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The Brave New World of IVF

When Scottish researchers introduced Dolly the Sheep—the first successful clone of a mammal—in 1997, the news took the world by storm. The researchers waited seven months after Dolly’s birth before making a public announcement, anticipating the ethical debate that would follow—and it did.

Less than twenty years later, a similar—but potentially even more disturbing—event was almost entirely overlooked. In 2012, Japanese researchers had successfully reprogrammed the skin cells of mice into stem cells and then into primordial germ cells (PGCs). PGCs are found naturally within embryos, and they eventually develop inside a mammal into sperm or eggs. In July 2016, a different Japanese research team extracted naturally occurring PGCs from mouse fetuses and transformed them into egg cells outside of a mouse. And that led to the announcement in the October 2016 issue of Nature that members of the two teams, working together, had successfully transformed PGCs derived from mouse skin cells into egg cells and, using in-vitro fertilization (IVF), created embryos that were implanted into female mice and brought to term.

For those who remember the controversy over Dolly, the most remarkable thing about the saga of the Japanese mice is the fact that the announcement generated so little notice, much less controversy. It wasn’t until the New York Times picked up the story seven months later that people began to examine what this new technique—dubbed in-vitro gametogenesis (IVG)—might mean. Unfortunately, the discussion of ethical concerns over IVG was almost immediately sidetracked into a debate over LGBT “rights”—and not without reason.

In 2014, an Israeli researcher named Jacob Hanna, building off of the work of the 2012 Japanese research team, created artificial human PGCs. Hanna, Nature reported in the same October 17, 2016 article, is a “pro-LGBT rights activist” who thinks it would be “legitimate to explore” making eggs from human male skin cells “when the right time comes.” If the Japanese technique works on humans and not just on mice, it would allow two homosexual men to become the biological “father” and “mother” of an embryo that could be implanted in the womb of a surrogate mother and brought to term.

The framing of the discussion of IVG in terms of LGBT “rights” is similar to attempts to dismiss moral opposition to IVF as merely a practical matter. The New York Times, in its May 16, 2017 article on the Japanese creation of mice from skins cells, declared erroneously that “The Catholic Church remains firm in its opposition to in vitro fertilization, in part because it so often leads to the creation of extra embryos that are frozen or discarded.” The Catholic Church does remain firm in her opposition to IVF, but not because IVF creates “extra embryos;” she opposes IVF because it creates any embryos. Even if scientists could perfect the IVF procedure so that no “extra embryos” would be created, the Church would still maintain her teaching that IVF is intrinsically immoral. The creation of “extra embryos” is merely a symptom of the underlying moral issue.

As is the case in so many “ethical” debates that get wrapped up with hot-button political issues, the underlying moral issue gets lost. Neither the sexual orientation nor the marital status of a particular couple has any bearing on the question of the morality of IVF or IVG. The underlying question, as Pope Paul VI made clear in Humanae Vitae, is “the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.” The Church opposes any attempt at procreation outside of sexual intercourse (e.g., IVF and IVG) for the same reason that she opposes the attempt to rob the sexual act of its procreative potential through contraception and abortion: to separate the unitive and procreative aspects of the sexual act is to render men and women less human. That “extra embryos” are created in IVF which cannot be disposed of in any moral way, either through their destruction or through their implantation in a woman’s womb, is (as the CDF’s 2008 instruction Dignitas Personae makes clear) a sure sign that the Church’s prior opposition to IVF is in accordance with natural law and therefore morally correct.

Unfortunately, as the New York Times points out, “I.V.F. and related procedures have become so commonplace that they now account for about 70,000, or almost two percent, of the babies born in the United States each year.” The number is likely to rise in coming years, and as it does the percentage of IVF babies to all babies will rise out of proportion to the actual number, because natural conceptions have been on the decline for several years.

Sadly, the decline of natural conceptions and the rise of IVF among Catholics mirrors the decline and rise in the population as a whole—hardly a surprise, given the widespread rejection of the Church’s consistent teaching on the use of artificial contraception. Those who cannot understand why the unitive and procreative aspects of sexual intercourse should not be separated will never be able to understand the underlying moral error of IVF, nor will they be able to mount an effective opposition to the nightmare world to which IVG may give birth. The lack of concerned reaction to the IVG announcement, as opposed to the public debate over the cloning of Dolly twenty years ago, shows how far most people—even Catholics—have fallen from an instinctual understanding of natural law.

Jacob Hanna hopes someday to build a brave new world in which a child can be born with the DNA of two men, or of two women. The only way to oppose such a world is to build our own—and that requires returning to the fullness of the Catholic Church’s teaching on human procreation.

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