by E. Christian Brugge, Ph D
Q: The Catholic Church teaches that in vitro fertilization (IVF) is always wrong. I understand this to be the case when embryos are made and destroyed. But my doctor said that IVF could be used in a way that wouldn't create and destroy "extra" embryos, even though it would lower our chances for a successful pregnancy. If this is true, why is IVF wrong when used by husbands and wives? K.M. -- Denver, Colorado
E. Christian Brugger offers the following response:
A: The question rightly identifies the wrongness of creating and destroying (and we should add freezing) human embryos in and through the process of IVF. But even if IVF was chosen only by married couples, and those couples intended to create only as many embryos as they implant, and they rejected the eugenic screening and destruction of disabled embryos, IVF still would be gravely wrong.
This confuses many people. How can it be wrong to bring a child into the world, a child whom a couple intends to love and cherish and perhaps even raise as a good Christian? The answer gets at the heart of the Catholic Church's teachings on both the dignity of human life and of marriage.
Two Vatican "Instructions" on bioethical issues address this, both published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF): "Donum Vitae" (1987), Section II, B, 4, and "Dignitas Personae" (2008), No. 12. The documents set forth three basic arguments, or sets of reasons, to explain why children are licitly conceived only through a marital act (defined in Canon law as a "conjugal act which is per se suitable for the generation of children to which marriage is ordered by its nature and by which the spouses become one flesh," Canon 1061, § 1). I will refer to them as the "unity-procreation" argument, the "language of the body" argument, and the "begotten-not-made" argument.
1. The "unity-procreation" argument
The first is simple. It holds that the meaning of the marital act derives from the meaning of marriage itself. Marriage by definition is a procreative and unitive type of relationship. The marital act therefore has an intrinsic meaning which includes these two goods: unity and procreation. It follows that procreation should not be intentionally excluded from sexual intercourse (as taught in "Humanae Vitae"), nor should procreation take place outside of sexual intercourse, as takes place with IVF. (Some Catholic theologians even deny that creating a baby through IVF should not be called procreation, but rather reproduction.)
2. The "language of the body" argument
The second argument maintains that because persons are a unity of body and soul; and because marriage is the realization of a unique body-soul--two-in-one-flesh -- committed relationship; conjugal self-giving is meant by God uniquely to express this body-soul reality. It has a spiritual dimension, the unitive meaning, and a bodily dimension, the procreative meaning. "Donum Vitae" (following John Paul II's "Theology of the Body") refers to this two-fold meaning as the "language of the body." Marital intercourse is meant to speak, as it were, the "language" of bodily self-giving and spiritual self-giving. To intentionally exclude either is to falsify the language of the body. Its wrongness lies in a kind of deception.
So just as excluding the procreative dimension of intercourse through contraceptive choices is wrong, so also excluding the unitive dimension from the choice to procreate is wrong. Procreation (bringing new life into the world) should only follow as a result of the spiritual/bodily self-giving of the spouses in marital intercourse.
3. The "begotten-not-made" argument
Finally, Catholic moral teaching holds that because of the intrinsic value of persons, children not only should be treated in a way befitting of persons after they come into existence, but that their origin -- their conception -- should be fully personal. Bringing children into the world through the self-giving act of marital love is treating them -- in their origins -- in a manner befitting of persons.
"Donum Vitae" teaches that we should "affirm the right of the child to have a fully human origin through conception in conformity with the personal nature of the human being" (DV, I, 6, note 32). In other words, children should be -- and have a right to be -- the fruit of the one-flesh union of marital intercourse.
This is morally different from bringing a child into the world by a technique in a laboratory. In IVF a child does not come into existence as a fruit supervening upon the one-flesh union of a husband and wife. They come into existence as the end product of a laboratory procedure: gametes (sperm and egg) are the raw materials; intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection is the (most common) technique; and a child is the product. Children are made, not begotten.
It is true that not all children conceived through IVF are treated merely as products. Many IVF parents affirm the child they create as a person; but they only do so partly; and partly they do not. Insofar as they intend to love the child and sacrifice for the child (and if Christians raise the child in the faith), to that extent they affirm the child as a person. We might say this is the end of their act.
But their means -- also determining the moral species of the act -- is to bring the child into the world through a laboratory technique. So by virtue of the act's end, a child is welcomed as a person. But by virtue of its means, the child is not welcomed as a person, but treated as a product. In their coming-to-be, IVF children are treated as things, not affirmed as persons.
I would like to end by pointing to a connection between the logic of baby-making through IVF and the wide-spread problem of destroying unwanted preborn children.
All products exist for purposes beyond themselves. In this sense, products are not unto themselves, but unto ends beyond them; nor are they equal to their makers, but stand (morally speaking) in a relationship of "maker" to "thing made."
But the logic of making, and the relation of maker to object, justifies the act of unmaking. If a thing can be made for certain reasons, it can be unmade (destroyed) for contrary reasons. When those reasons arise, the "why" of the making is negated. Moreover, products are subject to quality controls so that defective products are discarded if they do not measure up to standards: think of automobiles.
What's the purpose for making a baby through IVF? To satisfy the parents' desire for a child -- they "want a child." If however the parents do not want a child -- if the embryo or fetus is unwanted -- whether because he or she is defective, or inconveniently timed, or poses a health risk to the mother, the child can be discarded. The general logic of IVF extends to justifying "selective reduction" abortions, eugenic screening of IVF embryos, and eugenic abortions.