After studying more than 3 million in vitro fertilization (IVF) babies born over a span of three decades, scientists in Sweden are reporting that those babies have a 45% higher mortality rate in the first year of life than those conceived without medical intervention.
The high mortality rate for these children is because they are more likely to be born prematurely or with a low birth weight. Both of these conditions can produce infants in respiratory distress, with incomplete lung development, or who have infections and neonatal hemorrhage.
What is not known is why IVF babies are at greater risk for low weight or prematurity than babies conceived naturally.
First developed in the late 1960s, in vitro fertilization is the procedure in which a human egg is fertilized outside the body, taken to the stage of development in which cells begin to differentiate, then planted in the mother's womb where the child continues to develop until birth.
Demand for the procedure grew because of a growing infertility problem associated with the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Dr. Mike Macnamee, an early IVF pioneer, explained the connection: "We had just come out of the 60s, and a number of women had damaged fallopian tubes as a result of sexually transmitted infections, such as chlamydia. Eighty percent of our early patients had tubal damage."
Infertility continues to be a problem in the West as couples use contraception to delay childbearing later and later. As humans age, the quality of both sperm and egg deteriorate, making conception increasingly difficult.
And finally, the desire for children often increases exponentially when couples learn that childbearing may not be possible for them. Humans always want what they can't have and are willing to use extraordinary means to get it.
And that's the problem Catholicism has with IVF — the use of extraordinary measures.
The desperation of the "barren woman" is a recurring theme in the Bible. Beginning with Lot's daughters; then Sarah; Samuel's mother, Hannah; Samson's mother; Elizabeth; Isaac's wife Rebecca, who had fertility problems; and Jacob's wife, Rachel.
But a corollary theme is the use of immoral means in order to conceive. Consider Lot's daughters who got their father drunk so they could sleep with him and conceive. Or Sarah's ill-fated plan to continue her husband's lineage by urging him to have sex with a surrogate. When humans step in to override God's timing, there will be trouble.
That is how the Catholic Church sees artificial means of conception such as in vitro fertilization. In order to maintain the dignity of marriage and human life, the conception of children needs to be tied to the marriage act and to surrender to God's will.
In 1987 the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a document known as Donum Vitae ("The Gift of Life") which teaches, "if a given medical intervention helps or assists the marriage act to achieve pregnancy, it may be considered moral; if the intervention replaces the marriage act in order to engender life, it is not moral."
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2376) states:
Techniques that entail the dissociation of husband and wife, by the intrusion of a person other than the couple (donation of sperm or ovum, surrogate uterus), are gravely immoral. These techniques (heterologous artificial insemination and fertilization) infringe the child's right to be born of a father and mother known to him and bound to each other by marriage. They betray the spouses' "right to become a father and a mother only through each other."
Extraordinary measures to conceive, such as IVF, are often required because of past sinful behavior, e.g., prolonged use of contraception past the normal childbearing years or diseases acquired in non-marital sexual relationships that make conception unlikely or difficult.
IVF by its nature requires no union or bonding between the man and the woman. According to Church teaching, the marital act is the appropriate context in which children should be brought into the world.
In vitro fertilization is the opposite of marital bonding. Instead, the woman's egg is surgically harvested and the man's sperm is often acquired through masturbation. The sperm and egg are manipulated in, literally, a sterile environment.
In contrast, scientists claim couples are most likely to conceive when both partners take time to ensure the other has a satisfying experience. Is it any wonder that IVF produces a child only 30% of the time and that there is a higher rate of mortality for the children that are produced?
Of equal concern is the fact that IVF's aim is to produce multiple embryos. Since the procedure is expensive, time-consuming and successful only about 30% of the time, doctors fertilize multiple eggs at one time. Some are implanted, some are frozen and some eventually die of "natural" causes.
What becomes of the embryos that are frozen? In 2018, the high-capacity embryonic freezers at University Hospitals in Cleveland failed and more than 4,000 embryos were lost.
And there are other complications. When couples divorce, who gets custody of the embryos? Often doctors implant multiple embryos knowing that not all will survive to be born. But what if they do, and the mother's life is put at risk?
Very quickly the problems with IVF begin to multiply and the Church's teaching on the procedure begins to make sense. Nevertheless, many Catholics are unaware of the Church's teaching and/or have not been taught the reasoning — grounded in natural law — behind the Church's position.
Typically, because of its high cost, only the very wealthy can pursue in vitro fertilization. Private insurance coverage is spotty. Costs are usually paid out-of-pocket. Medicaid does not cover infertility problems for poor families. In contrast, Medicaid will cover transgender surgical procedures.
Adoption continues to be an option. If the desire is for children, they are readily available through each state's department of child protective services, and often, the state will help pay for the child's medical expenses.
As recently as the 1980s, IVF had a success rate of only 15%. By 2017, the success rate had doubled. Scientists are predicting within 20 years, 50% of the procedures will produce a baby.
But doctors are also predicting they will be able to make genetic corrections. Like so many "scientific" advances, faithful Catholics need to be vigilant in watching for the sinister side of "progress."