Children are a gift from God. They are the blessing of the covenant love shared between husband and wife. Each child is an unique, precious individual, a union of body and soul, made in God’s image and likeness. Children are a “good” of marriage, a good in which couples ought to want to share. Thereby, the Cathechism recognizes that “couples who discover that they are sterile suffer greatly” (#2374).
A couple may find help in conceiving a child through advances in medical technology. However, we must proceed with caution: Just because a certain technology is available does not necessarily entail that it is morally good and ought to be used. As with other issues, the Church evaluates technology in aiding conception and reproduction from truth principles: “…The respect, defense, and promotion of man; his ‘primary and fundamental right’ to life; his dignity as a person who is endowed with a spiritual soul and with moral responsibility, and who is called to beatific communion with God” (Donum vitae, Intro. 1). Never can we judge technology simply by its efficiency, its utilty even at the expense of others, or some prevailing ideology.
We must also remember that each child possesses genuine rights: A child has the inviolable right to life from the moment of conception until natural death. A child has the right to be respected as a person from the moment of conception. A child has the right to be “the fruit” of the conjugal love of his parents, who are united in marriage: “The transmission of human life is entrusted by nature to a personal and conscious act and as such is subject to the all-holy laws of God: immutable and inviolable laws which must be recognized and observed” (Pope John XXIII, Mater et magistra). Finally, a child has the right to be born. Each of us has the responsibility of guarding these rights for the defenseless child. Never must we slip into thinking that anyone has the right to a child at any cost, or that a child is like a piece of property to be had (Donum vitae, II, 8).
Given this foundation, we can address the techniques of in vitro fertilization, artificial insemination and surrogate motherhood. First, we need to be clear about the techniques themselves (which is not easy because of the jargon): In vitro fertilization involves the conception of the ovum outside of the mother in a test tube or a petri dish. Usually multiple ova are harvested (through hyper-ovulation and laprascopy), fertilized with sperm collected through masturbation, and cultivated for several days. Each embryo may be transferred one at a time for implantation into the uterus. Unfortunately, usually several attempts are made before implantation is achieved. The remaining ova are frozen for further implantation or destroyed.
Artificial insemination injects previously collected sperm into the genital tracts of the mother. This sperm is normally obtained through an act of masturbation.
Finally, surrogate motherhood involves transferring the conceived ovum into the uterus of a woman who is not the genetic mother, or impregnating a woman with the sperm of a man other than her husband. This mother will bear the child, whom she will surrender upon birth.
Moreover, the question can be further analyzed by whether the technique involved is heterologous (where the genetic material– the gametes– comes from at least one donor other than the spouses joined in marriage) or homologous (where the genetic material comes from the spouses joined in marriage).
Since heterologous in vitro fertilization, artificial insemination, and surrogate motherhood involve the donation and the use of genetic material of someone other than the mother or father, who are joined in marriage as husband and wife, the marriage covenant is violated. These acts, thereby, entail adultery, morally speaking. In the case of a surrogate mother who does not supply the ovum but will just bear the baby, this woman outside of the marriage covenant is receiving the embryo and bearing the child, thereby usurping the privilege of the natural mother and the right of the child to be born of a natural mother. In all, these techniques are “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” (Donum vitae II, 2). Therefore, any case of heterologous in vitro fertilization, artificial insemination, or surrogate motherhood is considered “gravely immoral” (Catechism, #2376).
The cases of homologous in vitro fertilization and artificial insemination which involve the genetic material of husband and wife united in marriage may at first glance seem compassionate in helping a couple conceive their own child. Returning to the basic truth principles, problems are inherent in the techniques. Homologous in vitro fertilization bypasses the natural expression of marital love and conception takes place outside of the mother. Generally, the technique proceeds as follows: Sperm is gathered through an act of masturbation; several ova are gathered through laparoscopy. The conception that occurs– whether from fertilization in a petri dish or test tube is not the fruit of the natural marriage act ordered to procreation. Keep in mind that several ova are fertilized (usually 8 to 10), but each one is a unique individual, a new human being. After being cultured about 40 hours, the embryos are transferred, one at a time, to the uterine cavity, where hopefully implantation will occur. Recent statistics indicate that pregnancy results 24.1% of the time with a delivery rate of 16.8% of the time. However, what happens to the remaining conceived ova in the petri dish? These ova are frozen or destroyed, and yet we consider them human beings with a right to life. The Church expresses legitimate fear: “Homologous IVF [in vitro fertilization] and ET [embryo transfer] is brought about outside the bodies of the couple through actions of third parties whose competence and technical activity determine the success of the procedure. Such fertilization 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” (Donum vitae, #II,6).
Homologous artificial insemination involves the injection of the father’s sperm into the fallopian tubes of the mother, where hopefully conception will occur. The key problem here is the method for gathering sperm, which is usually done through an act of masturbation. Masturbation is a denial of the husband’s free giving of himself to his wife in their natural act of marital love, and thereby wrong.
Therefore, applying the truth principles to the techniques involved, we see the moral problems at hand. We must at this point be careful not to let a sense of compassion for a couple having difficulty conceiving a child move us to abandon the truth principles. If we would abandon these principles– which to some extent society has already done– we will have a disaster. Sadly, we have seen what can happen when the technology is allowed to function outside the moral principles:
— In 1979, the Gay and Lesbian Parents Coalition International was founded as an association of families with homosexual parents, where two men have paid a woman to bear “their” child using her ovum and uterus, or two women have bought sperm for artificial insemination to conceive “their” baby.
— In 1988, Dr. Lee Silver, an associate professor of biology at Princeton told the House Human Resources and Intergovernmental Resources Subcommittee of Congress of his research to adapt men and even chimpanzees and gorillas to gestate a fetus.
— In 1990, the Tennessee State Circuit Court tried the case of Mary Sue Davis, who sued her estranged husband, Junior Lewis Davis, for possession of seven frozen embryos held in suspended animation. During their nine years of marriage, they had difficulty conceiving a child and so they resorted to in vitro fertilization. Nine ova were fertilized in a petri dish. After two unsuccessful implantations, they divorced. Mrs. Davis argued in court that the remaining embryos belonged to her and should be implanted so she could have a child; on the other hand, Mr. Davis said he no longer wanted to be the father of any of these “potential” children. To resolve this legal nightmare, the judge had to choose as the basis for his ruling either property law or child custody law. In the end, he ruled they were human beings whose best interests would be served if they were implanted and born, even though this judicial interpretation contradicted the precedents of Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion and declared the unborn child a non-person.
— In 1995, the Center for Reproductive Health of the University of California at Irvine has been charged with giving the fertilized ova of one couple to another couple, hence allowing the latter to bear the former’s child, albeit unknowingly.
In all of these immoral let alone bizarre cases, does anyone think of the child? The child simply becomes property, something to have.
Nevertheless, technology which conforms to the truth principles can be used to help couples conceive a child. Catholic hospitals have developed two morally acceptable procedures: Intrauterine Insemination (IUI) and Gamate Intra-fallopian Tube Transfer (GIFT). In Intrauterine Insemination, a husband and wife express their love in a natural way. Sperm are collected by the husband using a perforated Silastic sheath. The sperm are then transferred directly to the uterine cavity, increasing the chances for conception.
In the Gamete Intrafallopian Tube Transfer, husband and wife express their love in a natural way. Again the husband uses a perforated Silastic sheath for the gathering of sperm. Ova are gathered through laparoscopy. The gametes are kept separate, and then transferred into the fallopian tubes where hopefully conception will occur. According to statistics, conception occurs 33.5% of the time with a delivery rate of 26.3%.
Although this explanation if IUI and GIFT is simple, these procedures respect the act of marital love and the conception of the child within the mother. Here the technology assists but does not replace God’s design.
Without doubt, a sterile couple who wants a child so badly bears great pain. However, this couple must unite themselves to the cross of the Lord. Here such a couple can open their hearts and homes through adoption to an unwanted child. Couples can also help others families who may face financial difficulties or face the burden of caring for a handicapped child. In the end, we must preserve the moral law, for to abandon the truth principles condemns us to disaster.