Made, not begotten: Why we said “No!” to in vitro fertilization

Published March 22, 2024

Catholic World Report

When my wife and I said “No” to in vitro fertilization, we assumed that we were rejecting our last hope of bearing children. Our years of infertility were unexplained and unresolved, despite the best efforts of the Catholic Ob/Gyn practice we had been going to. They had been thorough, and the physician who offered us a second opinion had nothing to add—except pushing us to try IVF.

We did not.

Despite this apparently being the final nail in the coffin of our hopes of conceiving children together, it was not a difficult decision; we had long ago concluded that the suffering of being barren was not a justification for sin.

Believing that IVF is wrong is a minority view, as demonstrated by the response to a recent Alabama Supreme Court decision. The court sided with a couple whose embryos had negligently been destroyed, ruling that human embryos, whether in the lab, or in the womb, are persons under state law. This decision did not ban IVF, but having to treat human embryos as, well, human, would crimp the style of the loosely regulated IVF industry. Democrats quickly pounced, denouncing embryonic personhood as a mortal threat to IVF, and Republicans, led by Donald Trump, folded as fast as they could, loudly proclaiming their love for IVF and disclaiming efforts to regulate it. Alabama Republicans quickly passed a law protecting IVF clinics from lawsuits brought in response to negligence or misconduct.

We should not expect much courage from politicians, but Christians are called to bear witness to the truth, regardless of what opinion polls show. And the truth is that IVF is wrong. As practiced, IVF is a moral catastrophe in which the fertility industry manufactures and destroys human embryos on a vast scale—tens or even hundreds of thousands every year in the US alone. This is done because creating more embryos offers more chances for a successful pregnancy. However, this also ensures a lot of discarded human lives, especially because the industry is aggressively eugenic, from providing sex-selection to culling embryos suspected of being inferior in some way. Additionally, IVF is integral to the evils of surrogacy, in which the well-to-do order children and gestate them by renting the wombs of poor and working-class women—the same people who endlessly invoke the specter of The Handmaid’s Tale cheer when homosexual men lease the wombs of poor women in Eastern Europe.

And in a bitter irony, the prevalence of IVF may hinder the actual treatment of infertility. Many couples who have endured fertility problems have observed a tendency for doctors to use IVF as a crutch, often turning to it quickly without much effort at diagnosing or treating the root cause of infertility, such as endometriosis. IVF does not address the sources of infertility; it attempts to sidestep them by moving conception to a laboratory. Furthermore, as even fertility clinics must admit, IVF is hazardous, from the risks of egg retrieval to a doubled rate of ectopic pregnancy.

Nonetheless, despite the evils of the IVF industry and the perils of the process itself, some Christians (including Catholics who disregard the clear teaching of the Church) still defend and use a sanitized form of IVF. In practice, this means limiting embryo production and attempting to implant every embryo, rather than producing as many as possible, screening them for the “best” and then destroying or indefinitely storing those deemed defective or surplus. This more deliberate approach avoids the casual creation and destruction of human embryos that is the IVF norm, and it does entail some sacrifice, insofar as these limits may cost more while reducing the likelihood of a successful pregnancy.

However, IVF cannot be so easily purified, and Christians should be skeptical of a tree that has produced so much evil fruit—babies are good, but wanting a baby does not excuse any and all evils, especially the mass killing of human embryos. Furthermore, even without the intentional destruction of human life, the inherently high risks and failure rates of IVF should give pause to Christians who claim to respect human life.

But even if IVF could be separated from its deadly practices, it would still be wrong. Children, however conceived, are of inestimable value, and this is why it matters so much how we go about conceiving them. God’s design is for children to be begotten in the committed, loving relationship of marriage, with the one-flesh union of husband and wife—which Scripture repeatedly uses as an image of the union of Christ and the Church—made literal and eternal as gametes combine to form a new person. Children are not things to be ordered, they are persons who should be received as gifts from God, whom they are meant to know and enjoy forever.

Instead of persons begotten in a union of love that is an image of our eschatological fulfillment, IVF makes children as if they were commodities. IVF replaces the loving intimacy of the marriage bed with a laboratory technician manipulating harvested eggs and sperm. But making people to order in a laboratory shatters the divinely-ordained bond of marriage, sex and reproduction. The begetting of new persons should not be depersonalized.

Indeed, the reasons why infertility is so painful are also the reasons why IVF is wrong. Infertility hurts because children are persons; the anguish of infertility arises from a frustrated longing for love and relationship. The fullest sorrow of being barren is about a love that is unfulfilled in its natural longing to see itself instantiated in children, to be fruitful and to multiply love by adding people.

Nonetheless, this suffering does not excuse wrongdoing. Christians especially know that suffering can be sanctifying and redemptive, and that suffering in Christian witness joins our pains to those endured by Christ. For those who have or are mourning over infertility, we may recognize in our longing for children an echo of the divine longing of God for His children, who have turned from Him and are lost.

Christians also know that through God’s grace our stories do not always end how we think they will. Years after we had given up hope, my wife became pregnant. It was a unexpected exhilaration that turned to an even deeper anguish as we endured a miscarriage. And then, finally, children were born to us who had been barren. They are treasures given to us far beyond what we expected or deserved.

Yet even the greatest blessings and love are mingled with sorrow in this sin-marred world—in our case the blessing of unexpected fertility has come with the pain of losing children to miscarriage. The Christian witness is often clearest in suffering, which testifies to something beyond even the very best that this life has to offer. Thus, in our culture of consumerism, despair and death, the Christian witness for life and marriage requires more than just not killing our babies, it also demands that we not order them from laboratories. Children are meant to be begotten, not made.

Nathanael Blake, Ph.D. is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His primary research interests are American political theory, Christian political thought, and the intersection of natural law and philosophical hermeneutics. His published scholarship has included work on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Alasdair MacIntyre, Russell Kirk and J.R.R. Tolkien. He is currently working on a study of Kierkegaard and labor. As a cultural observer and commentator, he is also fascinated at how our secularizing culture develops substitutes for the loss of religious symbols, meaning and order.

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