| Father Joe Waters

What is Catholic teaching on IVF?

Question: I heard that in Alabama, frozen embryos are now legally considered children and that clinics have stopped IVF treatments because they might destroy an embryo. What is Catholic teaching about IVF? Some couples desire to have children, and IVF may be their only hope.

Answer: One can argue with the legal interpretation or political prudence of the Alabama Court's determination. However, the notion that an embryo is a child should not be surprising to Catholics. Church teaching is unambiguous in the belief that human life begins at conception, a truth derived from the natural order, and an article of our faith verified by Scripture and Tradition. Advances that allow one to observe a child in the womb and a greater understanding of the science of DNA confirm this truth about when human life begins.

Catholic teaching deems IVF unacceptable because, as an artificial means, it separates reproduction from a human act of marital love and the couple's cooperation with divine grace. Further, IVF most often involves conceiving multiple embryos, some of which may not be implanted to accomplish childbirth. The Church's position on IVF does not conform to popularly held opinions of contemporary society. Understanding Catholic moral teaching often requires looking beyond the surface to discover the truth about our culture's attitudes and moral reasoning.

For Catholics, a life in Christ demands a commitment to doing good and avoiding evil. As believers, we discern right and wrong by referencing the natural order and the divine law. One cannot arrive at truth if one limits a moral inquiry to the arbitrarily constructed social mores that underlie many commonly held secular beliefs.

Without a doubt, IVF has helped many married couples have successful pregnancies and receive the miraculous blessing of a son or daughter. The children born with the help of IVF share equally in the dignity of God's children and are formed in God's image and likeness. As beloved sons and daughters of God, they are precious and worthy of respect and entitled to every protection.

However, Catholics must grapple with the whole truth about IVF. When one conceives employing IVF, essential elements are absent. There is no spousal act of love; instead, there are clinical procedures. The married couple no longer cooperates with God's grace in procreation but relies on artificial means, which also present physical and emotional hardships.

More morally troubling is that the success of IVF involves conceiving more than one embryo for each patient. If not implanted to bring about childbirth, what happens with the remaining embryos is a question of importance. Sometimes, these innocent human lives may be destroyed. Or they may be marketed to harvest stem cells or other body parts. Some of these embryos will be used in research to develop new medical treatments. The embryos will sometimes remain frozen until they can be inherited, donated, or abandoned.

Therefore, the conception of children by artificial means has far-reaching moral implications, which have not been reasonably addressed. The Church finds it morally unacceptable to conceive innocent human lives whose only destiny may be premature death, to be traded as a commodity, or to remain in frozen limbo until those who brought them to life decide their fate.

When you say that IVF may be a couple's only chance to have a child, you are excluding natural ways to assist fertility, and adopting children. However, those who would choose these options are led to believe that IVF is more acceptable and the magic bullet of reproductive medicine. Nevertheless, society must not avoid the moral implications of IVF nor the yet unforeseen social consequences IVF present.

Catholics must prayerfully discern the underlying issues that have made fertility an urgent issue for so many. There needs to be a push for doctors and other scientists to search for and develop organic and natural ways of assisting married couples to overcome challenges in conceiving which do not compromise the moral order enshrined in nature and the divine law.