Feb 15, 2016
I have a couple questions for my assignment regarding IVF.
What is the catholic teaching on IVF?
How would you describe the catholic church’s approach to bioethics in general?
How is this approach relevant to modern society?
What are some bible scriptures which reflect the catholic church’s teaching on IVF?
Do you believe that in an extraordinary set of circumstances, IVF could be justified of the intention was good? Why?
Do you believe that with new advances with technology in this modern era, the church’s stance on IVF should be revised?
If the unethical procedures of IVF were revised to be more in touch with the Catholic church’s views, i.e the creation of multiple zygotes, the discarding and experimentation of zygotes, do you think that the church’s stance on IVF should be revised?Thanks
Asked at 10:57 am on February 15th 2016
Hi Paige, I’ll have a shot at answering your interesting questions, I think a few of them amount to the same question, but we’ll see how it goes:
1. What is the catholic teaching on IVF?
One of the big developments in the Catholic understanding of sexual relations in marriage occurred during and after the Second Vatican Council. Basically it included an appreciation that there are two dimensions to the act of marriage, what’s called the ‘unitive’ dimension, by which the couple become, as Jesus says in Mt 19:6 and Mk 10:8, ‘one flesh.’ The other dimension is called the ‘procreative’ dimension, which means that each act of marriage should be open to the procreation of children. While contraception takes away the procreative aspect, what’s wrong with IVF is that it removes the unitive aspect, since there’s a ‘third’ involved, the medical team who are facilitating the fertilization ‘in vitro,’ literally in a glass container (of course there’s the related method sometimes known as ET). The point is that the act of marriage expresses the love of the two spouses, and that love may give rise to a child, whose existence is a gift from God. As Pope Benedict put in when addressing the Pontifical Academy for Life in 2012:
The human and Christian dignity of procreation, in fact, does not consist in a “product,” but in its connection with the conjugal act, the expression of the love of the husband and wife, of their union that is not only biological but also spiritual.
2. How would you describe the catholic church’s approach to bioethics in general?
Why don’t you check out easily available on the internet documents like Pope John Paul II’s letters on morality and on bioethical morality, Splendor Veritatis (The Splendour of the Truth) and Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life – this last one was published as a short book by the quite non-religious New York Times in admiration of its clarity and humanity. Then there’s Donum Vitae, the Vatican document on IFV, written by then Cardinal Ratzinger in 1987, that was studied at the United Nations as the clearest ethical treatment of the issues involved. Donum Vitae has lots of references to the teachings of Pope Pius XII, who way back in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s was setting out a properly human context within which topics like IVF should be considered – long before IVF was a possibility. So I’d say the Catholic Church has been ahead of the posse in terms of an ethical framework for these issues. In the light of the Old and New Testament, and of a well-grounded philosophical understanding of the human person, its bioethical tradition seems to have no competition anywhere else.
3. How is this approach relevant to modern society?
While modern medicine is keeping a far higher percentage of humankind alive than at any other time in history, there’s always the danger – as Aldous Huxley warned in Brave New World and C. S. Lewis pointed out in The Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength – that we allow the technology to swamp our humanity. The Church’s approach to modern medicine has of course been highly favourable, while warning of that danger – that just because something is technically possible doesn’t mean it’s morally alright. Not unlike the considerations of people like Robert Oppenheimer when he was involved in the Manhattan Project that produced the atomic bomb.
4. What are some bible scriptures which reflect the catholic church’s teaching on IVF?
Catholics believe in Jesus’ promise that the Spirit of truth will show you the things to come (see Jn 16:13) and his promise to Peter that he’d be responsible for His Church until the end of time (see Mt 16:18 – 19), so we accept the official teaching of the Church, called its ‘magisterium,’ as a continuation of Christ’s teaching. Obviously we needn’t expect to find detailed scriptural mention of technical issues that only became possible since 1978 with the first ‘test-tube baby.’ Still, I’ve already referred to Jesus’ remark that the two spouses become ‘one flesh,’ which I think could be seen as pointing to what’s been called the ‘unitive’ aspect of marriage, a unity, as Pope Benedict said, isn’t just of bodies but of spirit, a couple united by self-sacrificing love.
At the very end of Donum Vitae there’s a reference to another scriptural passage that I think covers the deep respect that must be given to every single child that’s conceived – as you know, up to now, IVF procedures involve the destruction or ‘freezing’ of multiple unborn human beings. Here’s the last two sentences:
In the light of the truth about the gift of human life and in the light of the moral principles which flow from that truth, everyone is invited to act in the area of responsibility proper to each and, like the good Samaritan, to recognize as a neighbour even the littlest among the children of men (Cf . Lk 10: 2 9-37). Here Christ’s words find a new and particular echo: “What you do to one of the least of my brethren, you do unto me” (Mt 25:40).
5. Do you believe that in an extraordinary set of circumstances, IVF could be justified of the intention was good? Why?
When an act is wrong in itself, as the Church considers IVF procedures to be, even when the sperm and ovum are those of a single married couple (and as you know, surrogacy is becoming more and more common, along with various permutations of parents), a good intention can’t make a bad act good. Just imagine the moral chaos that’d result if we accepted that ‘the end justifies the means’ – all sorts of actions could be justified by the good end intended. It’s the central issue in Goethe’s Faust, where the devil is tempting Mephistopheles to do an evil action for the sake of a higher good, or of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, where Raskolnikov justifies his murder of a woman pawnbroker he considers a social parasite so he can pay for his studies, which will be aimed at serving humanity.
6. Do you believe that with new advances with technology in this modern era, the church’s stance on IVF should be revised?
7. If the unethical procedures of IVF were revised to be more in touch with the Catholic church’s views, i.e the creation of multiple zygotes, the discarding and experimentation of zygotes, do you think that the church’s stance on IVF should be revised?
Let’s put these two questions together: while the consequences of IVF as practised at present are horrendous – parents choosing a child at the cost of the destruction or storage with inevitable destruction foreseeable – even if one day IVF procedures didn’t involve the selection from multiple eggs of just one, it would still be unethical for the reason I gave while answering your first question.
Does this mean there’s no hope for couples who wish to have a child by means that are accepted as moral by the Church. Not at all, if you check out on the internet what’s called NaPro (natural procreation), you’ll find there are many people successfully having children this way. NaPro assists the couple without interfering in the natural act of procreating a child. The difference is that, because it’s a natural method, there’s no expensive high tech, no huge profit-making, and the doctors involved are there to help, not exploit the couple (as unfortunately can happen with IFV clinics encouraging couples to try and try again, when they may suspect further attempts won’t succeed). In the end of the day, some couples will remain infertile, so to quote Pope Benedict in that 2012 address again:
I would like again to remind the spouses who experience infertility that their vocation to marriage is not frustrated because of this. The husband and wife, because of their baptismal and matrimonial vocations themselves, are always called to work together with God in creating a new humanity. The vocation to love, in fact, is a vocation to the gift of self and this is a possibility that cannot be impeded by any organic condition. Therefore, where science cannot find an answer, the answer that brings light comes from Christ.
Very best, Fr Brendan
Replied at 11:00 pm on February 17th 2016