Is the Catholic Church’s Argument Against IVF a Bit Holey?

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When biologist Robert Edwards, who perfected in vitro fertilization (IVF) more than 30 years ago, was awarded the Nobel Prize on Oct. 4, public reaction was swift and divided. Many applauded the scientist whose pioneering efforts have made possible the births of more than 4 million children worldwide. But detractors, mostly notably the Vatican, criticized the Nobel prize committee’s honoring of Edwards as “completely out of order.”

In 1987, the Vatican released Instructions on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation, a position paper devised to explain the Church’s stance on several medical procedures. In it, the Papacy describes IVF — which results in the creation and destruction of embryos — as a “dynamic of violence and domination.” (More on Time.com: 5 Pregnancy Taboos Explained (or Debunked))

“Although IVF has brought happiness to the many couples who have conceived through this process, it has done so at an enormous cost. That cost is the undermining of the dignity of the human person,” said Jose Simon Castellvi, president of the Vatican-based International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations, in a statement on Oct. 5.

What exactly is the basis for objection? The arguments against IVF are many: for one thing, the technology opens the door to a previously nonexistent market for human eggs. It has also paved the way for embryonic stem-cell research, which necessarily requires the creation and destruction of embryos.

“Without Edwards there wouldn’t be a market for oocytes (immature egg cells), without Edwards there wouldn’t be freezers full of embryos waiting to be transferred in utero or, more likely, to be used for research or to die abandoned and forgotten by everyone,” wrote Msgr. Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, head of the Pontifical Academy for Life, in a statement released by the Vatican press office on Oct. 4, following the Nobel panel’s announcement.

Further, there is the issue of using donors’ genetic material: sometimes the eggs and sperm used in IVF (in which an egg is fertilized in a lab dish, outside the body) do not belong to the child’s biological parents. If either egg or sperm is donated by someone outside the marriage, according to the position paper, the resulting conception is:

… contrary to the unity of marriage, to the dignity of the spouses, to the vocation proper to parents, and to the child’s right to be conceived and brought into the world in marriage and from marriage.

But at its most basic, the moral objection to IVF is that it involves the deliberate creation and destruction, by man, of unused human embryos for eugenic, economic or psychological reasons. Couples may create many embryos during IVF treatment, but choose only the strongest two or three for transfer into the uterus. The rest are frozen or discarded. “Through these procedures, with apparently contrary purposes, life and death are subjected to the decision of man, who thus sets himself up as the giver of life and death by decree,” the 1987 paper states. (More on Time.com: Study: IVF Causes Higher Rates of Baby Boys)

“The objection to Bob’s Nobel prize is that with IVF, you are inevitably destroying some fertilized eggs and that these eggs are humans and deserve the dignity of humans,” says Dr. Malcolm Potts, an obstetrician, the Fred H. Bixby Professor of Population and Family Planning at University of California, Berkeley, and an old friend of Nobel-winner Edwards.

Potts finds this argument frustrating. In a 2003 paper on Catholicism and fertility treatment appearing in the journal Conscience, which is published by the organization Catholics for a Free Choice, Potts laid out what he perceived to be an area of illogic and contradiction in the Church’s stance.

The Catholic Church, Potts notes, does allow the destruction of embryos in certain situations. For instance, if a mother develops an ectopic pregnancy — an often fatal condition in which an embryo develops in the fallopian tubes or abdomen instead of in the uterus — termination is permitted. Potts wrote:

Attempts are made to justify surgery to abort an ectopic pregnancy on the grounds that the Fallopian tube is diseased, but some ectopic embryos can go to term and produce a viable child. We can agree that in certain circumstances the life of the embryo may be terminated, showing that conservative and liberal interpretations of early embryonic life are divided by statistics, not by moral absolutes.

Potts argues that the Vatican, by determining when it is and is not acceptable to destroy an embryo, based on statistics, leaves the realm of morality and makes a scientific argument — except without any science. Rather, it is a scientific argument founded in statements about morality. (More on Time.com: Building a Brighter Kid: Consider IVF)

A further complication, Potts argues, is the mistaken notion that humans must relinquish moral judgments to God:

Daniel Callahan, the Catholic ethicist, gave a twentieth century gloss to [St Augustine's] ancient tradition when he wrote, “To say, for instance, that God forbids the taking of ‘innocent’ life while conceding — as I think we must — that it is left up to a man to define what an innocent life is, is to fail to see that the only possible meaning this rule can have is the meaning human beings choose to give it . . . To place the solution to these problems in the hands of God is to misjudge God’s role and misuse human reason and freedom.”

Despite Papal objections to IVF, use of the technique has continued to grow: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the use of artificial reproductive technologies has increased by nearly 75% in the past 10 years.

For the many Catholic couples who have discovered the joy of children through IVF, perhaps the celebration of Edwards’ Nobel win around the world offers an added measure of absolution.

More on Time.com:

A New Way to Predict IVF Success: Film the Embryo

A New Artificial Ovary May Someday Boost Women’s Success with In Vitro

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