What the Catholic Church teaches about in vitro fertilization

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,  

In my column for the March 17, 2024, issue of Catholic Times, I wrote that the Alabama Supreme Court was “absolutely correct” in its recent decision protecting the lives of embryonic children created through in vitro fertilization (IVF). Today I would like to delve more deeply into why the Catholic Church considers in vitro fertilization to be wrong. This is important because many people who consider themselves to be pro-life were mistakenly critical of the Alabama Supreme Court, which did not actually ban in vitro fertilization, but in fact protected embryonic children as human beings whose lives are sacred from the moment of conception.

Pro-life advocates are misguided who think that all means of bringing children into the world are good and should be fostered. There is a natural empathy for infertile couples who desperately want to have children. They wonder why the Catholic Church would not support in vitro fertilization as a way to help these infertile couples to have children and start a family. Yes, the Catholic Church does want to help such couples, but the means to do so must be morally licit, such as adoption, since the end does not justify the means.

First, it might be helpful to make sure there is clarity about terminology. The phrase “in vitro” is Latin for “in glass.” It refers to a glass laboratory dish or test tube used by scientists and doctors. The phrase is contrasted with in vivo, which means, “in a live person,” or in utero, which means “in the uterus or womb” of the woman. According to the Yale Fertility Center, “IVF is a procedure that involves retrieving a woman’s eggs and a man’s sperm sample and combining the two in a laboratory dish. A fertilized embryo — or sometimes more than one embryo — is then transferred to the woman’s uterus.” 

The problems with in vitro fertilization were explained in a statement issued on March 8, 2024, by Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia, who serves as Chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Pro-Life Activities, in which he said, “Children have a right to be born to their married mother and father, through a personal act of self-giving love. IVF, however well-intended, breaches this bond and these rights and, instead, treats human beings like products or property. This is all the more true in situations involving anonymous donors or surrogacy. This of course does not mean that our brothers and sisters who were conceived by IVF are somehow ‘less than’ anyone else. Every person has immeasurable value regardless of how he or she was conceived — and that applies, absolutely, to all children created through IVF, the majority of whom have not been and may never be born. The fact is that, in the IVF industry, many embryos are never transferred to a mother’s womb, but are destroyed or indefinitely frozen, and, of those who are transferred, only a fraction survive to be eventually born. All told, there are millions of human beings who have been killed or potentially permanently frozen by this industry. This cannot be the answer to the very real cross of fertility challenges. In efforts to bring about new life, we cannot turn our face from the many more lives that are cut short and extinguished in the process.”

The USCCB’s Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities followed up with a report called, “In Vitro Fertilization: The Human Cost,” which says, “Some public statements wrongly suggest that a recent court ruling in Alabama, allowing parents to sue an IVF clinic for causing the wrongful death of their frozen embryonic children, is unprecedented. But in 2021, a jury awarded $15 million to families whose frozen eggs and embryos were destroyed due to the failure of a freezer that a California IVF clinic knew was defective. In 2018, at least 22 lawsuits were brought against an IVF clinic at University Hospitals in Cleveland for allowing over 4,000 frozen eggs and embryos to die because a remote alarm system to warn of temperature fluctuations had been turned off. After five years of legal disputes, the lawsuits were settled for an undisclosed amount.”

With regard to the risk of health problems for children conceived by IVF, the report quotes a 2020 study in Germany that found, “The risk of congenital malformations is approximately one-third higher in children conceived with the aid of IVF technology than in other children.” Included are malformations of the cardiac, musculo-skeletal, and genitourinary systems.

In 2017, physicians at the University of Pennsylvania reached similar conclusions: IVF is “associated with adverse obstetric and perinatal outcomes as well as congenital anomalies.” A 2013 study found that children born through IVF had a 2 to 3 times higher risk for a type of muscle cancer and a type of liver cancer.

Studies also indicate increased health risks to women who conceive by IVF. A 2022 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that women who conceived with “assisted reproductive technology” such as IVF were much more likely than other mothers with hospital deliveries to suffer from “adverse obstetric outcomes” including acute kidney injury, arrhythmia, and placental abruption.”

By producing human embryos outside the womb, IVF clinics expose them to various forms of manipulation, including the risk that they will be “mixed up” between families without parents’ knowledge or consent. This has led to scandals, aggrieved parents, and lawsuits.

I am aware that there are couples who have had a child by IVF, not knowing that there are grave moral objections to in vitro fertilization. The Catholic Church teaches that a person is not morally culpable of sin if he or she is not aware that a certain action is sinful. That is why it is important for us to be well-informed about this very important issue that affects so many people.

May God give us this grace. Amen. pastedGraphic.png