Be Fertile and Multiply

God blessed them and God said to them: Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that crawl on the earth. ~Genesis 1:28

We have been asked by some members of the community if in vitro fertilization (IVF) is prohibited by the Church even if the sperm comes from the husband and the egg from the wife. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states in paragraph 2377: “Techniques involving only the married couple (homologous artificial insemination and fertilization) are perhaps less reprehensible, yet remain morally unacceptable. They dissociate the sexual act from the procreative act. The act which brings the child into existence is no longer an act by which two persons give themselves to one another, but one that entrusts the life and identity of the embryo into the power of doctors and biologists and establishes the domination of technology over the origin and destiny of the human person. Such a relationship of domination is in itself contrary to the dignity and equality that must be common to parents and children. Under the moral aspect procreation is deprived of its proper perfection when it is not willed as the fruit of the conjugal act, that is to say, of the specific act of the spouses’ union.”

In effect, the CCC states that even homologous IVF is considered immoral because it separates the procreative purpose of marriage from its unitive purpose. But if the couple regularly expresses their love for each other through the marital act but for some physical or medical reasons procreation does not happen, is homologous IVF still immoral?

The Bible contains many stories of women who suffer from infertility. The unhappiness they feel at not being able to have a child cannot be lessened even by a husband’s love. In 1 Samuel 1:8, Elkanah asks his wife who is unable to conceive, “Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart so sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” Elkanah’s wife certainly loves him, but she wants to bear their child. There are comparable stories in the Bible that are told to show the power of God ⏤ Sarah, the wife of Abraham and the mother of Isaac, and Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist.

It is clear from the Book of Genesis that God wants children: Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it (Genesis 1:28). But the Bible also teaches us that there are limits to acceptable methods for conceiving a child. An example is the story of Lot’s two unmarried daughters who made their father drunk so that they might have children by him. They gave birth to Moab and Ammon, and both the Moabites and the Ammonites brought much trouble for Abraham’s children as these peoples sinned like their parents (Genesis 19:31-38). It is evident that this story teaches that not any means can be used to achieve pregnancy.

We can understand why heterologous IVF (the technique using donated sperm or egg) is immoral. But why is homologous IVF also immoral?

In 1987 the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a document known as Donum Vitae (The Gift of Life), which addressed the morality of modern fertility procedures. It concluded that some methods are moral, while others are immoral. Donum Vitae teaches that if a given medical intervention merely helps or assists the marriage act to achieve pregnancy, it may be considered moral. But if the intervention replaces the marriage act in order to engender life, it is not moral.

But why, exactly, is IVF immoral? Two reasons.

First, IVF eliminates the marriage act as the means of achieving pregnancy. The new life is not engendered through an act of love between husband and wife, but by a laboratory procedure performed by doctors or technicians. Husband and wife are merely sources for the egg and sperm, which are later manipulated by a technician to cause the sperm to fertilize the egg.

Second, in IVF, several eggs are aspirated from the woman’s ovary after she has taken a fertility drug which causes a number of eggs to mature at the same time. Semen is collected from the man, usually through masturbation. The egg and sperm are ultimately joined in a glass dish, where conception takes place and the new life is allowed to develop for several days. The embryos are then transferred to the mother’s womb in the hope that one will survive to term. Even if the egg and sperm come from husband and wife, serious moral problems arise. Invariably several embryos are brought into existence and only those which show the greatest promise of growing to term are implanted in the womb. The others are simply discarded. This is a terrible offense against human life. While a little baby may ultimately be born because of this procedure, other lives are usually eliminated out in the process. Over 90% of the embryos created perish at some point in the process. To enhance the odds of success, doctors sometimes implant five or more embryos in the mother’s womb, which may result in more babies than a couple wants.

To avoid the burden of caring for too many babies after several have been implanted, doctors may perform fetal reduction or selective reduction. They monitor the babies in utero to see if any have defects or are judged to be not as healthy as the others. Then they eliminate those “less desirable” babies by filling a syringe with potassium chloride, maneuvering the needle toward the “selected” baby in the womb, and then thrusting the needle into the baby’s heart. The potassium chloride kills the baby within minutes, and is expelled as a “miscarriage”.

We, as husbands and wives, do not make babies. We make love. We physically express our love for one another, and a child may or may not be engendered by that act of love. Our marital act is not a manufacturing process, and our children are not products. They are God’s gifts created in his image.

Heterologous IVF is always not moral because it not only separates the procreative from the unitive purpose of marriage and it invariably results in the discarding of the fertilized egg, but, more importantly, it involves the use of sperm or egg not belonging to the husband or wife.

The CCC states that homologous IVF may perhaps be less reprehensible. Why? It is perhaps because there is still a lot of debate concerning when organic individuality is established, that is, when a person begins to exist. Does it occur during fertilization or during implantation? A person is composed of body and soul. But when does ensoulment take place? This will be a topic for another reflection. In the meantime, keep in mind that God has commanded us to be fertile and multiply.

~from Aquila and Priscilla: Reflections of Jun and Jean Uriarte

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