The Catholic Church’s stance against artificial birth control is widely known among Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Perhaps less commonly known is the church’s position on artificial reproductive technology, particularly in vitro fertilization (IVF). On Feb. 10, about 50 people gathered at St. Andrew Church in Eagle River to hear internationally acclaimed bioethicist Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk present the church’s position on in vitro fertilization, its ramifications and some of the alternatives and counsel that may be offered to couples struggling with infertility.
Father Pacholczyk works at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, which advises the U.S. bishops regarding a wide range of bioethical issues, including IVF.
Approximately four million babies have been born worldwide by means of IVF since the birth of the first “test tube baby” in England in 1978. In a brief overview of the IVF process, Father Pacholczyk said first the woman’s ovaries are hyper-stimulated by drugs to release and ripen multiple egg cells, rather than a single egg monthly, as is typically done naturally. The eggs are taken from the ovary by a syringe needle and then deposited into a tissue culture and placed in a petri dish. The sperm are placed in the petri dish with the eggs in order that they may be fertilized. The resulting live human embryos are analyzed and the healthiest are implanted into the woman’s uterus. The others are stored in liquid nitrogen to be implanted at a later date, used for research or destroyed.
Father Pacholczyk observed that people should very quickly begin to sense the repugnance of this situation.
We ought to “realize that glassware is not the right setting for new human beings to be engendered,” he said. “Brothers and sisters to you and me coming into the world in glassware? We should immediately begin to sense that there’s a problem here.”
He then outlined six main objections as to why IVF is immoral, and as such, forbidden by the Catholic Church.
The first objection is that IVF undermines the marital act, which by its very nature is meant to be a self gift — the unique means by which life is handed on. Procreation is a collaboration between humans and God, who gives the gift of new life, Father Pacholczyk explained. IVF depersonalizes this process by separating the action of marital self-giving within the marital act from God’s gift of a child.
“If we recognize God as the giver of life, we have to collaborate with him in the designs and plans that he has for us,” Father Pacholczyk said. “When, on the other hand, we choose to do in vitro — to make test tube babies — how does that play out? Not as collaboration with God, who is the giver of the gift, but in a different way.”
It becomes our project, rather than a gift received, he observed, adding that this is an injustice not only to God’s design of the sexual union within marriage, but also to the child, who “has the right to be conceived under his or her mother’s heart, within the safety of her body, under the loving embrace of his or her parents.”
Secondly, there is a collateral damage in the form of extra embryos. In the United States alone, there are around one million frozen embryos who are left in a sort of limbo of suspended existence. He called this “an ongoing human tragedy,” and referred to the infertility industry as “the wild west of infertility,” as there are no laws or regulations governing the creation and storage of human embryos.
Objection three is that the sperm is almost always obtained through masturbation, which is always morally evil. When testing a man for infertility, a semen sample may licitly be obtained by means of a perforated condom used during intercourse, allowing most of the sperm to be released into the woman’s body, and a small portion being caught in the condom, but this is rarely done.
The fourth objection is that the man and woman’s exclusive relationship is violated when a third party enters the realm of their procreation.
“Most people can see this pretty immediately,” Father Pacholczyk said. “You have a third party stepping in, taking over the function of the father and mother, replacing completely what is their prerogative to do in marriage.”
The fifth and sixth objections are practical, medical ones: IVF increases risk of pregnancy of multiples. This frequently results in selectively aborting some of the “extra” fetuses. Additionally, there is a higher risk of birth defects.
Father Pacholczyk pointed out how the church does not doubt that the intention of couples that resort to IVF is good, as the desire for a child is a good and natural impulse. However, the morality of an action may never be reduced to mere intention. He wants couples to know that there are other options which are morally licit. The moral principle at work here is that a technology may assist the marital act, but it may not replace it.
Father Pacholczyk drew particular attention to the work of Dr. Thomas Hilgers at the Pope Paul VI Institute in Omaha. Using NaPro Technology, a woman’s cycle is carefully examined to find any underlying pathologies which may prevent successful procreation. When these issues are addressed, the couple is often able to go on to conceive naturally. Hilgers’ method of assisting a couple to achieve pregnancy naturally has a significantly higher success rate than IVF.
During the Q&A following Father Pacholczyk talk, one audience member asked about the possibility of embryo adoption, in which one woman donates one of her frozen embryos to another woman to be implanted in her, gestated and then raised as her own child.
Father Pacholczyk explained that this has not yet been definitively addressed by the Church, and that it is actively being debated by moral theologians. He takes the position that it is morally unacceptable because the act of being implanted with someone else’s embryo seems to involve a violation of marital exclusivity. Though, he admits that it is still an open question, and that the National Catholic Bioethics Center has counseled couples, “to reflect on this, pray on this, read about it, do what I call ‘due diligence,’ and then decide in good conscience whether you think it is right to proceed or not.”
Father Pacholczyk has also counseled couples who have an excess of frozen embryos to think about setting up a sort of trust fund to pay the fees required to keep their children frozen until such time in the future as there may be other morally acceptable solutions available.