Both practices offered a technical fix for fertility - with grave consequences

Catholics are often taken by surprise when they discover the Church’s teaching on in vitro fertilisation. “How can the Church be against IVF? Abortion ends a human life, but IVF gives life!” As with contraception, Catholics often take the same attitude as wider society.

And in truth, the Church’s teachings on contraception and IVF are closely linked. Today is a good day to discuss why: it is both the 50th anniversary of Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, which reiterated the teaching on contraception, and the 40th anniversary of the first live birth of an IVF-conceived child.

The contraceptive pill and IVF address different problems, which are really two sides of the same coin. They each offer a technical fix to control fertility – one is offered to women who don’t want to be pregnant, and other to those who do.

What is wrong with the contraceptive pill is not the intention of family planning – responsible parenthood is an obligation – but the means taken. Unlike periodic abstinence, the pill makes a woman infertile, as if her fertility is a problem or even a disease. It seeks to separate the unitive meaning of sexual union from the procreative meaning. Moreover, some forms of hormonal contraception occasionally allow a human life to be conceived but then prevent the embryo from implanting in the womb.

The Church’s objections to IVF are similar. Infertility can be the cause of great suffering. But it is a tragedy that scientists have sought to address the problem by means of IVF. Just as contraception seeks union without the procreative meaning, so IVF seeks procreation without the union of the couple as one flesh.

The embryonic human being conceived in this way is placed in grave danger. Many are discarded, used in experimentation or kept in a frozen state. For instance, in a 12-month period from 2014-15, 172,184 IVF embryos were discarded or destroyed, almost equalling the more than 180,000 unborn lives ended by abortion each year. For every child born by IVF perhaps thirty embryonic lives will have been discarded or destroyed. IVF has other disturbing consequences. Sometimes embryos carrying the “wrong” gene are not implanted: the mentality of “quality control” applied to human life. And many donor-conceived children recount a painful longing to know their genetic parents.

By separating conception from the couple’s marital embrace, both contraception and IVF have had grave consequences. Happily, in the last 50 years there has been great progress in finding alternatives. Humanae Vitae led to significant advances in the realm natural family planning. This has in turn generated a new approach to infertility. NaPro technology combines fertility awareness with diagnosis and treatment of the underlying causes of infertility. It does not replace or circumvent the marital act but works by increasing the chances of sexual union being fertile. NaPro even has a comparable rate of effectiveness to IVF, though it should be noted that neither IVF nor NaPro resolves infertility in most couples who seek it. Nonetheless, the NaPro journey is thought to be more helpful in allowing couples to come to terms with their infertility, whereas repeated failure at IVF can add to a couple’s distress.

Humanae Vitae prepared the way for a more humane approach to the problems of infertility. There is still a lot to be done, not only to improve the technology but also to make it more widely available. IVF, however well-intentioned, has led to discarding, freezing and lethal experimentation on millions of human embryos. Humanae Vitae points us along a different though less-trodden road.