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“Ask a Priest: What is Church teaching on IVF and surrogacy?”
Q: A married family member has been wanting to have a baby but not able to. On a regular visit, the doctor told them he could see that they had a baby. They were so excited about the chances and didn’t realize it could be a sinful decision. The first baby will be delivered soon by a surrogate mother. There are some frozen embryos left, and they would like to have another baby. But what if they find there could be a couple of embryos left? Have they committed a mortal sin? -A.A.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: There are several serious issues involved here. First, though, I have to hedge my response because I’m not sure whether the embryos were created from the spouses alone or whether they involved a third-party donor of sperm or egg.
In any case, the use of in vitro fertilization and the use of a surrogate mother are both condemned by the Church. The short reason is that these violate the dignity of the child, who has the right to be conceived by the loving union of spouses, as well as the dignity of the marital union.
Some couples mistakenly assume they have a right to a child, no matter how the child is conceived. This is false. A key Church instruction, On Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation, notes that “marriage does not confer upon the spouses the right to have a child, but only the right to perform those natural acts which are per se ordered to procreation.”
Now, spouses who were unaware of the moral implications of IVF and surrogate motherhood might have lesser culpability, because of their ignorance. But that doesn’t make the acts morally justified. And they should have investigated the moral implications beforehand.
The problem of the other embryos remains, and this is where things get even more complicated. The couple apparently still wants another child. If these embryos are not biologically related to the couple, they cannot implant them in the wife. Nor can they resort to a surrogate mother again, if she isn’t the biological mother of the embryos.
The embryos, in effect, are caught in an absurd state, a kind of suspended animation. There are no easy answers in this case.
Many moral theologians agree that the parents of those “spare” embryos have the moral responsibility to rescue them and repair the injustice done to the embryos. That means the biological mother should try to give them a chance at life, by implanting them in her womb. At this point, this would not be IVF or surrogacy, since the woman’s intention is to rescue her own children.
If this would jeopardize the woman’s health, we come to that dilemma where the embryos remain in suspended animation. Here, there is simply no consensus among moralists about what to do. The misjudgments have piled up into a moral enigma that is almost impossible to unravel.
Perhaps this situation will be an opportunity for the couple to explore and discover the beautiful teachings of the Catholic Church on life issues. They might want to look at works such as Walter Schu’s “The Splendor of Love” or some of the books by Christopher West.
We can only hope that other couples learn ahead of time about the evil of IVF and surrogacy – and act accordingly. God bless.
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I see from your answer here in trying to rescue frozen embryos that intent now plays a key role, even more so suggesting that an implantation into the mother’s womb with the risks is easier for the church to accept than surrogacy is a bit confusing. I have always thought that intent plays a major role in what the church terms as morally wrong or not. This leads me to my question. Would the church see as morally wrong, a woman who knows her uterus is weak but continues to get pregnant only to always have a miscarriage? What if the woman decides on surrogacy for a better chance of the fertilised egg surviving, would you put her on the same plain with a lady who does not wish to disfigure her body with pregnancy and so chooses surrogacy? What’s the difference between a girl who gets pregnant through rape and does not want to commit abortion so carries the child to term with the intention of giving the child out to childless couple for adoption and a couple who do surrogacy? As far as I can tell, the former is not through anything dignifying, it may be through the natural way but certainly devoid of dignity.
Thanks for your note. The case of “rescuing frozen embryos” is an issue that the Church hasn’t settled on. It seems to be leaning against the practice. In any case, it’s not on the same level as planned surrogacy.
In the case of a “rescue,” the human embryo has already been conceived. The way the little one was conceived was illicit; nonetheless, it is a human life, a fait accompli.
Surrogacy, on the other hand, is premeditated. It involves a deliberate decision to procreate and bring to light a baby in an unnatural way that is separated by the natural marital embrace of a husband and wife. The child becomes the product of a technological process rather than an act of marital love.
If a wife has health issues, then that is a challenge that needs to be faced with licit medical care and a lot of prayer. That doesn’t give her the right to resort to unnatural means to bring a child into the world. Again, we cannot choose an evil means for a good end.
In the lamentable case of a rape, if there is a human life created, that is a life that needs support and nurturing. There is nothing immoral about giving up the baby for adoption.
Adoption, in fact, remains a moral and praiseworthy option for couples who have trouble conceiving.
You mention about intention: There are cases where intentions will affect the morality of an act. But intentions are not the sole criterion of moral acts. Otherwise, people could justify lots of things because of their “good intentions.”
For instance, my good intention of making a dentist’s appointment on time doesn’t give me the right to drive 50 mph through a 20-mph school zone when the streets are full of kids.
(For a good overview of conscience and moral judgments, see the Catechism Nos. 1776 and following, http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s1c1a6.htm).
I hope some of this helps.
Father Edward McIlmail, LC