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In Vitro Fertilization and the Welfare of Human Embryos

In my bioethical work over the past twenty years, I have found the morality of in vitro fertilization (IVF) to be one of the most difficult issues for sincere people to grasp.  One reason is that IVF involves bringing life into existence, not necessarily killing it.  People often have friends who have conceived using IVF, or a niece or nephew or grandchild conceived that way.  They love these children.  They felt distress at the parents’ infertility.  They now feel the world is a better place because of the children.  Anything that casts doubt on the morality of their conception causes them to feel defensive.

And yet, the ethical problems raised by IVF only continue to get worse.  Two recent reports remind us of this.  The first [1] was of a Chinese boy born to a surrogate four years after his parents died in a car crash; his name is Tiantian (“Sweet”).  The second [2] was of a little girl, Emma Wren, who was successfully gestated after being frozen longer than any other human in history, 24 years.  The successful gestations, of course, are matters of great joy.  But the fact that these children were created by IVF and subjected to such conditions is very problematic.

I offer here a few arguments that might assist readers in speaking with friends or family about this form of artificial reproduction.

The first thing that needs to be emphasized is that a criticism of IVF is not an attack on the children conceived by it.  Every child is made in God’s image, is precious and equal in dignity to all.  This is true whether the child has been conceived through marital love, or through IVF, or in a one-night stand, or in rape.  The child’s intrinsic value is unaffected by the conditions in which he or she came into existence.

In fact, it is precisely because of their intrinsic value that we concern ourselves with the manner of their conceptions.  For just as we can sin grievously against children whose lives have already begun, we can also sin against children in their beginnings.  Since they cannot ensure that they are treated rightly when they come into being, we—potential parents—need to ensure it.

The Main Argument Against IVF

Because of their intrinsic value as human individuals, children should come into existence consistent with their status as persons, that is, in a fully personal way.  The only way befitting their dignity is through the procreative-unitive love of their parents.  The act of one-flesh self-giving entailed in marital intercourse is the only fully personal context for the conceiving of new life.  As William E. May so often said: “Children should be the fruit of married love.  We owe this to them.”  This is why the Catholic Church speaks about a “child’s right to be conceived and brought into the world in marriage and from marriage” (Donum Vitae [3], II, A, 2).

When children are created using IVF, they are not begotten in and through marital love.  Their coming-to-be is the result of a laboratory technique.  They are literally products of a lab technician’s skill.  Those who commissioned their creation may be firmly committed to loving them later, but this does not negate the fact that in their first moments of existence, these children have been instrumentalized and depersonalized.

Parents are co-creators; and their children are equal to them in dignity.  Parents therefore have an obligation to affirm this in the way their children are conceived.  But in all making—all production—the value of what’s produced is not equal to its producers.  All products stand in a relationship of object-to-maker.  The parents may love the child they gestate.  But they wrongly consent to having him brought into the world as a product.

Some may feel offended at this, especially those who firmly reject the exploitation of embryonic children.  Unfortunately, these are a minority of IVF parents.  The majority consent to the creation of multiple embryos, the eugenic selecting-out and destruction of weaker ones; the freezing of spare ones; and dangerous experimentation (such as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis [PGD]) on those they have selected.

And all IVF parents consent to the implantation of multiple embryos knowing that only a small percentage will survive.  Purposefully subjecting an innocent human being to life-threatening danger is only rarely justifiable.  But to bring people into existence with the intention of subjecting them to this kind of risk is terribly unjust. Would we want someone to have done this to us?

Finally, the logic of making, and the relation of object to maker, seems to justify destroying embryos and fetuses.  We not only make things we want, we destroy things we don’t want.  IVF parents want a child.  If, however, the child does not measure up, say they find in utero that he has unexpected deformities or diseases, the child might quickly become unwanted.  If it can be made, it can be unmade.  The IVF embryo and fetus have become a kind of property to his parents.   When property ceases to please, it can be thrown away.  The faulty logic of IVF extends to justifying eugenic screening of IVF embryos, ‘selective reduction’ abortions and eugenic abortions.

This is not hyperbole.  This bitter logic of “making” has led to the colossal disregard for the welfare of millions of embryos worldwide, embryos who have been created, experimented on, subjected to horrible risks, frozen without hope, created from three parents or made by gametes purchased on-line, destroyed as “property” in divorce proceedings, shunted off to surrogates, have had their germ lines engineered; etc.

The desire for children is natural and God given, as is the desire for sex.  But when the fulfillment of some desire means the violation of intrinsic human dignity, the desire needs to yield.  We need to begin thinking about procreation from the vantage point of the dignity of children and not merely the fulfillment of adult desire.