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“Ask a Priest: May a Catholic Couple Undergo an IVF Procedure?”
Q: Is it a sin, or simply morally unacceptable, for a Catholic couple who desire to have children to undergo assisted reproductive procedures like IVF? Should such a couple stay away from the Holy Eucharist? Are there options for Catholic spouses grappling with infertility? -J.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: The pain of infertility can be a very heavy cross for a couple desiring to have children. That such a couple wants to share their love and life with children is a beautiful sign of their generosity.
But this desire, however sincere it may be, does not mean that couples can do whatever is medically possible in order to have children. In fact, procedures such as in vitro fertilization (IVF) are gravely morally evil, for several reasons.
One, it detracts from the dignity of the marital act. In 1987 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published Donum Vitae, an instruction “On Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation: Replies to Certain Questions of the Day”.
The document says, “Homologous artificial fertilization, in seeking a procreation which is not the fruit of a specific act of conjugal union, objectively effects an analogous separation between the goods and the meanings of marriage.” In simpler terms what this implies is that IVF separates the goods (here, we mean children) of marriage from the conjugal act, which is the natural means of bringing new life into the world. The idea here is that a child has the right to be the fruit of a loving, conjugal act between spouses — and not the product of some medical lab procedure.
Children have a right to be conceived in a womb, not “produced” in a petri dish. It is a basic justice owed to children, who are human beings (every child is gift from God) and not things or products. Of course, this doesn’t mean that children born through IVF are any less human than other children. They should be treated with equal dignity. But parents committed to living out a true and Christian meaning in their marriage will want to avoid treating children like products in the way they seek to be open to the gift of new life.
The document continues, “Fertilization achieved outside the bodies of the couple remains by this very fact deprived of the meanings and the values which are expressed in the language of the body and in the union of human persons.”
A second consideration is the way the material is procured for IVF techniques. On the man’s part it usually (though not always) involves masturbation to procure semen — “an intrinsically and gravely disordered action” (Catechism No. 2352).
Another, highly problematic facet of IVF is that it often involves the production of multiple human embryos — many of which are not implanted and thus doomed to destruction. Many people don’t realize this — they have no idea that five or six or even more embryos are “produced” through the IVF procedure, and the ones not “used” are kept in storage indefinitely or simply killed. The 1987 Vatican instruction says: “It is therefore not in conformity with the moral law deliberately to expose to death human embryos obtained ‘in vitro.’ In consequence of the fact that they have been produced in vitro, those embryos which are not transferred into the body of the mother and are called ‘spare’ are exposed to an absurd fate, with no possibility of their being offered safe means of survival which can be licitly pursued.” In blunt terms, IVF leads to the death of human lives.
As to the question of whether couples undergoing IVF should refrain from the Eucharist, I would say this: It goes without saying that such a couple should refrain from receiving the Eucharist. But they need to do much more than that. They need to ask themselves if they understand the gravity of the evil they are doing. Do they understand they are choosing a path of killing innocent human lives? God help such people.
There are, however, morally licit ways of assisted reproduction, such as the Creighton Model and the Billings Ovulation Method. These respect both the dignity of the conjugal act and the human life conceived through it. I pray that any couple who needs assistance to look into these programs. God bless.