In Vitro Fertilization

and Catholic Teaching


By Rev. Fr Clement Mary, C.SS.R.

Twenty-five years ago the birth of the first ‘test-tube baby’ to survive to full term was news internationally. The delivery of Louise Brown on 25 July, 1978 in Oldham, England as a result of In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) made medical history, and gynaecologists Robert Edwards and Peter Steptoe received the accolades of the scientific world. And yet the Vatican raised its voice to warn that the event would have “grave consequences for humanity”. Now, a quarter of a century later, and amidst all the celebrations marking the anniversary, it is fair to ask whether or not subsequent events have proven the Church right.

For Dr Edwards, now 77-year-old emeritus Professor of Human Reproduction at Cambridge University, the matter is clear, as he gave to understand in a recent interview with the London Times:

“I wanted to find out exactly who was in charge, whether it was God Himself or whether it was scientists in the laboratory - it was us! The Pope looked totally stupid. You can never ban anything. You can say, ‘hang on a minute’. But never say ‘never’, and never say that this is the worst decision for humankind, otherwise you can look a fool. Now there as many Roman Catholics coming for treatment as Protestants.”

Edwards seems to argue thus: If God were in charge, He would have stopped us succeeding at IVF. He did not, so either He does not exist, or He is powerless to stop us. Either way, we are in charge.

If scientists like Edwards are in charge, though, then the only restraint on their actions will be the limitations of today’s technology. Logically, tomorrow’s technology will bring them more power to do whatever they want.

In fact, the ultimate goal of IVF was never primarily to give children to childless parents. Adoption is an institution as old as mankind which has always catered for those parents not blessed with their own offspring, and most women seeking fertility treatment are too old to have a realistic chance of success anyway. As SPUC President Mgr Anthony Fisher notes, “IVF is in fact not a very successful technology. The best programmes report success rates of around 15% and this rate seems to have plateauxed. Women can keep going back for cycle after cycle, but for most after a long series of highly intrusive procedures and a roller-coaster of emotions there will be no child at the end. Evidence of serious psychological ill-effects of these procedures is now emerging, especially for women whom these new biotechnologies fail. In the next generation we are likely to have a whole cohort of women suffering post-IVF trauma just as in our generation we have had so many suffering from post-abortion trauma. And yet again we can expect denial all round.”

So if, as Professor Edwards himself admits, IVF is not primarily about “making couples happy”, what is its ultimate goal?

“It was a fantastic achievement”, he concedes modestly, “but it was about more than infertility. It was also about issues like stem cells and the ethics of human conception.” In other words, it was the next step to be taken, the next obstacle to be overcome on the road ahead to the Brave New World which technology will bring us. Now, as the aging scientist looks to the future, he is all in favour of cloning. With regard to pre-natal sex selection (whereby parents would be allowed to abort babies of unwanted gender) he says, “go ahead and use it. Those parents have to raise those children. Why should a politician tell me what I can and can’t do?” And Dr Peter Brinsden, Edwards’ successor at the Cambridgeshire clinic he founded, predicts that “in 50 years assisted conception will have almost become the norm. This is because screening techniques will have improved to such an extent that parents can make their children free of even minor defects.”

That is the destination of the voyage; IVF was merely a port of call on the way. And the understandable frustration of childless parents is merely a means to an end, something to be instrumentalised in order to bring about a eugenic agenda where even normally fertile parents will feel pressurised to have recourse to ‘assisted conception’ in order to eliminate any unwanted results in their offspring.

The Catholic Church, as even her enemies will tell you, condemns procured abortion, artificial insemination, in vitro fertilisation, surrogate motherhood, cloning, research on embryos, foetal harvesting, eugenic screening, prenatal selection, ‘designer’ babies and a whole host of other abominations with “grave consequences for humanity”.

Is the Church insensible to the joy of the parents of the more than a million babies who have been born through IVF since 1978, the joy on which men like Edwards trade for their credibility?

Of course not, but then again the Church does not attribute their creation to Messrs Edwards & Co. Every soul is created and infused directly by God into the matter He has made. Louise Brown, just as much as anyone else, can ask “who made me?” and receive the answer of the Penny Catechism: “God made me”. No scientist can achieve anything without the order of nature Almighty God has established, just as none will be any more successful in forcing Him to intervene directly in that order than King Herod was able to obtain a miracle from Our Lord through mockery. In His own good time God will call each soul to render an account of every thought, word, deed and omission in the inescapable light of His omniscience. And then He will have all eternity to reward them according to His Justice.

In the meantime those who discover the laws of nature only to deny the existence of their Author are doubly inexcusable: “For the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made. [...] Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools”; and so, according to their “hardness and impenitent heart”, they treasure up to themselves “wrath, against the day of wrath and revelation of the just judgment of God [...] Who will render to every man according to his works” [Romans I, 20-22; II, 6].

God is the exclusive Author of all Being, but we remain the authors of all sin. When those responsible for IVF are called to reckoning, they will find that anything on the credit side comes from God, but that the overwhelming burden of guilt for the iniquities of IVF will be laid to their account.

IVF is intrinsically and extrinsically wrong. For our contemporaries (and even our co-religionists), for whom might makes right, and who love not truth for its own sake but for the power that knowledge can bring, there is little chance of their coming to understand that a child “has the right to be the fruit of the specific act of the conjugal love of his parents” [Donum Vitae, 1987]. If they cannot understand that IVF, as the same Vatican document says, “is in itself illicit and in opposition to the dignity of procreation and of the conjugal union, even when everything is done to avoid the death of the human embryo”, nevertheless they may be brought to their senses when they see its inevitably evil consequences: millions have perished since 1969, when the first short-lived attempt at human fertilisation in vitro was achieved.

“For all its supposed and very real benefits for individual patients and the medical profession,” writes Mgr Fisher, “and for all our best efforts to imagine pro-life uses for these technologies, the sad fact is that IVF and related technologies are deadly and they threaten the nature of our society at a very fundamental level. IVF is deadly in several respects: (i) the normal protocol involves intentionally killing or immorally risking the lives of a great many embryonic people in order to achieve a live birth; (ii) it benefits immediately and draws directly from homicidal research; (iii) it is a by-product of the abortion revolution; (iv) it draws its participants into a corrupting mind-set which views people as consumer products, objects of domination, exploitation and violence; (v) it supports abortifacient research; and (vi) it sometimes covers up for infertility caused by abortion and related violence and irresponsibility. Were this not enough it also harms women, children and society.”

And so, amidst all the positive publicity surrounding IVF, the Church remembers the millions who have perished and prays for the conversion of those parents who have been misled by public opinion into thinking that what they have done is lawful, reminding them that “marriage does not confer upon the spouses the right to have a child, but only the right to perform those natural acts which are per se ordered to procreation.”

“The child” continues Donum Vitae, “is not an object to which one has a right, nor can he be considered as an object of ownership: rather, a child is a gift, ‘the supreme gift’ and the most gratuitous gift of marriage, and is a living testimony of the mutual giving of his parents”..

The passage of 25 years has only vindicated the Church, and as society plunges deeper into the eugenic abyss every day, we see the “grave consequences for humanity” realised before our very eyes. If the scientists really were in control, there would be no way out of that downward spiral, but, thankfully, they are not. God is in charge.