Infertility and in vitro fertilization
Many have probably read accounts in the secular press about the lawsuit filed against the diocese because of the non-renewal of a teacher’s contract in one of our Catholic schools. The statements on page 3 of this issue of Today’s Catholic contain our public response to the accusations that have been made in the lawsuit as reported in the press. Of course, now that this is a matter of litigation, we cannot get into the specific details of the case, however, I would like to explain in this column about the Church’s teaching in the matter of infertility.
First, I wish to express my deep compassion for couples who struggle with infertility. A child is “the supreme gift of marriage,” and infertility is a great suffering to many couples who are unable to have children. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Couples who discover that they are sterile suffer greatly” (#2374).
To assist couples struggling with infertility in a way that is both highly successful and completely ethical, our diocese has for the past several years promoted NaProTechnology, which refers to a set of medical and surgical protocols developed by Dr. Thomas Hilgers, a Catholic obstetrician-gynecologist who specializes in reproductive medicine and surgery. Dr. Hilgers is the founder and director of the Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction in Omaha. Physicians from all over the world attend specialized training courses in Omaha to incorporate NaProTechnology into their own medical practices. Dr. Patrick Holly, a family physician in Fort Wayne and member of St. Vincent’s parish, became certified in NaProTechnology several years ago and has been offering these services in his medical practice ever since. Two years ago I encouraged Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center in Mishawaka to offer NaProTechnology services for couples. I am deeply grateful that they have done so. This past August, St. Joseph’s hired Dr. Nickole Bazger, who has received specialty training at the Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction and completed the John Paul II Fellowship in Medical and Surgical NaProTechnology.
As you may know, NaProTechnology works towards finding the underlying causes of the reproductive abnormality and allows for the treatment of these underlying causes. It assists the couple in achieving pregnancy while maintaining the natural acts of procreation. If the treatment program is unsuccessful, research into the unknown causes is undertaken. It is important to note that NaProTechnology is highly effective, in many cases more successful than in vitro fertilization, and does not involve the destruction or freezing of embryos.
The Church teaches that three fundamental goods must be respected in the treatment of infertility:
“(a) the right to life and to physical integrity of every human being from conception to natural death;
(b) the unity of marriage, which means reciprocal respect for the right within marriage to become a father or mother only together with the other spouse;
(c) the specifically human values of sexuality which require that the procreation of a human person be brought about as the fruit of the conjugal act specific to the love between spouses” (cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, The Dignity of a Person, #12)
The Church permits “techniques which act as an aid to the conjugal act and its fertility” (ibid). Such techniques include hormonal treatments for infertility, surgery for endometriosis, unblocking of fallopian tubes or their surgical repair. There are also continual advances in NaProTechnology that respect the above-listed three goods.
In vitro fertilization is morally wrong because it “dissociates the sexual act from the procreative act.” In IVF, the child is not conceived through the conjugal union of spouses, but in vitro (literally, “in glass”) by a technician in a laboratory. As the Catechism states: “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” (#2377).
IVF often involves additional threats to human dignity, such as screening for sex selection or other favored traits — a process whereby those living embryonic human beings who do not meet these preferred standards are discarded and destroyed. This is a violation of the good of human life, and threatens to transform procreation into a kind of manufacture.
The Church teaches that “the child has 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 or her conception” (CCC #2378).
It is also important to note that in vitro fertilization very frequently involves the destruction or freezing of human embryos. The destruction of embryos is abortion. The freezing of embryos (cryopreservation) is “incompatible with the respect owed to human embryos; it presupposes their production in vitro; it exposes them to the serious risk of death or physical harm, since a high percentage does not survive the process of freezing and thawing; it deprives them at least temporarily of maternal gestation; it places them in a situation in which they are susceptible to further offense and manipulation. The majority of embryos that are not used remain ‘orphans’” (Ibid, #19). These embryos are not mere biological material. The large population of cryopreserved embryos fuels calls, and creates incentives for destructive forms of scientific research (on which the practice of IVF itself depends). The freezing of these tiny human beings is a grave injustice.
IVF also presents potentially serious health risks to mother and child. Women seeking IVF must undergo superovulation — a course of hormonal treatment that can lead to serious complications. It has been well documented that children conceived by IVF have increased risks for often serious health problems (especially those associated with premature birth).
I encourage all couples who struggle with infertility to reject in vitro fertilization since it is gravely immoral for the above stated reasons. I also encourage these couples to seek help through morally licit means for assisting fertility and treating infertility.
Finally, the Church wants to remind couples that marriage retains its full value as a vocation even when procreation is not possible. The mutual gift of self that a man and woman make to one another for life is what makes a marriage, not a couples’ ability to have children. Their marriage is still meant to be fruitful, but it might not be in the way that most marriages are. As the Catechism teaches: “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.” (#2379). They also can build their families through the beautiful gift of adoption.
Let us remember in our prayers all couples who struggle with infertility. I want these couples to know of the Church’s care for them. I especially ask the intercession of Our Lady of Guadalupe, who appeared to Saint Juan Diego pregnant with our unborn Savior. I was deeply moved when a couple approached me after an event at one of our parishes and shared with me that although they were told that they would never be able to have children, they had prayed through the intercession of Our Lady of Guadalupe and were now expecting a child. Others have invoked her prayers and were able to adopt sons and daughters. May God bless you!