Fertilization: Ethical Implications & Alternatives
Letter by Bishop Sean P. O'Malley, OFM Cap.
November 9, 2001
The recent discussion in our country on the
funding of scientific research using embryonic stem cells has made it
very clear that many Americans are unaware of some of the ethical
implications surrounding this debate. What was particularly alarming was
the data that over 100,000 live embryos are frozen. These embryos have
been produced in the procedure called in vitro fertilization,
which seems to enjoy ever-wider acceptance by the American public.
presume that many Catholic couples have had recourse to this technology
in their praiseworthy aspirations to have children. I feel great
compunction that those of us who have a responsibility to teach the
faith have not been more effective in communicating the Church’s
teaching on in vitro fertilization. I realize that some Catholics
acting in good faith, and with a burning desire to be parents and good
parents, have made use of this technology unwittingly. To them, I offer
an apology and assure them of the Church’s unconditional regard for the
children born of such a procedure. Every child, no matter how that child
is born, is precious in God’s eyes.
That having been said, I now feel compelled
to sound an alarm to our Catholic people about the morally problematic
aspects of in vitro fertilization and to call upon our priests,
deacons, and teachers to exercise due diligence in faithfully presenting
the Church’s teaching on this most serious issue. A faulty understanding
of the ethical drawbacks of in vitro fertilization has already
led to a naïve acceptance of the destruction of human embryos that now
threatens to pave the way for embryonic stem cell research.
A few decades ago, in vitro
fertilization was the stuff of science fiction. In Huxley’s “Brave New
World,” where time is reckoned as A.F. (after Ford), the author
describes a futuristic world that prescinds from God. The book opens
with a tour of the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Center which
is the venue for artificial reproduction and social conditioning in a
biological version of the assembly line: progressing from the
Fertilizing Room, to the Bottling Room, to the Social Predestination
Room, and finally to the Decanting Room.
After these babies are “decanted,” or “hatched,”
they are put in a special nursery where they are conditioned to hate
books and the great outdoors, and are taught to pine after the
consumption of a nearly endless variety of manufactured consumer goods.
Doubtless, Huxley would have been intrigued with the modern day practice
of using the television set as a babysitter; it seems to have the same
purpose as his Conditioning Center.
His allegorical work has become almost
prophetic in some of its dire predictions about in vitro
fertilization and cloning. Not too long ago readers were shocked by
these images. If we are not more circumspect about the use of technology,
in another generation readers will read Huxley wondering, “What’s the
Stepping away from God’s law always
introduces chaos into our lives. Nowhere is this truer than in the case
of in vitro fertilization. The reproductive revolution has had
the ability to separate genetic parenting from gestational parenting and
from social parenting; and the agent who brings it all about, a
biotechnician, will be still another person.
In other words, we can arrange from the
outset that one or more of the genetic parents are different from the
woman who will carry the child, or the couple who will bring the child
up. One or both of the donors might be deceased, for even the eggs might
be extracted from aborted fetuses or a recently deceased woman.
Sperm and eggs are being bought and sold and
wombs are being rented. Typical prices for ova are $6,500, sperm $1,800
and surrogate motherhood $45,000. In California there is a Nobel Prize
Winners’ sperm bank where someone can purchase “genius sperm” in the
first step towards the “designer baby.” Anyone who has enough money can
contract for the production of human beings according to the desired
Scientists are already testing the embryos
in the petri dish or in the womb to determine whether the child has
desirable characteristics. One common reason for these tests is sex
selection. Those Feminists who favor abortion should know that the
embryos destroyed on this account are usually on the distaff side.
The legal problems that arise from in
vitro fertilization are legion. The number of persons who might
assert parental rights is now expanded to five: the sperm donor, the egg
donor, the surrogate womb mother, and the couple who raise the child.
One wag has observed that the prospect of children with multiple parents
is a marketing dream for the greeting card industry, and it is certainly
a bonanza for lawyers.
As problems of infertility and sterility
become more common, people are turning to science for solutions. Modern
science has developed various techniques such as artificial insemination
and in vitro fertilization. In addition, there are also ancillary
techniques designed to store semen, ova, and embryos.
fact that these techniques have been developed and have a certain
success rate does not make them morally acceptable. The ends do not
justify the means. In this case, the ends are very noble: helping an
infertile couple to become parents. The Church, however, cannot accept
The Sanctity of Life
Catholic Church teaches that marriage is the only morally acceptable
framework for human reproduction. Marriage and its indissoluble unity
are the only venue worthy of truly responsible procreation. Accordingly,
any conception engineered with semen or ova donated by a third party
would be opposed to the exclusivity that is demanded of a married couple.
Such a procedure would be a violation of the bond of conjugal fidelity.
It is also an anomaly for a donor to contribute to the conception of a
child with the express intention of having nothing to do with that child’s
Donation of semen or ova, and the use of
surrogate motherhood to bear the child are both contrary to the unity of
marriage and the dignity of the procreation of the human person. All of
these procedures face a further difficulty in that they lend themselves
to commercialization and exploitation when people are paid for donating
their semen or ova, or for surrogate motherhood.
The “Catechism of the Catholic Church,”
quoting from the Vatican document Donum Vitae, (Instruction on respect
for human life in its origin and on the dignity of procreation) asserts:
“Techniques that entail the dissociation of husband and wife by the
intrusion of a person other than the couple (donation of sperm or ovum,
surrogate uterus) are gravely immoral. These techniques infringe on the
child’s right to be born of a father and mother known to him, and bound
to each other by marriage; moreover, these methods betray the spouses’
right to become a father and a mother only through each other” (#2376).
Indeed, in the act of procreation the spouses are called to cooperate
with God; therefore, the Church teaches that a child’s coming-to-be
should be sought only as a fruit of the spouses’ personal loving union
in the marital act.
The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” also
addresses those cases where the techniques employed to bring about the
conception involve exclusively the married couple’s semen, ovum, and
womb. Such techniques are “less reprehensible, yet remain morally
unacceptable.” They dissociate procreation from the sexual act. The act
which brings the child into existence is no longer an act by which two
persons (husband and wife) give themselves to one another, but one that
“entrusts the life and identity of the embryo into the power of the
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”
The Church has always taught that there is
an “inseparable connection established by God between the unitive
significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to
the marriage act” (Humanae Vitae12). In this sense in vitro
fertilization, by doing away with the unitive meaning, is the mirror
image of contraception which suppresses the procreative meaning of the
God created man and woman in His own image
and likeness and gave them the mission “to be fruitful and multiply.”
This fruitfulness in marriage is part of their being made in the image
of God. The marital act is one of mutual self-giving and mutual
acceptance of two persons in love. It reflects the inner life of God in
the Holy Trinity, a communion of love.
Conjugal love is at the service of life and
at the service of God, the Creator. Pope John Paul wrote in his “Letter
to Families” that “in affirming that spouses as parents cooperate with
God the Creator in conceiving and giving birth to a new human being…we
wish to emphasize that God Himself is present in human fatherhood and
motherhood. Indeed, God alone is the source of that ‘image and likeness’
which is proper to the human being, as it was received at Creation.
Begetting is the continuation of Creation” (“Letter to Families” 9).
“I formed you in the womb, I knew you and
before you were born, I consecrated you” (Jer 1:5). Pope John Paul II,
commenting on this Scripture passage, writes: “the life of every
individual, from its very beginning, is part of God’s
plan...”(Evangelium Vitae #44). Expressions of awe and wonder at God’s
intervention in the life of a child in its mother’s womb occur again and
again in the Psalms and in the Gospel of St. Luke. In the light of God’s
loving regard for life in the womb, the Holy Father raises the terrible
question: “How can anyone think that even a single moment of this
marvelous process of the unfolding of life could be separated from the
wise and loving work of the Creator and left prey to human caprice?” (E.V.
#44). Human life is precious from the moment of conception; but, sadly
enough, the biblical respect for human life is being eroded in our
contemporary society. Without a deep reverence for the sacredness of
human life, humanity places itself on the path of self-destruction.
When science and technology open doors that
should not be opened, a Pandora’s box spews forth evils that menace
humanity. We invented the atom bomb and germ warfare. These inventions
are now part of human history forever. Scientists have opened another
perilous door: they are manufacturing human life and using their product
as an object of experimentation.
Science without the compass of ethical
restraints is taking us on a path towards dehumanization in the name of
progress. Modern scientific advances have so much to offer, but they
must be guided by ethical principles which respect the inherent dignity
of every human being. When science embarks on a Promethean quest, fueled
by greed and commercialization, our own humanity is placed at risk. The
Vatican Document, Donum Vitae, expresses this well: “By defending man
against the excesses of his own power, the Church of God reminds him of
the reasons for his true nobility; only in this way can the possibility
of living and loving with that dignity and liberty which derive from
respect for the truth be ensured for the men and women of tomorrow” (Donum
Vitae p. 39).
Theoretically, it might be possible to use
in vitro fertilization without destroying any embryos. The grave
moral problems concerning the rights of the child, unity of marriage,
and the integrity act would still militate against the morality of in
vitro fertilization. However, typically, in in vitro
fertilization a woman is given fertility drugs to ensure that she
produces several ova which are collected to be fertilized in a petri
dish creating several embryos. The healthiest ones are chosen for
transfer to the woman’s womb. Many embryos are discarded or frozen.
Freezing kills some more. Some embryos are later used for
experimentation, which is always lethal.
Recent estimates project that there are
100,000 frozen embryos in the United States laboratories. These embryos
are human lives that, given the chance to grow, would develop into a man
or a woman. The fate and disposition of these embryos represents a
serious moral dilemma which has contributed to a coarsening of the
public’s attitude towards the sacredness of human life.
During recent debates before Congress, a
couple gave compelling testimony against embryonic stem cell research.
The main arguments that they presented were their two young sons who had
been frozen embryos that the husband and his wife adopted. We cannot
pretend that these embryos are tadpoles. They are human beings with
their unique genetic code, full complement of chromosomes, and
individual characteristics already in place. Every person alive today
started out as an embryo.
In vitro fertilization puts a great
number of embryos at risk, or simply destroys them. These early-stage
abortions are not morally acceptable. Unfortunately, many people of good
will have no notion of what is at stake and simply focus on the baby
that results from in vitro fertilization, not adverting to the
fact that the procedure involves creating many embryos, most of which
will never be born because they will be frozen or discarded.
The Church’s teaching on the respect that
must be accorded to human embryos has been constant and very clear. The
Second Vatican Council reaffirms this teaching: “Life once conceived
must be protected with the utmost care.” Likewise, the more recent
“Charter of the Rights of the Family,” published by the Holy See reminds
us that: “Human life must be absolutely respected and protected from the
moment of conception.”
Two corollaries of this principle follow
very logically. First, pre-natal diagnosis and therapeutic procedures
are licit and moral if they do not involve disproportionate risks and
are directed toward healing or the survival of the embryo. Secondly,
living embryos must never be used for experimentation which is not
directly therapeutic to that human embryo. The Pro-Life Department of
the United States Council of Catholic Bishops has published a question
and answer document on respect for human embryos which explains: “No
objective, even though noble in itself, such as a foreseeable advantage
to science, to other human beings, or to society, can in any way justify
experimentation on living embryos or fetuses, whether viable or not,
either inside or outside the mother’s womb. The informed consent
ordinarily required for clinical experimentation cannot be granted by
the parents who may not freely dispose of the physical integrity or life
of the unborn child.”
This unequivocal teaching of the Church has
important implications, not only regarding the morality of in vitro
fertilization where so many embryos are sacrificed, but also in the area
of embryonic stem cell research which requires the destruction of the
living human embryo.
Many scientists are anxious to employ
“spare” embryos that result from the in vitro fertilization for
research purposes. They point to the huge supply of frozen embryos that
will eventually be discarded. As in the case of the production of clones
for research purposes, the harvesting of the discarded embryos for
research represents a conscious choice to use living human beings as
mere research material. Sadly, some people would have pragmatism trump
morality. It is encouraging that many states have legislation in place
which protects the embryo and makes embryonic stem-cell research a
felony. In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts the law forbids using
embryos, “whether before or after expulsion from the mother’s womb, for
scientific, laboratory research, or other kinds of experimentation” (M.G.L.
Ch. 112 para. 12).
The New York Times, on Aug. 26, 2001,
reported that at fertility clinics the job that nobody wants is that of
discarding the spare embryos. Most centers charge a yearly fee that
ranges from a few hundred dollars to more than a thousand; but many
embryologists do not discard embryos, even when clients cease to pay,
“even if years go by”, the news article goes on to say. The director of
one laboratory stated that he has to destroy the embryos himself because
so many of his staff found the task distasteful. The embryos are thawed
as though they will be used, just in case the patients change their
minds. It is obvious that many of the medical staff involved in the
in vitro fertilization process are aware of the grave responsibility
they have for destroying human life. They have witnessed how these
embryos have grown into healthy children. In discarding these embryos,
the medical staff become their unwilling executioners, but executioners
The Vatican document Donum Vitae clearly
stated that the destruction of embryos harvested from in vitro
fertilization procedures is tantamount to abortion. By voluntarily
destroying human embryos, “The researcher usurps the place of God; and,
even though he may be unaware of this, he sets himself up as the master
of the destiny of others inasmuch as he arbitrarily chooses whom he will
allow to live and whom he will send to death, and kills defenseless
human being” (Donum Vitae, 1987).
Children on Hold
the already cited congressional hearings concerning stem-cell research,
John Borden stood before the panel with both his sons in his arms and
asked, “Which one of my children would you kill?” John and his wife,
Lucinda, unable to have children of their own adopted frozen embryos
that were “left over” from in vitro fertilization. Their striking
testimony demonstrated that embryos are human beings in an early stage
of development and therefore should not be sacrificed for embryonic stem-cell
The action of this couple and many others
raises the question, “What should be done with the frozen embryos?” Dr.
Edward Furton of the National Catholic Bioethics Center published a fine
article recently: “On the Disposition of Frozen Embryos.” The Church has
not taken an official stand on what should be done. It is clear that
in vitro fertilization is not an ethical practice. Nevertheless, the
children born of this process are human beings, with the full rights and
dignity of all members of the human family, and the frozen embryos
produced are human and need to be respected as such.
The most acceptable solution for the
disposition of these embryos is that they be implanted in their mother’s
womb and brought to term. This is the best option in a highly ambiguous
situation since the embryos should not have been created in the first
If the parents of the embryos are unable or
unwilling to implant the embryo in the mother’s womb, what can be done
with the frozen embryos? Moralists are beginning to debate this question.
Theologians of the status of Dr. William May and Dr. Germain Grisey and
Dr. John Furton, editor of Ethics & Medics of the National Catholic
Bioethics Center, are of the opinion that it is preferable to place the
frozen embryos up for adoption rather than to let them perish in a
frozen gulag. Other moralists hesitate to countenance this approach
because of the problem of surrogate motherhood. Nevertheless, we agonize
over the predicament of these embryos. It is similar to the Church’s
pastoral response to children born out of wedlock. While the Church
cannot approve the circumstance of their birth since the children have
already come into being, the Church must be concerned about their
spiritual and material welfare.
No one wants to encourage in vitro
fertilization in any way; yet, there is a desire to rescue these
innocent human beings that are in the words of Donum Vitae: “exposed to
an absurd fate, with no possibility of their being offered safe means of
survival that can be licitly pursued” (D.V. I.5). We are hopeful that
in the near future the Holy See will offer some authoritative
pronouncements on this very complicated issue.
A gift not an entitlement
Professor Stanley M. Hauerwas, in his
testimony on in vitro fertilization before the Ethics Advisory
Board of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, states:
“Christians must surely be doubtful of any moral defenses of in vitro
fertilization that claim this technique as an extension of freedom from
natural necessity. From our perspective, such a claim involves the
pretentious assumption that there is no limit to the right of people to
Hauerwas’ assertion is certainly taught by
the Church: We do not have a “right to have a child.” Such a right would
be “contrary to the child’s dignity and nature. The child is not an
object to which one has a right, nor can he be considered an object of
ownership; rather, a child is a gift, ‘the supreme gift,’ and the most
gratuitous gift of marriage, and is a living testimony of the mutual
giving of his parents. For this reason the child has the right to be the
fruit of the specific act of conjugal love of his parents; and the child
also has the right to be respected as a person from the moment of his
conception” (Donum Vitae, 8).
One of the greatest absurdities of
contemporary society is that our country has approved of people aborting
all unwanted children and at the same time permits an immoral technique
(in vitro fertilization) that allows a few women to have the
experience of a pregnancy. In both of these circumstances the fate of
the children is subordinated to the convenience or the personal
aspirations of the parents.
In the Old Testament, sterility was seen as
a curse and a shameful condition. In part, immortality was understood as
living on in your children and in their children. Childlessness then
meant to be doomed to extinction and oblivion.
The New Testament teaching on celibacy
indicated to believers that not everyone needs to have children. It is a
matter of vocation. The example of the consecrated virgins in the early
Church testified to the importance of spiritual fruitfulness and gave
witness of the Church’s firm belief in the Resurrection. Their lives,
like the first martyrs, proclaimed to the world that in Christ we are
all called to eternal life. It is therefore not necessary for everyone
to have children to taste immortality.
For us, marriage and motherhood and
fatherhood is a vocation, and children are a gift. However, even when
procreation is not possible, married life does not for that reason lose
its value. As our Holy Father writes in Familiaris Consortio: “Physical
sterility, in fact, can be for the spouses the occasion for other
important services to the life of the human person; for example adoption,
various forms of educational work, and assistance to other families, and
to poor or handicapped children” (#14).
All of us know childless couples whose
goodness and generosity have been directed toward service of the parish,
the community, and those in need. Often it is said of such a couple
“what wonderful parents they would have been” because their marriage is
so faith-filled and so loving.
A loving solution
The plight of a couple who have difficulties
in conceiving a child is something that concerns the Church community.
We are pleased that the scientific community has developed some morally
acceptable procedures that assist the conjugal act and not replace it:
certain fertility drugs, micro-surgery, and treatments aimed at
correcting defects in the reproductive organs, and Natural Family
Planning techniques that allow couples to know when they have the best
chance of conceiving. The Church does urge scientists “to continue their
research with the aim of preventing the causes of sterility and of being
able to remedy them so that infertile couples will be able to procreate
in full respect for their own personal dignity and that of the child to
be born” (D.V.8).
Given the Biblical injunction to care for
widows and orphans and to welcome strangers, the childless couple might
in the spirit of our faith consider adopting a child. It is a decision
that should be made after prayer and reflection. We have the example of
so many wonderful couples who have taken on this commitment and made a
loving family for children who lost their parents or whose parents were
unable to raise them.
One of the main factors contributing to the
1.5 million abortions in our nation every year is the poor attitude that
Americans have toward giving up a child for adoption. Each year, around
two million infertile couples try to adopt a baby in the United States,
yet only about 50,000 adoptions take place. There are waiting lists for
Down’s Syndrome and Spina Bifida babies and for infants with AIDS. Many
couples go to Korea, Russia, Romania, Guatemala, China and other
countries at great expense and make many sacrifices to adopt a baby.
It is tragic that each year 1.5 million
mothers in the United States opt for an abortion. Somehow they reach the
point of making a decision to kill the child in their womb rather than
allowing that child to live and to be adopted into a family that
ardently desires to make a home for the fruit of an unwanted pregnancy.
Even though a pregnancy might be unwanted, or ill-timed, there should
never be an unwanted baby. In fact, as the figures show there are enough
families seeking to adopt babies so as to provide a home for all of the
children aborted in our country.
Those who embrace the Gospel of Life must be
enthusiastic supporters of adoption. Some parishes have had special
liturgies to celebrate the generosity and love of mothers who have put
their child up for adoption, as well as for those families that have
received those children lovingly as if they had been born into their
This year in our own diocese, in order to
underscore the importance of adoption in the Gospel of Life, we are
having a diocesan Pro-Life celebration on the Feast of St. Joseph, the
adoptive father of Jesus. The fact that in the Holy Family there was an
adoptive father should be a source of encouragement to those who give
their children in adoption and those who receive them.
Other countries also experience the sad
refusal of so many mothers to choose life by giving their children in
adoption. Italy is witnessing a negative population growth that has
given rise to serious concerns about the future of the Italian people.
One parliamentarian has asked the government to support pregnant women
by helping them to carry their baby to term so as to put the child up
for adoption rather than let that child be lost to abortion.
In our own diocese, and in dioceses
throughout the nation, we have made the same offer of help. We stand
ready to aid any woman with a difficult pregnancy who wishes to seek an
alternative to abortion.
We urge adopted children to help us promote
adoption. Their mothers did not abandon them; but rather gave them life
and the chance to live. The decision to entrust your child to another
person is a difficult one, at times frightening; yet we are sure that it
is the right decision. The Bible records the dispute of the two mothers
before Solomon. The true mother is willing to give the child away rather
than allow the king to kill the baby. When a mother lovingly entrusts
her baby to an adoptive family, she has chosen life for her baby and
will always be that child’s true mother, even as she shares that
vocation with the adoptive parents.
Pope John Paul II writes in Familiaris
Consortio: “Christian families, recognizing with faith all human beings
as children of the same Heavenly Father, will respond generously to the
children of others, giving these children support and love, not as
outsiders, but as members of the one family of God’s children. Christian
parents will thus be able to spread their love beyond the bonds of flesh
and blood, nourishing the links that are rooted in the Spirit…(F.C. 42).
In the rapidly changing culture of today,
where everything is seen as experimental or obsolete, it must be growing
clearer to believers that the Church’s commitment to the defense of
innocent human life and the dignity of the human person is the firm
centerpiece of our social Gospel. The very future of our society is
contingent on the success of this enterprise: Life will be valued and
protected or manipulated and destroyed.
The culture of death can muster armies of
celebrities to promote its positions. The media speaks with a roar, the
Church in a whisper. The Church’s whisper, however, communicates a very
consistent message that can never be silenced.
The issue of in vitro fertilization
is complicated. We all sympathize with childless couples who are
desperate to have children, but the ends do not justify the means. There
is much more at stake here than the public realizes.
The Church’s teaching on in vitro
fertilization is very clear and quite consistent with the Church’s
teachings on marriage, on the dignity of the human person, and on the
life ethic. A lack of knowledge about the ethical implications of this
procedure has resulted in many couples having recourse to in vitro
fertilization and has given further impetus to public support for
embryonic stem-cell research.
St. Paul once commented that people will not
respond to an uncertain trumpet blast. I assure you there is nothing
uncertain about the Church’s teaching on in vitro fertilization.
We have only to turn up the volume of the trumpet.