Couples Ask: What’s Wrong With In-vitro Fertilization?
Catholic teaching has called in-vitro fertilization techniques
immoral for decades. But most Catholics still haven’t heard the
California attorneys Anthony and Stephanie Epolite found out the hard
way that in-vitro fertilization wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. After
years of marriage, and facing her 39th birthday still without a baby,
Stephanie turned to a fertility clinic.
Two years and $25,000 later, the couple had nothing but frustration and
embarrassment to show for the time spent on in-vitro fertilization.
“We were emotionally, financially and spiritually spent,” Stephanie
Epolite said. “The clinic did no diagnostic tests. They loaded me up
with fertility medication and determined the right time for retrieval of
But, after the retrieval and the mixing of the eggs with Anthony’s sperm
in the laboratory, still no embryo developed. “In the end, they told me
I just had old eggs,” Stephanie said.
She wishes she had known at the beginning what she has since learned:
The Catholic Church forbids fertility techniques that try to make babies
outside of marital intercourse. “There is no education out there about
the alternatives,” she said, “so Catholics are flocking to the fertility
According to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, infertility
affects more than 6 million American women and their spouses, or about
10% of the reproductive-age population. About 5% of infertile couples
use in-vitro fertilization.
As to how many Catholic couples are among them, figures are hard to come
by. But many Catholics seem unaware of the immorality of the procedure.
“Anecdotally, from our consultation experience here, Catholics using
reproductive technologies are generally unaware of the Church’s moral
teaching in this area,” said Dr. Peter Cataldo, director of research
with the Boston-based National Catholic Bioethics Center. “They’re not
hearing it from the pulpit or elsewhere.”
In her teaching on human reproduction, the Church seeks to safeguard
human dignity. God wants life “to be the result of an act of love by
those committed to loving each other,” philosophy professor Janet Smith
has written. Anything that assists the conjugal act achieve its purpose
of procreation is licit; anything that substitutes for it is not.
In No. 2377, the Catechism explains why the Church opposes
methods that separate marital love-making from baby-making.
“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 successful in-vitro fertilization, a human life comes into existence
outside the conjugal act and outside the womb. Conception is the result
of a technician’s manipulation of “reproductive materials.” The process
for the collection of sperm often necessitates masturbation, which is
Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, director of education at the National
Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, explained that the Church
teaches that the procedure is immoral for several reasons. “It
undermines the meaning of sex. It violates the exclusivity of the
couple’s marriage covenant,” Father Pacholczyk said. “It says that it is
okay to manufacture life in a laboratory as if it were a commodity, when
it should be the result of human love.”
“There’s also the ancillary evil of freezing embryonic humans that are
later abandoned or poured down the sink if they are not useful,” he
In addition, Father Pacholczyk noted that babies created through
in-vitro fertilization have an elevated risk of birth defects.
“Studies have shown a sixfold elevated risk for in-vitro fertilization
children contracting an eye disease called retinal blastoma versus
normally conceived babies,” he said. “In-vitro fertilization is very
unnatural. You’re extracting ova from the woman, culturing them and
inspecting the developing embryo in a laboratory setting. They are in a
completely unnatural environment for a very long time before they are
put back into the womb.
“Commercial interests offer in-vitro fertilization as standard
practice,” Father Pacholczyk said. “The Catholic Church is the only
voice opposed to it.”
But there are morally acceptable alternatives to in-vitro fertilization,
and Dr. Thomas Hilgers is trying to let more Catholic couples know that.
In response to Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical
reaffirming the Church’s opposition to contraception, Hilgers devoted
his life to the study of human reproduction, developing the Creighton
Model System of Natural Family Planning and eventually opening the
Pope Paul VI Institute for the
Study of Human Reproduction.
In 1991, Hilgers coined the term NaProTechnology (Natural Procreative
Technology), a reproductive and gynecologic medical science that seeks
to evaluate and treat a host of women’s health problems without the use
of contraception, sterilization, abortion or artificial reproductive
technologies, thereby making it consistent with Church teachings.
NaProTechnology first identifies the causes of infertility and then
seeks to treat them. That’s not always the case at fertility clinics.
“The aim of most fertility clinics is to skip over the abnormality to
try to get women pregnant,” Hilgers said. “Yet when you skip over the
causes, you end up dealing with them one way or another.
“It’s ludicrous to promote in-vitro fertilization as the help for the
vast majority of 6.62 million with impaired fertility,” he said. “When
you listen to the national news and morning television shows, you think
that in-vitro fertilization is the only thing available to infertile
couples, yet less than 0.5% of infertile couples in the U.S. are helped
by in-vitro fertilization each year.”
Catholic theologians and ethicists would agree that NaProTechnology is
morally acceptable, Cataldo said.
Cataldo pointed out that “certain drug therapies and egg-stimulating
medications at doses that don’t have disproportionate risks for the
children engendered or for the mother” also are acceptable. But other
technologies, such as intrauterine insemination (IUI) and gamete
intrafallopian transfer (GIFT) fall into a “gray area.”
“Some moral theologians and ethicists see these techniques as assisting
the conjugal act. Others see it as replacing it,” he said. “Until such
time as the Vatican speaks, Catholics contemplating the use of IUI or
GIFT should inform themselves of both sides of the moral and theological
argument and then make a decision in good conscience.”
Regardless of the artificial method chosen, the cost of such techniques
remains high and the success rates low. According to the 2001 Assisted
Reproductive Technology Success Rates report compiled by the U.S.
Department of Health and Human Services, a survey of 384 fertility
clinics showed a clinical pregnancy success rate of 32%.
In a 1990 article published in Social Justice Review,
then-associate director of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ Pro-Life
Secretariat Richard Doerflinger noted that a survey of in-vitro
fertilization clinics discovered that half of the clinics had never had
a live birth after being in business at least three years, collectively
treating more than 600 women and collecting $2.5 million for their
“Those with the extraordinary emotions that engulf infertile couples are
extremely vulnerable,” Hilgers said. “They are easy prey.”
Not only do natural and morally acceptable alternatives such as
NaProTechnology cost far less, but they also are more successful. The
Pope Paul VI Institute boasts success rates ranging from 38% to 80%,
depending upon the condition being treated.
Following the Epolites’ experience with in-vitro fertilization,
Stephanie learned about the Pope Paul VI Institute from a Natural Family
Planning counselor. In the fall of 2000, the couple applied to the
institute, gathered charts they had kept that outlined vital signs
related to fertility, and underwent diagnostic testing.
As it turned out, both had reproductive issues that their previous
fertility clinic had never diagnosed. Anthony’s sperm count was low, and
Stephanie suffered from endometriosis and blocked fallopian tubes.
Six months later, following treatment of their conditions at the Pope
Paul VI Institute and at the age of 42, Stephanie conceived naturally.
Their daughter, Claire Marie, was born Oct. 31, 2002.
“At the Pope Paul VI Institute, we saw compassion, concern, help and
love,” Stephanie said. “They provided individualized treatment, versus
the empty feeling that we felt from the fertility clinic. Whereas the
fertility clinic bypasses all the laws of nature, the Pope Paul VI
Institute works with the laws of nature.”
Tim Drake. "Couples Ask: What’s Wrong With In-vitro Fertilization?"
National Catholic Register. (August 14, 2004).
This article is reprinted with permission from National Catholic
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