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Is the Catholic Church's Ban on IVF Unfair?
In January 2020, two couples in Los Angeles found themselves exchanging 3-month-olds after discovering that their embryos had been switched during in vitro fertilization (IVF).
“We missed an entire year of our daughter’s life,” Daphna Cardinale told the Los Angeles Times. “I didn’t get to experience being pregnant with her or birthing her; we missed her entire newborn period; we never saw our baby’s entrance in the world or cuddled her in her first seconds of life.” After genetic testing revealed that the couples had been caring for infants who were unrelated to them, the parents signed gestational carrier contracts to formalize the exchange of custody of their children.
The dark realities of IVF
Heartbreaking as this story is, blunders such as these are all too common in the fertility industry, and embryo mix-ups are just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to the high price tag (upwards of $12,000 a cycle) and low success rate of IVF (11-37%), women who employ IVF face significantly increased health risks for both themselves and their infants, including gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, hemorrhaging, preterm labor, low birth weight, birth defects and autism. Additionally, couples face decisions about what to do with leftover embryos (unless, of course, they are lost by accidental thawing in power outages). And those are merely the complications that arise for couples using their own genetic material and carrying genetically related children.
When donors become involved, parents ostensibly select sperm or eggs on the basis of genetic information that has historically been misleading or even false, such as the so-called genius sperm bank that allowed a man with schizophrenia to become father to 36 children. Further complications arise when couples resort to surrogacy, a practice in which another woman serves as the “rented womb” or “incubator” as she is often referred to in gestational carrier contracts. These types of arrangements have resulted in fierce custody disputes when surrogates have bonded with the infants they carry, surrogates being left with a baby and the bill when intended parents abandon the contract, and even forced abortions to “reduce” multiple pregnancies or when the baby they carry has been found to be “defective” in some way, usually with Down syndrome or some other genetic defect.
To call these situations “complicated” or “messy” dramatically underplays the enormity of the complexities involved when we pluck the creation of new human life out of the loving embrace of father and mother and relocate it to the laboratory. And yet, none of these medical, legal and ethical complexities comprise the primary objections of the Catholic Church when it comes to in vitro fertilization. Rather, these are the tragic fruits of a practice that is, at its core, fundamentally opposed to the goods of marriage itself.
The Church and IVF
The Church’s objections to IVF are rooted in the meaning of marriage and the language of the body…