“Ask a Priest: May a Catholic Couple Undergo an IVF Procedure?”

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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.

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6 Comments
    1. Dear Ms. Fernandes,

      Thanks for your comment. The question about whether such babies are baptized will be affected by the disposition of the parents.

      In Church law Canon 868 §1 says, “For the licit baptism of an infant it is necessary that: […] (2) there be a founded hope that the infant will be brought up in the Catholic religion; if such a hope is altogether lacking, the baptism is to be put off according to the prescriptions of particular law and the parents are to be informed of the reason.”

      The idea here is that there should be a reasonable hope that a child will be raised in the faith. The Church wants to avoid the situation where parents ask for baptism simply for cultural or social reasons, with little regard to the profound spiritual significance of the sacrament and the responsibilities it brings.

      None of this is meant to “punish” the baby, who is totally innocent. Rather, it is meant as a kind of moral wake-up call to the parents.

      I mention all this because another factor enters into the equation.

      IVF and surrogacy are objectively grave sins. In the case of IVF there might be numerous “spare” embryos destroyed or left frozen in a lab. These are tiny human lives that are snuffed out or exposed to an absurd fate.

      Surrogacy distorts the meaning of the marital act, it involves immoral actions to procure the seed needed for the procedure (as does IVF), and it runs the risk of causing psychological harm to the child who someday learns that the woman who raised him is not the one who gave him birth — and that all this was planned.

      If a couple isn’t repentant for having resorted to IVF or surrogacy, the question might arise about how seriously they take the faith. This in turn raises the question about whether they truly plan to raise the little one in the faith.

      One hopes that spouses who have resorted to IVF or surrogacy will understand the error of their ways and repent. Although they arrived at parenthood through illicit means, they still have a great responsibility to the child.

      I hope some of this helps.

      God bless,

      Father Edward McIlmail, LC
      Ask A Priest

      AskAPriest@rcspirituality.org

  1. I was taught that I.VF. Is not a sin.
    1. If someone differs from our Catholic Morality is not a sin Rather Catholic, Another Christian Denomination or None Believer.
    2. It’s the technical techniques & process contains sinful acts.
    3. The Language used in the USCCB, doesn’t say outright it’s a Sin But, mentions the Christian Immortality and Specific Actions are a sin.
    4. The whole process with 2 Marrial Sacramental Couples Loving and Wanting a Child is not sinful and the end result is not a sin but, the awareness of the sinful acts are sins.
    5. Because the not the whole process of IVF is not Evil from Intent of the couple to end of Bringing circumstances not controlled by the dignity of a New Person Being Born is not a sin but, is still a creation of God is not a sin or evil child. The Church doesn’t implicate that IVF is a sin, it the Church said it is a sin it’s whole process would mean: evil parents and evil child.
    6. I’ve learned and taught the Church Stance is Immoral acts and contains sinful acts. Even though the Immoral acts are present, it’s the sinful acts within the Procedure is sinful, which is evil.

    I’m not trying to make a Controversial issue. It’s that the Church Teaching doesn’t say straight out it’s evil. If it says that in the language and the end of the USCCB says to Avoid IVF, Not IVF is a sin. I’ve read in the Dignity of Life, Doesn’t use the language, “It’s a sin” But, clearly states the Immortality and the sinful acts..

    Please email or post and Notify me a Response. I’m planning to ask my Bishop, why the Church doesn’t use the language, “It’s a sin”?

    Thank You..

    1. Dear Reginald,

      Thanks for your note. The Church speaks out quite strongly against in vitro fertilization in Dignitas Personae (http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20081208_dignitas-personae_en.html).

      In one place, talking about embryo “reduction” in the context of in vitro fertilization, it says, “It is never permitted to do something which is intrinsically illicit, not even in view of a good result: the end does not justify the means.”

      It’s a given that the Church considers this an immoral act. It’s not even necessary to use the word sin. The Church in this case assumes that people can figure out for themselves that it is a sin.

      Given that children have a right to be conceived through a natural act between parents, and not through the invention of lab technicians, the use of IVF is grave offense against the dignity of a child. IVF also involves masturbation on the part of the husband to produce seed — again, a gravely sinful act.

      A basic axiom of morality is that we cannot use evil means for a good end. Otherwise, anything would be permissible.

      Your bishop could enlighten you further.

      I hope this helps.

      God bless,

      Father Edward McIlmail, LC
      Ask A Priest

  2. While I understand the church stance, one can punch hole in all the reasons except the multiple embryos scenerio.
    The case of how the sperm is produced – masturbation. Is it the act that is a sin or the intent. If a man’s sperm needs to be analysed for health reasons, that is the way the sperm would be produced. That does not mean the man is doing it for sexual gratification. Intent.
    That the egg is fertilised outside the womb, placed in an incubator to give it the best chance of surviving and then placed in the womb to continue life is not because the man and woman don’t want to enjoy conjugal union to produce a fertilised egg but because medically there is a problem with the channel either the tubes or cervix. When a woman needs to be delivered of a premature baby, the baby is not left in the natural environment why? Because the child has little chance of surviving. The child is placed in an artificial womb, an incubator to give him or her the best chance of pulling through, dignity of life. The same incubator the embryos are put in to give them the best chance of survival. Intent.
    Back in the day, and some still hold on to it even now, a woman was expected to give birth naturally even if the baby is breached. People would insist on “the Hebrew” way and saw bringing a baby into the world through C-Section as against some divine law. Intent.
    Some denominations are against blood transfusion, against artificial oxygen, life support and all other kinds of scientific breakthrough because they believe science is trying to play God and keep alive one whom God has called. They believe if it is God’s will, He will save that soul. Are they wrong? Does the church think these denominations are overdoing it? Is the church against heart or kidney transplant? How about womb transplant?
    I agree that the deliberate destruction of embryos is wrong. So does that mean a couple who decides, because of their faith, to fertilise only say 3 eggs and implants all 3 if they survive is still doing wrong? Intent.

    1. Dear Amaka,

      Thanks for your note. Briefly, the act of masturbation cannot be justified by “good intent.” It is an evil means in and of itself, and thus cannot be licitly used for any reason. A core moral principle is that we cannot use an evil means for a good end. Otherwise, almost an evil could be justified.

      As for the rest of the IVF process, it is objectionable because a child has a right to be conceived through a natural act of love by its parents. The mixing of sperm and egg in a lab dish means that the child becomes more like a product rather than a gift of God.

      It’s one thing for medicine to help a natural process. It’s another thing for it to replace the natural process.

      Some children conceived by IVF, for instance, have psychological problems later in life when they learned how they were conceived. Moreover, more than a few news reports in recent years speak of errors made with sperm and eggs (see https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/07/ivf-embryo-mix-up-parenthood/593725/ for instance). Someone’s egg ends up with the sperm of someone other than the husband.

      For the record, the Church reminds us that children are a gift of God.

      The Catechism in No. 2378 says:

      A child is not something owed to one, but is a gift. The “supreme gift of marriage” is a human person. A child may not be considered a piece of property, an idea to which an alleged “right to a child” would lead. In this area, only the child possesses genuine rights: 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 conception.” [end quoted material]

      For more reading see https://www.catholic.com/magazine/online-edition/i-was-astonished-to-find-this-in-the-catechism

      Couples who have problems conceiving can seek out licit means. It might be good to consult with a NaProTechnology specialist (https://fertilitycare.org/what-is-naprotechnology).

      I hope some of this helps. Count on my prayers, OK?

      God bless,
      Father Edward McIlmail, LC

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