A simplified explanation of the Church’s teaching on IVF and frozen embryos

6 mins read
A medical lab technologist operates an embryo vitrification during an intra cytoplasmic sperm injection process (ICSI) at a laboratory in Paris Sept. 13, 2019. (OSV News photo/Christian Hartmann, Reuters)

(OSV News) — When the Alabama Supreme Court recently recognized the personhood of embryos, it gave legal standing to something the Church has clearly established: An embryo is a human being and should be treated with the dignity and rights due to all people, especially the most vulnerable who cannot speak for themselves. This is part of the reason the Church opposes in vitro fertilization, in which embryos created in a laboratory are transferred to a woman for gestation. Father Francis J. Hoffman, a priest of Opus Dei well known as “Father Rocky” in his role as executive director and CEO of Relevant Radio, dives deeper into the Church’s teaching on IVF and the related issue of frozen embryos in this Q&A.

Q. I know there are very good reasons for the Church to teach against IVF (in vitro fertilization), but what are they? Also, what forms are allowed, and what is the difference?

A. The Church hopes and prays that God will bless married couples with children, but knows very well from experience and stories in the Bible that not every married couple receives the gift of children. So, to begin to answer your question, it needs to be stated that children are a gift from God — they are not a right. While every married couple has a right to try to have children, it is important to respect God’s law and the law of nature for procreation.

In this regard the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “A child is not something owed to one, but is a gift. The ‘supreme gift of marriage’ is a human person. A child may not be considered a piece of property, an idea to which an alleged ‘right to a child’ would lead. In this area, only the child possesses genuine rights: the right ‘to be the fruit of the specific act of the conjugal love of his parents,’ and ‘the right to be respected as a person from the moment of his conception.’ The Gospel shows that physical sterility is not an absolute evil. Spouses who still suffer from infertility after exhausting legitimate medical procedures should unite themselves with the Lord’s Cross, the source of all spiritual fecundity. They can give expression to their generosity by adopting abandoned children or performing demanding services for others” (Nos. 2378-2379).

There are several reasons why IVF is unethical. The first reason is that in the attempt to create new human life, IVF results in the disproportionate risk of loss of innocent human life. Innocent human lives are lost through IVF because “excess” human embryos created in the process are either discarded or placed in cryopreservation (deep freeze). Since human embryos are human lives, and human beings have an inherent right to life which is denied by cryopreservation or by being discarded, IVF is unethical. Pope Francis has been remarkably strong in his condemnation of our modern “throwaway” culture. Up to 90% of the human embryos that are created never make it. They never had a chance.

Again, the Catechism, based on the instruction on respect for human life in its origin (Donum Vitae, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 1987), states: “It is immoral to produce human embryos intended for exploitation as disposable biological material.”

It continues: “‘Certain attempts to influence chromosomic or genetic inheritance are not therapeutic but are aimed at producing human beings selected according to sex or other predetermined qualities. Such manipulations are contrary to the personal dignity of the human being and his integrity and identity’ which are unique and unrepeatable” (No. 2275).

The second reason IVF is unethical may be difficult for people to understand if they do not have an appreciation for natural law, but here it is anyway. Because IVF invades the sacred space of interpersonal human sexual relations and relies too much on technology, it winds up separating the spouses from each other and often separating the real parents from their offspring.

Here it will be helpful to reprint what the Catechism teaches us in this regard:

“Techniques that entail the dissociation of husband and wife, by the intrusion of a person other than the couple (donation of sperm or ovum, surrogate uterus), are gravely immoral. These techniques (heterologous artificial insemination and fertilization) infringe the child’s right to be born of a father and mother known to him and bound to each other by marriage. They betray the spouses’ ‘right to become a father and a mother only through each other.’

“Techniques involving only the married couple (homologous artificial insemination and fertilization) are perhaps less reprehensible, yet remain morally unacceptable. They dissociate the sexual act from the procreative act. The act which brings the child into existence is no longer an act by which two persons give themselves to one another, but one that ‘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.’ ‘Under the moral aspect, procreation is deprived of its proper perfection when it is not willed as the fruit of the conjugal act, that is to say, of the specific act of the spouses’ union. … Only respect for the link between the meanings of the conjugal act and respect for the unity of the human being make possible procreation in conformity with the dignity of the person'” (Nos. 2376-77).

Finally, reproductive medical assistance or techniques allowed include any which respect the life of the embryo and the exclusive sexual union of the married mother and father. LTOF (lower tubal ovum transfer) and GIFT (gamete intra-fallopian transfer) are methods that the Church does not condemn.

frozen embryos
Frozen human embryos are checked are pictured in a file photo. (OSV News photo/Ian Hodgson)

Q. I understand that as a result of science there are many (millions?) of frozen embryos that have been preserved for different reasons, such as IVF. What is their designation by the Church? What is permitted by the Church? What are the accepted forms of use for them? If they are being destroyed for medical purposes, isn’t this another slaughter of the innocents?

A. There is no good solution to the situation of frozen embryos. Biological science and the Church are in agreement about their status: From the moment of conception, they are human beings. The Church does not permit them to be destroyed. It would be best if their natural parents brought them to term.

Whenever we discuss the ethics of human reproduction, the necessary starting point — as mentioned above — is the recognition that children are a gift from God and not a human right. That premise may be difficult for some to accept, but it is based on the unique sacred dignity of each human person endowed with a unique spiritual and immortal soul.

With respect to IVF, the Catechism is quite clear in No. 2377, a teaching which repeats verbatim what the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stated in Donum Vitae in 1987. This same teaching is expressed in Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclicals Veritatis Splendor (1994) and Evangelium Vitae (1995). The Holy See has repeated this teaching with the instruction Dignitatis Personae (2008). All of those documents declare IVF to be immoral, and do so for a variety of reasons.

There are several moral problems with IVF. A serious problem is the disposition of “excess” embryos. Often they are left in a state of suspended animation, or even destroyed. We cannot treat human beings so callously.

Here it will be helpful to revisit what St. John Paul taught on this subject in 1995:

“The various techniques of artificial reproduction, which would seem to be at the service of life and which are frequently used with this intention, actually open the door to new threats against life. Apart from the fact that they are morally unacceptable, since they separate procreation from the fully human context of the conjugal act, these techniques have a high rate of failure: not just failure in relation to fertilization but with regard to the subsequent development of the embryo, which is exposed to the risk of death, generally within a very short space of time. Furthermore, the number of embryos produced is often greater than that needed for implantation in the woman’s womb, and these so-called spare embryos are then destroyed or used for research which, under the pretext of scientific or medical progress, in fact reduces human life to the level of simple ‘biological material’ to be freely disposed of.”

There seem to be four ways to treat the embryos, but not all of them are ethical:

1) Use them for research. This is clearly wrong because it constitutes the direct killing of human life. No matter how good the intention of the research, this would always be wrong.

2) Do nothing and eventually they will die. (They deteriorate even while frozen.) This seems unsatisfactory.

3) Thaw them, let them die and bury them. This also seems unsatisfactory, for all human life deserves to be cared for. How could it be moral or ethical to bury alive a living human being?

4) Implant them in the mother or in another woman willing to adopt the child and bring them to term. Implanting them in the mother is the best course of action at this point, but unlikely in many cases. As for adoption and implantation, reputable, trustworthy and orthodox moral theologians have different opinions about adoption of the embryos. But there seems to be a growing consensus that it could be ethical and even “heroic” to adopt a frozen embryo, although that action would not be morally obligatory for anyone.

However, implantation (adopted or not) is not free of ethical concerns: It constitutes a material cooperation in the business of IVF, which is intrinsically evil in the first place, although the implantation could be allowed under the principle of double effect.

The only answer to this dilemma is to prohibit IVF. In the words of Bishop Elio Sgreccia, a former president of the Pontifical Academy of Life who died in 2019: “The practice of in vitro fertilization must be stopped. It only encourages the production of frozen embryos, and freezing embryos is utilitarianism without mercy. When you start a wrong procedure like this, any solution is wrong and sad.”

Father Francis J. Hoffman

Father Francis J. Hoffman, aka "Father Rocky," is the executive director and CEO of Relevant Radio and a priest of Opus Dei.