What does the Church teach about in vitro fertilization, artificial insemination, fertility drugs, and stuff like that?

Medical technology exists to promote the proper functioning of our bodies. Men as well as women can be infertile, but some of the reproductive methods you are asking about focus on women. Since infertility can be a dysfunction of a woman’s reproductive system, the use of fertility drugs that counter this condition and promote the healthy functioning of the reproductive system is morally acceptable. But these must be used responsibly. If they are not, a woman’s ovaries may release too many eggs, which may be dangerous to the mother and the child or children.

While reproductive technology may assist the sexual act, it must never replace it. This is partly why the Church does not permit the use of in vitro fertilization (IVF) and artificial insemination. These procedures do not help the marital act but substitute for it, bringing about conception through a means other than intercourse.

In the words of Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, “Whether to prevent a pregnancy or achieve one, all techniques which separate the unitive and procreative dimensions of marriage are always wrong.”[1] In other words, as contraception tries to make love without making babies, IVF and artificial insemination attempt to make babies without making love. Neither act is moral, because life and love are inseparable. As John Paul II said in an address to President George W. Bush, man must be “the master, not the product, of his technology.”[2]

However, there is another, even more serious moral problem with both in vitro fertilization and artificial insemination: not only do these processes seek to create life in a morally unacceptable way, but they also create many “excess” lives that will inevitably be destroyed in their earliest stages. In vitro fertilization (IVF) is a process that involves conceiving life in a laboratory and transferring that into a woman’s womb. It is not an easy process, so extra embryos are often frozen and kept for a later attempt or donated or experimented on. Since many eggs are fertilized during the procedure, a good number of them are destroyed. Commonly the effort will be a failure and none of the eggs will implant. It is obviously immoral to create and destroy so many lives in an attempt to create one life.

Artificial insemination is a different process. It involves taking the sperm from a man and injecting it into the uterus or placing it in the woman’s cervix. This too is a difficult method, and it is not uncommon that the process needs to be repeated six or more times in order for it to be successful. Many states do not require STD testing for sperm donors, so HIV and other viruses can be spread during the process.

Even without these problems, both of these methods are incompatible with the dignity of a child and the marital act. Each child should be brought into being by an act of love between his or her parents, not by a lab technician tinkering with cells in a petri dish, as in IVF, or a doctor injecting sperm into a uterus, as in artificial insemination. When the sperm are taken from a man other than the husband, it also infringes upon the child’s right to be born of a father and mother known to him, and it betrays the spouses’ marital pledge to become a father and mother only through each other.

Today couples can even purchase donated sperm and eggs from strangers. In order for a couple to acquire someone else’s sperm or eggs, they contact a sperm bank or fertility clinic. Many of these companies advertise to college students, offering them large sums of money for their DNA.[3] Some students ignore the moral implications and seize the opportunity to pay off student loans. In turn, the companies market their genetic material with such labels as: “Blond hair, blue eyes, 5’7”, athletic, with high SAT score!” Potential parents can browse the Internet and pick the features they want.

If the mom-to-be does not wish to deal with pregnancy and childbirth, she can buy eggs and sperm and pay a surrogate mother to carry the child for her. One couple did just this and then decided to divorce shortly before the baby was born.[4] The would be-adoptive dad didn’t want the baby and refused to pay child support. The surrogate mother didn’t want the child to end up in a divorced family, so she wanted to keep the baby. The man who donated the sperm and the woman whose egg was used never agreed to the arrangement in the first place! However, each of them was willing to take the baby if no one else would. So whose child is it? Not surprisingly, increasing numbers of children who were conceived through anonymous sperm donors are seeking out their biological fathers.

Because the practice of sperm donation is so widespread, some experts are beginning to fear that the children conceived in this manner may go on to marry their half-siblings unknowingly.[5] After all, some sperm donors may have several dozen children, and according to the journal Nature, children born through anonymous sperm donation “are likely to be of similar ages and to grow up in same area. A significant percentage of couples may, unknowingly, be closely related.”[6]

Sometimes a couple will successfully conceive through IVF treatment but will have leftover embryos that are never implanted. To keep them alive, the couple needs to pay a clinic to store them. One husband and wife decided that upon reaching their desired family size, they no longer wished to have this expense. After receiving another bill, the wife explained:

“The bill was for Vial Number 2988—our third child. Well, not actually our third child—our embryo, in frozen storage at the in vitro clinic. Vial number 2988 was the final result of $12,000 worth of IVF treatment: fifty hormone injections, twenty-seven blood draws, sixteen sick days from work and at least one day where the whole process made me feel suicidal. The result: two beautiful children, one boy and one girl, eighteen months apart and both still in diapers, and across town, a cluster of cells in limbo. . . . Growing up liberal, I always believed in a woman’s right to choose and that an embryo . . . wasn’t actually a child. Yet, I couldn’t help but think of this third embryo (which was frozen at five days’ development) as a child, especially because both of the other embryos I had created eventually became children.”[7] Sadly, instead of completing the pregnancy or giving up the embryo for adoption, she chose to have the unborn baby thawed. Such bizarre scenarios show how little respect our culture has for the dignity of life.

Because of contraception and reproductive technologies, we have separated what God has joined together: sex and babies. You may ask, “Well, if these methods are immoral, then why does God let conception occur?” God has entrusted us with the gift of sexuality, and he will not prevent us from abusing that freedom. For example, if a child is conceived out of wedlock, the act is immoral, yet God still allows life to come forth from it. Just because conception occurs does not mean that the methods to achieve it were good. There are many ways to bring life into the world, including marital love, fornication, adultery, rape, incest, IVF, and artificial insemination. Only one, marital love, is consistent with the dignity of the human person.

However, no matter how a baby is conceived, his or her life is not a mistake. Every child is created in the image and likeness of God, as has no less value than any other person. It is important, therefore, to distinguish the dignity of the human person from the morality of an act. The goodness of the child does not make the act of conception moral, and immorality of the act does not diminish the value of the child.

Many believe that IVF and artificial insemination are the only options available to an infertile couple hoping to have a child of their own. This is not the case. There are many doctors who specialize in determining the cause of infertility and healing it, instead of replacing fertility with technology. See the Pope Paul VI Institute of Human Reproduction here for more information.

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[1]. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., “Of Human Life: A Pastoral Letter to the People of God of Northern Colorado on the Truth and Meaning of Married Love,” July 22, 1998, 16.
[2]. Pope John Paul II, remarks to President George W. Bush, July 23, 2001.
[3]. Jim Hopkins, “Egg-Donor Business Booms on Campuses,” USA Today (March 15, 2006).
[4]. Dr. Janet Smith, Sexual Common Sense, “Reproductive Technologies: Why Not?”
[5]. “Marriage of UnwittingTwins Sparks IVF Debate,” www.bioedge.org, January 16, 2008.
[6]. Panos Ioannou, “Free Consanguinity Testing for All,” Nature 419 (September 19, 2002), 247–248; Amy Harmon, “Hello, I’m Your Sister. Our Father Is Donor 150,” The New York Times (November 20, 2005).
[7]. Sabrina Paradis, “Frozen,” www.babble.com.

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