Q: Why does the Church not approve of IVF as a way for childless couples to have a baby? A friend of mine has just announced that she is expecting a baby as a result of an IVF procedure and I don’t know whether to be happy for her, because she has finally conceived after eight years of marriage, or sad because she has resorted to unacceptable means in order to achieve it.
A: First of all, what is IVF, or in-vitro fertilisation? It is the fertilisation of the female egg in a glass dish or test tube in a laboratory, rather than in the woman’s body.
The Church’s rejection of this means of conceiving children is based in great measure on an important teaching of Pope Paul VI in his encyclical Humanae Vitae: the “inseparable connection, willed by God and unable to be broken by man on his own initiative, between the two meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning.” (HV, 12)
The unitive meaning is the couple’s coming together in a loving one-flesh embrace, and the procreative meaning is the openness to life of that embrace.
These two aspects must never be separated. Even before Pope Paul VI, Pope Pius XII had taught this in an address on May 19, 1956: “It is never permitted to separate these different aspects to such a degree as positively to exclude either the procreative intention or the conjugal relation.”
How does this relate to IVF? Whereas the use of contraception respects the unitive aspect while thwarting the procreative, IVF brings about the procreative aspect without the unitive.
The 1987 Instruction Donum vitae of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith deals with the issue of IVF, along with other ethical issues at the beginning of life.
It makes the point that in view of the unity of the human person in body and soul and of the innate language of the body expressed in the marital embrace, “the procreation of a person must be the fruit and the result of married love”.
Fertilisation achieved outside the bodies of the couple remains by this very fact deprived of the meanings and the values which are expressed in the language of the body and in the union of human persons.” (DV, II, B, 4) The Instruction goes on to say: “In reality, the origin of a human person is the result of an act of giving. The one conceived must be the fruit of his parents’ love.
“He cannot be desired or conceived as the product of an intervention of medical or biological techniques; that would be equivalent to reducing him to an object of scientific technology.
“No one may subject the coming of a child into the world to conditions of technical efficiency which are to be evaluated according to standards of control and dominion.” (ibid)
As is clear from this, a child should be conceived in that mysterious interplay between God’s love and the loving embrace of the parents, not as an object of scientific technology.
In the words of the Instruction, IVF “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.” (DV, II, B, 5)
In summary, the only setting worthy of human procreation is the act of conjugal love between spouses.
As regards how we should respond to the news that someone is having a baby through IVF, the Instruction goes on to say that even though this procedure cannot be approved, “every child which comes into the world must in any case be accepted as a living gift of the divine Goodness and must be brought up with love.” (ibid.)
We can thus rejoice with a couple who conceive a child by IVF.
If it is appropriate in the circumstances, we might inform them of the Church’s position on IVF but we can still show our joy at the conception of the child.
In the Scriptures, every conception is regarded as a blessing, and that applies here too, even though unacceptable means have been used to bring it about.
We should remember too that many couples, even Catholics, are unaware of the immorality of this procedure and they thus act in good faith when having recourse to it.
Finally, let me say that I have left out of the discussion other issues that bear on the morality of IVF, such as the obtaining of the sperm by immoral means, donation of the egg or sperm by someone other than the spouses, the destruction of unwanted embryos, etc, which are often associated with this procedure and which can aggravate its immorality.