The medicine and morals of in-vitro fertilization


By Dr. Tim Millea

On July 25, 2020, Louise Joy Brown will celebrate her 42nd birthday. In 1978, the news spread quickly and worldwide about Louise’s birth. Media announced her arrival as the first “test tube baby,” which was not quite factual. Louise was conceived in a Petri dish in a lab in Oldham, England, but she indeed was the first successful birth with the use of in vitro fertilization (IVF).

Dr. Millea

Since then, there have been at least 1 million IVF births internationally and the global IVF market is estimated to be $15 billion annually. Even before Louise’s birth, the Catholic Church expressed concerns about the use of “assisted reproductive technology” (ART), with consistent opposition to some of the methods. In the past few years, studies of children born using these techniques have raised additional concerns about the risks and potential long-term negative effects to the child.

In late 2019, Danish researchers reported a study of more than 1 million births from 1996 until 2015, including more than 3,000 babies born after frozen embryo transfer. In that group, the risk of childhood cancer was four times higher, especially for leukemia and nervous system tumors.


Three separate studies published in 2018 raise additional concerns. In Switzerland, cardiologists studied hypertension (high blood pressure) in adolescents. That diagnosis was seen in 15% of adolescents conceived through ART, while only 3% of the non-ART group were hypertensive. An Italian study of more than 61,000 births revealed the rate of premature births to be twice as often in IVF babies than in non-IVF. The third report, from Western Australia, studied 225,000 children born from 1994 to 2002, including more than 3,000 ART babies. The percentage of ART babies diagnosed with “severe intellectual disability” was 12.9%, more than twice the 5.9% seen in non-ART children.

From a medical perspective, consideration of the potential negative impact of ART, and particularly IVF, is necessary. In addition, from a moral and ethical viewpoint, we need to understand the use of these technologies. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 2376) is very clear in discussing this:

“Techniques that entail the dissociation of husband and wife, by the intrusion of a person other than the couple … are gravely immoral.” Procreation is a result of love between husband and wife, in cooperation with God, in the creation of a new human being. The use of IVF and similar techniques dissociates the sexual act from the procreative act and, as stated in CCC 2377, “…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.” A basic question needs to be addressed. “Does the technology assist the marriage act or replace it?” A newly formed human life should be initiated within the mother’s body and not external to it.

It is important to know that the Catholic Church is not opposed to all “modern” medical approaches to achieve pregnancy. While opposition remains firm to IVF, embryo adoption, surrogacy and cloning, other methods are morally acceptable, including Natural Family Planning (NFP), Natural Procreative Technology (NaPro), and hormonal modulation.

A growing number of clinics, most notably the Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction in Omaha, Nebraska, have had great success using these acceptable techniques for more than 30 years. The cost of these morally appropriate approaches is significantly lower than IVF, which can be tens of thousands of dollars for each round of procedures. The estimated success rate of pregnancy with IVF is less than 30% while NaPro has a success rate of 60-80%.

In IVF clinics, it is usually the case that several embryos are frozen for the couple. Father Tad Pacholczyk of the National Catholic Bioethics Center describes these as “frozen orphanages.” Each of these human beings is at risk of disposal, donation or experimentation. In 2018, IVF clinics in San Francisco and Cleveland reported “freezer failure,” resulting in the death of thousands of human embryos.

When implantation into the mother’s womb is performed, multiple embryos are used. Tragically, selective abortion of any “extra” or “undesirable” children is often carried out. This clearly leads to babies becoming a commodity, as the parents and doctors pursue their vision of a “perfect designer baby.”

There is no greater devotion than that of a mother for her child, and the emotional impact for a woman who wants to conceive yet cannot is immeasurable. Sarah, Abraham’s wife of the Old Testament, and Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, were both recipients of God’s grace with a son after much prayer and waiting.

The desire to have a child is incredibly powerful, yet that desire cannot take precedence over the value and dignity of each human being. The embryo is much, much more than a “fertilized egg.” It is a person, deserving of the respect, protection and dignity we all should receive. It is important to know that options to the morally unacceptable means to conceive children are readily available, very successful and allow an ethical path to the God-given blessing of parenthood.

(Dr. Millea is a physician, president of the St. Thomas Aquinas Guild of the Quad Cities and member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish, Davenport.)

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