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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.