Marilyn E. Coors, Ph.D. | October 19, 2019

Question: What’s the Catholic Church’s teaching on stem cells and fertility? I have a friend struggling to get pregnant and desperately wants to do IVF.

Infertility brings its own particular heartache. The heartache of infertility is as old as scripture itself and is exemplified in the biblical story of Hannah and Elkhanah. Hannah loved her husband, the priest Elkhanah, and she was disconsolate when she was unable to have children. She prayed and wept at the Temple until the Temple priests accused her of drunkenness. In time, Hannah’s prayers were heard and she bore a son, Samuel. Regrettably, this is not the outcome for everyone, even though God hears their prayers. The Church understands the heartache of a married couple who plans their life together, a plan that includes children as the fruit of their love for each other.

When a couple faces infertility, sorting through the morality of the various infertility treatments can be bewildering. The Church provides a rule of thumb for assessing those treatments: If an intervention replaces the marital act, it is considered immoral because it is beneath the dignity of the married couple and the child. If it assists the marital act in achieving its natural purpose and end, pregnancy, it usually is moral. For example, it is moral to use fertility drugs to stimulate ovulation. The drugs act to stimulate egg production, and thus there is a greater chance for fertilization to occur. This treatment assists the marital act, even though there are risks from the drugs. In other situations, surgery is required for the male or the female to remove a blockage; this intervention also assists the marital act.

Let us turn to IFV, specifically, since this treatment is the focus of your question.  In order to base our moral analysis of IVF on the facts, I will begin with a brief description of the process. In IVF, a number of eggs are aspirated from the wife’s ovaries after she has taken drugs that causes her to hyper-ovulate. Semen is collected from the husband. The eggs and sperm are joined in a glass dish where fertilization occurs, and the embryos develop for several days. An agreed upon number of embryos are then placed in the womb of the mother between one and six days after fertilization. The remaining embryos are usually frozen and stored.

IVF is immoral according to Church teaching for several reasons. First, conception takes place outside of the mother’s body through the actions of technicians. The procedure replaces the marital act, and the new life is engendered in a laboratory rather than in the loving embrace of husband and wife. The parents produce eggs and sperm, and technicians trigger fertilization. The marital act is not a manufacturing process. The Church teaches that a child is a gift that arises out of acts of love between the husband and wife; a child is not a right to be manufactured. If a child were a right, he/she would be the property of the parents, rather than a person with inherent dignity.

Second, usually a number of embryos are produced, and only those which appear to be the most promising are implanted in the womb. The remainder of the embryos are frozen in liquid nitrogen, discarded, or used in research if the parents agree. There are hundreds of thousands of frozen embryos in the US today. While a beautiful healthy baby may result from IVF, the handling of these left over embryos is immoral because it is an offense against human life. Moral theologians, bioethicists, and clerics are discussing this problem at the highest level of the Church, but a moral solution for the huge number of these nascent lives is elusive.

Third, the cost of IVF is tens of thousands of dollars and the success rate is roughly 20%. Thus, the financial and emotional toll of this procedure on the couple is enormous! For this reason and to increase the odds of success, doctors sometimes transfer more embryos to the mother’s womb than the number of children the couple wants in order to increase the likelihood of a successful pregnancy. Sometimes the couples goes home empty handed and broken-hearted, even after several rounds of IVF. Other times, the procedure may result in more fetuses than babies the couple will accept. In those cases doctors may perform a fetal reduction or the elimination of fetus/fetuses that aren’t doing as well or those that are the most accessible. This destruction of human life is immoral and devastating for a couple whose real desire was to have a child. Furthermore, this sounds more like the well-orchestrated manufacture of a product than creating a human life.

It is important to note that every child is made in the image and likeness of God, regardless of how he or she is engendered. Even if the procedure is immoral, God loves the child that results from any infertility treatment, and the Church teaches that we must love, cherish, and treat those children with dignity and respect.