Prohibition isn’t punitive: Understanding the Catholic Church’s stance on in vitro fertilization
In January 2020, two couples in Los Angeles found themselves exchanging 3-month-olds after discovering that their embryos had been switched during in vitro fertilization (IVF). “We missed an entire year of our daughter’s life,” Daphna Cardinale told the Los Angeles Times. “I didn’t get to experience being pregnant with her or birthing her; we missed her entire newborn period; we never saw our baby’s entrance in the world or cuddled her in her first seconds of life.” After genetic testing revealed that the couples had been caring for infants who were unrelated to them, the parents signed gestational carrier contracts to formalize the exchange of custody of their children.
The dark realities of IVF
Heartbreaking as this story is, blunders such as these are all too common in the fertility industry, and embryo mix-ups are just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to the high price tag (upwards of $12,000 a cycle) and low success rate of IVF (11-37%), women who employ IVF face significantly increased health risks for both themselves and their infants, including gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, hemorrhaging, preterm labor, low birth weight, birth defects and autism. Additionally, couples face decisions about what to do with leftover embryos (unless, of course, they are lost by accidental thawing in power outages). And those are merely the complications that arise for couples using their own genetic material and carrying genetically related children.
When donors become involved, parents ostensibly select sperm or eggs on the basis of genetic information that has historically been misleading or even false, such as the so-called genius sperm bank that allowed a man with schizophrenia to become father to 36 children. Further complications arise when couples resort to surrogacy, a practice in which another woman serves as the “rented womb” or “incubator” as she is often referred to in gestational carrier contracts. These types of arrangements have resulted in fierce custody disputes when surrogates have bonded with the infants they carry, surrogates being left with a baby and the bill when intended parents abandon the contract, and even forced abortions to “reduce” multiple pregnancies or when the baby they carry has been found to be “defective” in some way, usually with Down syndrome or some other genetic defect.
To call these situations “complicated” or “messy” dramatically underplays the enormity of the complexities involved when we pluck the creation of new human life out of the loving embrace of father and mother and relocate it to the laboratory. And yet, none of these medical, legal and ethical complexities comprise the primary objections of the Catholic Church when it comes to in vitro fertilization. Rather, these are the tragic fruits of a practice that is, at its core, fundamentally opposed to the goods of marriage itself.
The Church and IVF
The Church’s objections to IVF are rooted in the meaning of marriage and the language of the body. Although our contemporary culture tends to separate body and spirit into distinct domains, in truth, we are embodied beings. Our spirit does not experience the world except through a body; any intervention on our physical body intrinsically affects our spirit. We cannot hope to understand the meaning of the human person without acknowledging the inseparable unity of body and soul.
The implications of our embodied nature for marriage are this: The sacramental reality of “the two become one flesh” is expressed in the conjugal act. The joining of bodies in the sexual act signifies and makes manifest the joining of souls in that same act. This act at once expresses a total gift of self as well as receptivity of the other, including receptivity of the innate fertility (or lack thereof) of one’s spouse. This is why actions taken to separate the unity achieved in the conjugal act from its procreative potential (contraception) are problematic; any attempt to sever one from the other lessens the dignity of this renewal of the marital covenant and is, to some degree, an act of withholding or a refusal to fully accept one’s spouse within the most intimate of spousal embraces.
IVF represents one such attempt to dissect the meaning of the conjugal act, to separate the procreative from the unitive. As Domun Vitae articulates, “Fertilization 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” (No. 4).
By removing the conception of new life from its proper place proceeding from the love of man and wife, and introducing third parties in the form of technicians or donors, IVF represents a kind of “reproductive infidelity.” This is especially evident when reproduction takes place via the use of donors. While it might seem selfless for the infertile spouse to permit a third party to replace her, allowing her spouse to achieve his dream of a biologically related child despite his wife’s “deficit,” what takes place is a rejection of the infertile spouse.
Actress Gabrielle Union poignantly articulates the heartbreak this can cause when she describes her reasons for sobbing at her surrogate’s ultrasound: “My cry was a choke stopped up in my throat, tears streaming down. It was grief. I’d had so many miscarriages … looking at the screen, I understood how many potential babies I had lost. That’s why I was crying. The experience of Dwyane having a baby so easily — while I was unable to — left my soul not just broken into pieces, but shattered into fine dust scattering in the wind.”
Refusing to accept spousal infertility by reproducing with another is as serious a violation of the marital covenant as refusing to accept spousal fertility through the use of contraception; they are two sides of a single reproductive coin. A more faithful, unifying response is facing infertility as a couple — together.
Some Christians justify their recourse to IVF by arguing that God must approve because he is the ultimate creator of new life, and clearly he chooses to bring new life out of IVF. Unfortunately, that line of thinking has dark implications that cannot measure up. That same logic can be used to justify rape: If God allows new life to come out of rape, then he must approve of the act that generates new life. This is not a Catholic worldview. We do not see God’s act of bringing new life out of a particular sexual act as his approbation of that act. Rather, as with the case of rape, God works to bring good things out of our suffering. And so conception as a result of IVF cannot be used to argue for God’s approval of the act leading to conception.
Hope for couples facing infertility
When couples struggling with infertility often turn to IVF as a last resort after enduring years of heartbreak, the Church’s prohibition of IVF can seem punitive. Statements about the nature of marriage and even the long list of health risks and legal complications might ring hollow for couples whose arms ache to hold an infant.
Fortunately, there is an alternative to IVF that is over 80% effective involving procedures covered by most insurance plans. NaPro technology works to address and heal the underlying causes of a couple’s infertility, and while these causes are not always the kind that can be addressed by medical solutions, NaPro’s much higher rates of efficacy, dramatically lower costs and complete lack of ethical and legal quandaries should serve as signs of great hope for couples who face infertility. A list of certified NaPro physicians can be found at fertilitycare.org.
Samantha Stephenson is a writer and host of “Brave New Us,” a podcast that explores bioethics and motherhood through the lens of faith. She writes from Idaho.