My recent article on IVF provoked strong reactions and the response to it was remarkable. Why? I believe part of the reason that it resonated so deeply is that infertility, which gives rise to the demand for IVF, is a profound, yet lonely, burden to bear.
No one would guess it from looking at you – especially in a time and in a culture when so many are childless by choice. In an age of “oversharing” the most intimate details of one’s life, infertility is an unspoken ordeal. And yet it is not the sort of thing one can ignore. A woman is reminded monthly of her body’s failure to cooperate with nature. The pain of infertility is different from other forms of physical suffering or disease. Because our bodies carry within them the potential for motherhood and fatherhood, infertility damages one’s self-conception of femininity or masculinity. A woman has a womb – but no child to nestle in it and grow. She has breasts – but no little one to suckle and nourish. A man’s sterility may cause him to feel insecure in his masculinity and suffer deeply – not because of his inability to provide for a family, but his inability literally to provide a family. And because children are the visible sign of marital love (the two made one literally), infertility strikes at the very heart of what it means to be a married couple. On top of all of this, men and women simply don’t communicate the same way, and their different ways of handling suffering can strain a marriage to the breaking point.
Although nothing completely heals the pain of infertility, IVF seemingly holds out hope for couples who suffer from it. But the deep pain of infertility and the good and natural desire for a child do not legitimate any means to cease that suffering or obtain that end. This was the painful truth of my first article: some things, and IVF is one of them, simply cost too much.
Although the article struck a deep chord with many, the reactions were varied. Many readers wrote in appreciation for a primer on the moral challenges involved in IVF procedures. Others wrote in surprise, as they were not aware of some of the more problematic aspects of IVF, and wondered whether it would be acceptable to use if a couple avoided aspects like pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, selective reduction or the creation of excess embryos. While this would eliminate some of the gravest objections, others remain and they are serious. In the end, it still involves participation in a multi-billion dollar industry that uses abortion and eugenic screenings, and which results in hundreds of thousands of little lives in freezers.
Some readers wrote in frustration and even anger at a critique of a procedure that gave them real hope and, in some cases, had resulted in the birth of a long awaited and much loved child. Of course, it seems impossible to accuse oneself of wrongdoing in the creation of a deeply desired child. But, critiquing IVF in no way suggests that the children so conceived are not “children of God” or that they lack human dignity. They are clearly desired and wanted beyond measure – as all children should be. Human history is replete with such complicated and broken circumstances of conception. The dignity of the child is not diminished, but the broken circumstances remain and must be acknowledged as such.
Full disclosure: I am a Catholic, and the theological and philosophical underpinnings of the Church’s clear condemnation of IVF persuade me. I would encourage anyone with a sincere desire to understand these matters more deeply to read the Church’s explanation of its opposition to IVF. Good places to start include