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The Hardest Teaching of Them All

Last week there appeared on Chastity.com—Catholic Answers’ chastity outreach—a short post about the Church’s opposition to in-vitro fertilization and similar assisted-reproductive technologies (henceforth lumped together as IVF). The unusually large percentage of dissenting comments that followed on social media underscored how confusing this teaching is for many Catholics, even those Catholics with a reflexive disposition to assent to other hard Church teachings.

How can the Church be opposed to the creation of life?

Why would God give us the intelligence to invent IVF, or why would he give a soul to those conceived by it, if it were sinful?

I have a child conceived through IVF and he’s the most wonderful thing in my life. The Church is just wrong here.

Comments such as these, wrapped up as they often are with powerful emotions, show how the Church’s prohibition of IVF may be the single hardest teaching for Catholics to understand and accept.

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There are other Catholic moral teachings that radically contradict the spirit of the age, of course: for example, the prohibition of abortion and contraception, or the insistence on a natural definition of marriage that includes sexual complementarity, fidelity, and permanence.

But although those teachings have their dissenters, I’d wager that most Catholics can at least see in them a basic reasonableness. They proscribe things that violate life, or that offend our natural sense that human love should be generous, self-giving, and ordered to the family. Not everyone may agree with such teachings or succeed in living up to them at all times, but they still get it.

The teaching on IVF is harder to grasp. It creates human life. It makes babies for people who want to love and care for them. How can this be bad? Isn’t the Church, after all, in favor of life?

So, how can we explain this hard teaching to others—Catholic and non-Catholic—in a way that speaks to the reasons why so many people refuse to accept it, and that shows compassion for the painful burden of infertility? I’ll offer four points to keep in mind.

1. Life is a gift, not a right

Children are a lot of work. They’re expensive, they’re messy, they “eat time and poop worry,” as I once heard it aptly put. But they’re also wonderful. They can bring spiritual, emotional, and biological fulfillment. And sometimes we can fall into a trap of thinking that we’re due such fulfillment because we want it so badly, or because we have so much love to give, or because we faithfully followed God’s rulebook by getting married and opening ourselves to life.

But no one is ever due another human person. God gives life as a pure gift, not as something owed. Indeed, as the CDF instruction Donum Vitae put it, it’s not parents who have rights here, but the child: specifically, the right “to be the fruit of the specific act of the conjugal love of his parents” and the “right to be respected as a person from the moment of his conception.”  Once we understand this—and I think most people, upon reflection, can see it—we see some of the justification for IVF vanish.

2. Doing justice to the Creator

God does not owe us children; but we do owe him something: obedience to his moral law, which, as Catholics, we believe the Church communicates without error. It is God’s right to require that the transmission of life be the natural consequence of the conjugal act. Or to put it another way, that it flow naturally from the love between husband and wife, who cooperate with God as co-creators by calling into existence new persons with immortal souls and eternal destinies.

IVF, which substitutes the clinical collection of sperm and eggs for the marital act, and technological intervention for the natural cooperation between God and couples, fails to give God his due. This is the essence of what we call sin. (Space limits prohibit lengthy quoting of Donum Vitae, but I recommend reading it through, particular nos. 4-6.)

Some people argue that God nonetheless gives the gift of life to persons created through artificial means. They’re not zombies or robots—they’re full human beings with immortal souls that God specially created. Doesn’t that mean he approves?

It’s true that God has chosen to bind himself to holding up his end of creating new human life whenever the bare biological conditions are met—whether through natural intercourse or through IVF, whether through a selfless act of married love or an act of fornication or even rape. Unless you want to say that God also approves of fornication or rape, though, it doesn’t follow that he approves of every act that results in new life.

3. Unintended consequences

The Church’s teaching on IVF is based first and foremost on the immorality of the act itself. But in many cases there are side issues that would make it problematic even if it were not itself immoral:

  • In most cases, the sperm is obtained via masturbation, which is itself immoral and thus not permissible even to achieve a good end.

  • IVF technology is not accessible only to married couples, but is also put to the service of deliberate single parenthood, surrogacy, same-sex and polyamorous parenting experiments, embryonic stem-cell research, human cloning and eugenics, and other arrangements that offend basic human rights and dignity. It allows for the complete divorce of love and procreation, using technology to make human life a commodity.

  • IVF procedures often result in multiple embryos being transferred to the uterus; it’s an expensive process, after all, and doctors want to maximize its potential for success. In many cases, multiple embryos survive in the mother’s womb, leading to the temptation, perhaps under pressure from doctors or spouses or perhaps by the woman’s design, to undergo “selective reduction”: the aborting of superfluous embryos.

  • Embryos that are not implanted are often frozen for future attempts, or donated for research. In the U.S. alone there are many hundreds of thousands such tiny human persons, consigned to frozen storage like things or set aside for experimentation, radically against their innate dignity.

4. Know the alternatives

Just as any answer to doubts about Church teaching on contraception must include positive mention of morally licit means of spacing birth, such as Natural Family Planning, answering doubts about Church teaching on IVF must positively and pastorally address the plight of couples who have difficulty conceiving.

First, by educating them on the healthy, effective, and moral pro-fertility options they have. Many doctors may quickly press women and couples towards IVF, but there are other and better choices. Our understanding of human fertility expands continually, as does the list of therapies, treatments, and interventions to heal and enhance it. The work of the Pope Paul VI Institute, whose NaProTechnology revolutionized holistic reproductive health, is a prime but by no means solitary example.

But even the best health care will not always remedy infertility. In such cases, women and couples must be reassured that they’re not failures, that they’re not being cursed or punished by God. In fact, he likely has special plans for them. We believe that God permits both moral and physical evils in order to accomplish a greater good. In my own life I have seen his providence take the heartbreak of infertility and turn it into the great good of adoption, or foster parenting, or zealous work in missions, schools, and ministry.

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When Jesus told his followers that they had to eat his body, many abandoned him. “This is a hard saying,” they complained; “who can listen to it?” (John 6:60). Today, when the Church presents its received teaching on the transmission of life, many in the flock may likewise stumble. But that teaching, though hard like many of Christ’s truths, is also—like all of Christ’s truths—coherent, reasonable, beautiful, and ordered to our final happiness.  

 

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