Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Part 4 - why is the Catholic Church opposed to IVF (and is it right)?

The Catholic Church is opposed to IVF for three main reasons. The first is, I think, the hardest to argue - that too many embryos have been destroyed in the course of its development. According to the Vatican document Donum Vitae, "The connection between in vitro fertilization and the voluntary destruction of human embryos occurs too often."

I can neither deny that nor ignore it, but what I can say is that I'm not responsible for those deaths, any more than my ownership of a car makes me responsible for the deaths of all the thousands of people who have died on the roads since the car was invented.

What I can be responsible for is ensuring that I drive my car in such a way as to do my best to ensure that I don't contribute any more to that death toll. This takes me onto the Church's second objection, namely that embryos are destroyed in individual IVF treatments.

That I can do something about, and I have discussed with the staff at our clinic the importance of ensuring that no embryos are deliberately destroyed as a result of our treatment. This may mean I produce some eggs which are not fertilised, and it may reduce the chances of success in our treatment, but it's also completely non-negotiable.

The third category of objection that the Church has is the one I have struggled with the most. This is that the Church's teaching on marriage affirms the "inseparable connection, willed by God and unable to be broken by man on his own initiative, between the two meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning".

In other words, when a married couple make love they should be open to the possibility that a child will be conceived as a result (the procreative meaning) and their love-making should be an expression of their love for each other (the unitive meaning).

It was only when I realised the inconsistency of the Church's teaching on this point that I finally felt comfortable with the possibility that we might be opposing it.

You see, the Church permits Natural Family Planning. It allows couples to decide when to make love in order to maximise or minimise their chances of having a baby. They may want to plan not to have their children too close together, or they may not be able to afford to raise another child. Whatever their reason, it is open to them to decide not to make love at the woman's most fertile time. Equally importantly, it is open to them to decide that they will make love at the times when the woman is least likely to be fertile.

This surely separates the unitive meaning from the procreative meaning of the conjugal act - the couple are permitted to express their love for each other in this way even at times when they have chosen to do so at a particular time (and not at another, more fertile time) expressly because they hope not to conceive a child at that time.

My husband and I haven't stopped making love since we found out that we're infertile. Although we're open to life, we know that there is no practical possibility of a child ever resulting from that act. We make love only to express the unitive meaning of the act - and the Church is OK with that and even encourages us to continue to express our love for each other in this way.

We also want with all our hearts to express the procreative meaning of the conjugal act, and we want our marriage to be fruitful. We have a medical problem that prevents this from happening without help, and so we are resorting to medical treatment to enable our love to be expressed fully, in the hope that a child will be born out of that love.

Going through IVF is physically and emotionally demanding, and we need each other's support. We are entering into this together as a married couple who love each other and love God, and neither of us could do this without the other's support. The way we're supporting each other through this difficult process is one of the ways in which we express our love for each other, and going through this together is strengthening our love and making us lean on each other and become vulnerable to each other in a new way.

Are we treating our putative future children as commodities in a way that's contrary to the dignity of human life (another of the Church's objections to IVF)?

Absolutely not - yes, we're paying for the treatment we're receiving, but that's payment for the work that the doctors and nurses are doing which they will receive whether we're successful or not. There's no 'success bonus', and as I said in an earlier post, we are fully aware that only God can give life. We're not buying a baby; we're buying medical treatment.

I hope that our love for each other will enable us to become parents to a child born out of that love. That hope is fully in line with the teaching of the Catholic Church. If anyone wants to continue to insist that it is wrong for any Catholic to pursue IVF treatment, I have three things to say to them.

First, please don't judge me until you've walked a mile in my shoes. You have no idea how hard this decision has been for me, how much I've prayed over it and how long it's taken me to make my peace with it. The above is a summary of my conclusions and cannot replicate my full thought process. If after all that I've made the wrong decision, I'll answer for it to God.

Second, I have nothing but respect for people who have come to the opposite conclusion to me and decided not to pursue IVF treatments. I hope they will have similar respect for the fact that I have not taken this decision lightly.

Third, this is my blog. I have read a huge amount on both sides of the argument. If you don't agree with me, you are unlikely to change my mind, but posting a comment on my blog to tell me your views will upset me. If you disagree, please therefore keep your opinions to yourself and if you want to do something for my immortal soul, pray for me.


  1. Good arguments all, and I'll hold thumbs the trolls stay AWAY!!!

  2. This post is so insightful. I might draw from this when I talk with my father. He wants to discuss IVF and the Catholic standpoint (he's very rigidly Catholic and disagrees with our decision). I want him to know that I have really thought this out. You and I have come to similar conclusions I think. We both plan on fertilizing a limited number of embryos (I am freezing any eggs leftover from our max # we decided to fertilize). I told them I want to use (or freeze and use later) every single embryo that has even the tiniest chance of making it if implanted. I don't want any destroyed.

    The thing I find hard to accept is that the Church is so rigid about fertilization happening INSIDE the body. I think this is not fair. The Church doesn't directly oppose GIFT (because fertilization occurs in the fallopian tube) but collecting sperm for that procedure cannot be done naturally since the woman is undergoing a laparoscopy at basically the same time. So why don't they oppose that? Also, I am thinking that the whole procedure for IUI is pretty clinical feeling (ie. not like making love at all!) yet the Church is ok with that. I guess I feel like they are drawing a very shaky line between these procedures and it doesn't work for me.

    Also, you're right about this being a medical problem. I would never do this if I could conceive naturally, but since I can't and have tried everything else ... why can't I fix my medical problem?

    I am praying for you, be strong.

  3. Thanks Sonja - I really appreciate the prayers, and I hope your discussion with your father goes as well as it can and he is able to accept your decision. It's also worth mentioning that any disapproval that the Church has of IVF does not extend to any child born as a result of it - they are children of God like any others and should be loved and treated as such.

    I agree about GIFT and IUI - the line that they draw seems very arbitrary, and I have felt quite resentful that the Church basically allows treatment for some causes of infertility and not others (and even more resentful that our problem fell into the latter category!).

    Incidentally, I read quite recently that the Church says if 'ethical' vaccine treatments are not available, parents should still consider using the 'unethical' ones (made using aborted foetuses) - see, for instance.

    I think this gives support to my argument that until there's a better alternative (which frankly, for our situation there really isn't at the moment), we shouldn't be barred from using IVF because embryos have been destroyed in the past in its development - we should only be worried about ensuring that we aren't responsible for destroying any embryos ourselves.

  4. This is exactly what I was trying to say on the ttc forum , when you first raised the issue of IVF and catholic views. You are much better at wording things than me x