelled out in earlier in this section, possibly the worst of those outcomes of all is that children become commodities. Some IVF doctors have even left this field for precisely this reason. They started out wanting to give couples a chance to enjoy the precious gift of life, only to see it cheapened in the process and bringing harm to all involved.
There are moral interventions to overcoming infertility. The Pope Paul VI Institute at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska has had great success with couples in this regard. (And again, note the earlier part of this section for more on this and other medical options.) Adoption is also a wonderful possibility to consider, as I can personally attest to.
Infertility is indeed a cross. (My wife and I have carried this cross – we know.) But, it’s a cross that Christ will help you carry – if you let Him. And, as is always the case, His plan is vastly superior to our own.
To order Vincent Weaver’s book, God, Sex, Money, and Time: Get These 4 Right and All Else Falls Into Place,
 Data in this and prior paragraph sourced from the book, “Blinders”, by Thomas W. Hilgers, MD