It can be difficult initially to understand why the Church opposes procedures such as in vitro fertilization (IVF). The Church teaches that children are the “crowning glory” of marriage. “Why oppose something that allows couples to bring new babies into the world?”
Sometimes there is more frustration behind the question: “Why does the Church think it can tell me I can’t be a grandmother” or “Who do you think you are, telling me I can’t be a mom.”
Because one in seven couples suffers from infertility or subfertility, Church teaching about IVF often leads to such genuine questions that deserve to be answered with love in truth. For many, the Church’s teaching is difficult to bear because the desire to have children is so natural and strong.
To turn minds and hearts, it must first be emphasized that the Church does not condemn persons created by technical procedure, even as we are strongly opposed to the technical procedure itself. Those born following in vitro fertilization possess dignity and are made in God’s image and likeness. Each person is a unique and unrepeatable spoken word of God, never to be spoken again. Offering qualified affirmation often opens minds and softens hearts: “I hope you may one day be a grandmother, and I imagine we agree that how you become a grandmother is very important.”
Such a disarming opening salvo establishes a point of agreement and provides an opportunity to explain how, often contrary to the best intentions of the parents, IVF involves the death of the very children a couple desires.
During the annual meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology this July, it was announced that five million babies have been born following in vitro fertilization procedures since 1978. Today, approximately 350,000 IVF babies are born annually, and the numbers are increasing.
An eerie silence hangs over these numbers. Unspoken is that most human beings created in the laboratory will die before even given a chance. It is commonly estimated that only one in six embryos created following IVF will make it to birth. However, the numbers published by Britain’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority may be more accurate. In July of 2011 Britain announced that for every child born by IVF thirty embryos were created.
This means that for a typical couple seeking IVF, somewhere between five and thirty of their children died so they could give birth to one. On a world-wide scale, this means that 30-150 million children have died because of IVF. In light of such staggering numbers the Church’s teaching makes perfect sense; it is “deeply disturbing” that “the number of embryos sacrificed is extremely high” (Dignitas personae n. 14). At best, IVF is like playing Russian Roulette with six people except only one chamber of the gun is empty. IVF treats the new human being as little more than a cluster of cells to be graded, selected, and discarded. As the Church has noted, “in other areas of medicine, ordinary professional ethics and the health care authorities themselves, would never allow a medical procedure which involved such a high number of failures and fatalities” (Dignitas personae n. 15).
Unfortunately, such a loss of life is ignored and accepted by the IVF industry. Such “failures and fatalities” are not even recognized for what they are by most physicians who do IVF—it has all become a normal and standardized aspect of the procedure. Further, the beautiful images of babies, slogans about “building families,” and the pristine walls of the typical fertility clinic hide this harsh reality from would-be parents.
The truth, and the gentle yet firm guidance of a priest, recently led a leading IVF doctor in Chicago, Anthony Caruso, to call it quits. As a July 30 Chicago Tribune article attests, “We see babies in our Catholic faith as children of God. …What doesn’t get thought about is the process that brought the babies to be.”
Over time Dr. Caruso came to recognize that regardless of the best intentions, the process of in vitro fertilization is a “false and deceptive solution” and an alarming attack on life. He is grateful to his parish priest for his courage to share the Church’s teaching concerning the industry that Caruso had been involved in for years. He now dedicates his professional life to promoting solutions to infertility that are consonant with Church teaching.
Like Anthony Caruso, most couples considering IVF are simply unaware of these facts, and if the information is presented compassionately they may consider life-affirming alternatives. At the end of the day we may rely upon the words of Blessed John Paul II to answer the questions we are asked about Church teaching on IVF: We are in the midst of a “dramatic clash between good and evil” and we have “the inescapable responsibility of choosing to be unconditionally pro-life” (Evangelium vitae n.28).