In vitro fertilization (IVF) is a procedure used to create a viable embryo in a laboratory setting in reproductive medicine. In the most basic terms, sperm and eggs are collected and then combined in an incubator to facilitate fertilization. When the sperm fertilizes the egg and a healthy embryo forms, it is manually transferred to the uterus of the mother who will carry the fetus. IVF has become a very popular procedure among people for whom natural conception is either difficult or impossible. However, certain churches and religious organizations oppose the procedure for various reasons.
Surplus Embryos and Dignitas Personae
Even for healthy women under 35, ideal biological candidates for motherhood, IVF will only result in a birth about one-third of the time. The odds are longer for older women. For this reason, several embryos are created. If one embryo transfer fails, other attempts are possible. When pregnancy occurs before all of the embryos have been transferred, there are extras left over in the lab. In some cases, IVF recipients pay a recurring fee to have them stored for future use. Unwanted surplus embryos can be donated, with permission, to another couple or disposed of, especially if found to have defects.
The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the official religious body responsible for overseeing Catholic Church doctrine, published an instruction entitled “Dignitas Personae.” The instruction speaks out strongly against in vitro fertilization and the destruction of surplus embryos on the grounds that focusing only on a positive clinical outcome disregards the life and humanity of each embryo.
Agreement and Dissent
Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, expressed a view similar to that of the Catholic Church, saying that the "grotesque reality" of IVF is that human life is inevitably destroyed in the form of surplus embryos. Judaism has grappled with the issue of surplus embryos as well, but sees the issue in more shades of gray than either the Dignitas Personae instruction or Mohler. Judaism holds that the passive destruction of embryos (by thawing and natural death) can be permissible, but active destruction -- such as destruction in the course of research -- cannot.
It is the official ruling of the Catholic Church, as voiced in the Dignitas Personae instruction, that attempting to separate conception and birth from the “personal act” of marital sex is unethical. According to the church, replacing natural conception with scientific processes dehumanizes embryos and leads to “blithe acceptance” of the destruction of human life.
More Permissive Religious Views
Although the Catholic Church is arguably the most outspoken religious authority opposing IVF, it is not the only religious body with opinions on the subject. The United Methodist Church, a mainstream Protestant denomination, passed a resolution on the subject of IVF in 2004. It resolved that IVF is an acceptable option as long as care is taken by couples and clinicians to prevent the overproduction of embryos.
Sunni Islam also permits IVF, with some caveats. Specifically, the sperm and eggs used must be from the parents wishing to conceive, and a physician must carry out the procedure. Third-party donor eggs and sperm are prohibited. This makes the Sunni Islamic view very similar to the Jewish view. The rabbinical consensus is that God's commandment to multiply and populate the world is important enough to permit the use of reproductive technologies, so long as the husband's sperm and wife's eggs are used.
In Hinduism, sperm donations are permitted, so long as the sperm comes from one of the husband's close relatives.
- American Pregnancy Association: In Vitro Fertilization - IVF
- The Vatican: Instruction Dignitas Personae On Certain Bioethical Questions
- AlbertMohler.com: “A Rather Unexpected Aspect of IVF”
- UMC: Ethics of Embryonic Stem Cell Research
- NIH.gov: Making muslim babies - IVF and Gamete Donation in Sunni Versus Shi’a Islam
- Jewish Virtual Library: Assisted Reproduction and Judaism
- IVF-Worldwide.com: IVF - Hindu
- Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images News/Getty Images