Babies In Test Tubes

December 2005. When I give talks about in vitro fertilization (IVF), I usually ask my audience the following question: "How many of you know a baby born by IVF, or know a couple who has tried to get pregnant this way?" Usually about half the hands in the room go up. Then I ask them to raise their hands if the couple was Catholic. Virtually all the same hands go up a second time. I have the sense that Catholics are making use of IVF at about the same rate as non-Catholics, and that most of them are only vaguely aware of the Church's position on making test tube babies.
 
When asked why IVF might be immoral, people will usually mention the extra embryos that are frozen or discarded. Such embryos are certainly a serious concern, but they are not the primary reason the Church insists the procedure is immoral. Even if IVF were done without making any extra embryos at all, this way of making babies would still be morally objectionable, because the procedure strikes at the very core and meaning of marital sexuality. It substitutes an act of laboratory manipulation for an act of bodily union between spouses. It turns procreation into production. IVF is really the flip-side of contraception: rather than trying to have sex without babies, we try to have babies without sex. Because many Americans have come to view sex largely in terms of recreation, ignoring its procreative orientation, they have lost touch with the grave violations that occur both in contraceptive sex and in making babies in test tubes.
 
Clearly, the moral violations that occur in IVF do not reflect upon the child, who is innocent. It is not the baby's fault in any way. The child has no control over how he or she got here. Regardless of how a baby comes into the world, whether by IVF, whether by adultery, by pre-marital sex, or even by cloning, that baby is always a gift and a blessing. The problem with IVF is not with the child, but with a decision made by the parents concerning how to pursue the satisfaction of their own desire for a child. In other words, babies, even when very much desired, should not be brought into the world by making use of disordered means such as adultery, pre-marital sex, IVF, or cloning. They should be brought into the world only within that intimate love-giving moment of the marital embrace. Children are entitled to come into being as the fruit of a singular parental love that is uniquely manifested in the spousal moment of bodily surrender to each other. Through the incredibly rich language of the parents' bodies, through their body to body contact, the new body of their child is engendered. In their one-flesh union, they enflesh new life. That intimate bodily embrace is a sacred action that only spouses may share, and it represents the unique and privileged locus, by God's design, in which human love is translated into new life. IVF violates this design by replacing that love-giving act with an act of production, whereby we manufacture our own children in petri dishes and test tubes, as if they were products or objects to be manhandled at will. In this way, IVF incidentalizes and adulterates sex, reducing it to another arena for manipulation according to our own desires. When we take this immoral step, others quickly follow, including the freezing or even the discarding of our own children, as if they were a form of medical waste. By making test tube babies, we first violate the sacred human act by which we hand on life. It is then but a short step to go further and violate the very life itself that we produce in the laboratory.
 
Is it not reasonable and right to insist, as the Church does, that new human life should be the fruit of married love, carried out through bodily self-giving between spouses, this act which allows each partner to enrich the other with the total gift of himself or herself? The marital act embodies spousal love directly, exclusively and authentically. Can we say the same for IVF, where the woman upsets her delicate hormonal cycles and subjects herself to repetitive injections with powerful drugs to make her body produce unnaturally large numbers of eggs, and where the man may be expected to go into a back room with salacious magazines and videos to "provide a sample"? Can we really say that IVF embodies spousal love in an authentic and exclusive way when a lab technician ends up being the causal agent of the pregnancy, instead of the spouses themselves through a sacred act proper to their married love? By any stretch, can we honestly believe that IVF is faithful to God's design for marriage?
 
We sometimes tend to brush the ungainly and unsightly parts of the procedure under the rug and instead try to focus on the result, the baby, so as to mitigate the disturbing reality of what we are really engaging in. Some couples also may rest their approval for IVF on a perfunctory assumption, namely: "We have a right to a child when we get married, so any means, even IVF, should be okay." But the deeper truth is that we never have a right to a baby. A child is not our property or our possession. Rather, a child is a gift, one we hope God will send us, one we stand ready and eager to receive, but certainly not an entitlement or a right for us. When we marry, we properly have a right to those beautiful, life-giving acts we call marital acts, which open us up to the mysterious divine spark at the heart of human love. Those remarkable marital acts are the only human acts appropriately ordered to engendering the incredible gift of new human life.
 
Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D. earned his doctorate in neuroscience from Yale and did post-doctoral work at Harvard. He is a priest of the diocese of Fall River, MA, and serves as the Director of Education at The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. See www.ncbcenter.org