Infertility affects many couples around the world and, as a result, many couples are turning to assisted reproductive technologies like in vitro fertilization (IVF) as a solution. In the United States alone, about 6% of married women between the age of 15 to 44 are unable to get pregnant after one year of trying.
Infertility isn’t just a woman’s problem, though. In about 8% of couples having infertility issues, the identifiable cause is a male factor.
IVF is one of the many methods used to overcome infertility but this procedure has stirred up many moral and religious debates. What is IVF and what are the views of the Catholic Church on it?
What is IVF?
In Vitro Fertilization or IVF is an assisted reproductive technology in which a woman’s eggs are extracted and a sperm sample is retrieved. These two are then manually combined in a laboratory dish and the resulting embryo is transferred to the uterus.
Couples turn to IVF to treat infertility when they have the following conditions:
- Blocked or damaged fallopian tubes
- Low sperm count
- Low sperm motility
- Ovulation disorders
- Uterine fibroids
- Premature ovarian failure
- Various genetic disorders
- Unexplained infertility
Stories of Infertility in the Bible
There are many accounts of women who suffered from infertility in the Bible. One of them is Hannah who became so distraught with her condition that her husband, Elkanah, cried to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart so sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” Sarah, the wife of Abraham, and Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, also struggled to conceive. The stories of these women reveal the amazing power of God and that there is no limit to what He can do to our lives.
What the Church Says About Fertility Procedures
In 1987, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued Donum Vitae (The Gift of Life) which examined the different fertility procedures of the modern day in the context of morality and the Catholic Faith. The document did not condemn the use of technology as a cure for infertility as wrong in itself. It made clear that while some fertility methods are moral, the procedures that do violence to the dignity of a person and the institution of marriage should be considered immoral.
Donum Vitae also emphasized our responsibility to protect all human life when using technology and methods to have children. It pointed out that people can do harm to themselves and others even when their goal of overcoming infertility is good.
According to Donum Vitae, if a medical intervention helps the marriage act to achieve pregnancy then it is to be considered moral. On the other hand, if the intervention replaces the marriage act in order to engender life, it is not moral.
How the Church Views In Vitro Fertilization (IVF)
So why is IVF immoral? First we must take into consideration how IVF is carried out which is by extracting eggs from a woman’s ovary and then joining it with sperm in a petri dish. The new life is allowed to develop for several days before the embryos are transferred to the woman’s womb. This procedure apparently eliminates the marriage act as a means to achieve pregnancy. It replaces the act of love that should take place between a couple with a laboratory procedure.
In IVF the husband and wife become mere sources of raw materials of egg and sperm. Also, the procedure will involve several embryos but only the one which shows the greatest chance of survival is implanted in the womb. The others are discarded or used later on for experiments.
Another factor that should be considered is something known as “fetal reduction” or “selective reduction” which is sometimes performed during an IVF procedure. Here, doctors monitor babies in utero to see if they have defects and they will usually eliminate those that are deemed unhealthy. These methods are dehumanizing and a great act of violence against life.
Last but not the least, it is not uncommon for couples to seek out donors for eggs and sperm and this means that the biological parent of the child may well be someone outside the marriage. These circumstances could create complications later on. For example, the child may be confused when he or she learns that one parent is not actually biologically related to him or her. Or it could also result in half siblings marrying one another because they do not know who their biological parent is.
He is the image of the invisible God,the firstborn of all creation. - Colossians 1:15
Technologies Compatible with Catholic Teachings:
- Observation of the naturally occurring sign(s) of fertility (Natural Family Planning). Time intercourse on the days of presumed (potential) fertility for at least six months before proceeding to medical interventions.
- General medical evaluation of both spouses for infertility.
- Post‐coital test to assess sperm number and viability in "fertile type" mucus. These tests are undertaken after normal intercourse.
- Appropriate evaluation and treatment of male factor deficiency. Seminal fluid samples can be obtained from a non‐lubricated, perforated condom after normal intercourse.
- Assessment of uterine and tubal structural competence by imaging techniques (e.g., ultrasound, hysterosalpingogram, etc.).
- Appropriate medical treatment of ovulatory dysfunction.
- Appropriate (usually surgical) correction of mechanical blocks to tubal patency (the state of being open).
Reproductive Technologies under Discussion (neither "approved" nor "disapproved"):
- Gamete intra‐fallopian transfer (GIFT). (The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has not yet pronounced on the subject.)
- Intrauterine insemination (IUI) of "licitly obtained" (normal intercourse) but technologically prepared semen sample (washed, etc.).
Reproductive Technologies in Disagreement with Catholic Teachings:
- Obtaining a sample of seminal fluid by masturbation.
- Artificial insemination by a non‐spouse (AID), or even by the husband (AIH) if the sample is obtained and handled by non‐licit means (masturbated specimen).
- In vitro fertilization (IVF), zygote intra‐fallopian transfer (ZIFT), and intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), ovum donation, "surrogate" uterus.
Although IVF is considered immoral by the church, we must understand that children who are conceived through this method are still to be considered children of God and part of His family. We as human beings are created in the image and likeness of God so we must honor and treat each and every human life with respect. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding their conception, these children should be loved, respected and cared for.
What are your thoughts on infertility and the Church's view?
Donum Vitae (Instruction on Respect for Human
Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation)
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 1987.
USCCB: Call 800-235-8722