No one wants to talk about the morality of IVF

Embryos are placed on to a CryoLeaf ready to be frozen (Photo: PA)

One of the aspects of the Coalition’s drive to legislate for same-sex marriage which should cause deep uneasiness is the fact that artificial reproductive technologies (ART) will necessarily be involved if such couples have a wish for children; people of the same gender cannot have babies together. In the summer edition of Humanum, the quarterly review of the Centre for Cultural and Pastoral Research, there is an excellent article by Michael Hanby, entitled “Begging the Human Question”, which carefully and sensitively explains why ART does damage to a couple seeking it, to the children thus conceived, and to society in general, which not only approves these procedures but prevents any real debate about their morality.

Hanby’s article was prompted by the decision to award the Nobel Prize to Robert Edwards, the British clinician who developed in vitro fertilisation, “a procedure now responsible for the birth of some four million children worldwide and a sine qua non for contemporary redefinitions of family independently of sexual difference and biological motherhood and fatherhood”. He makes it clear that those conceived through ART, usually by IVF, are “no less a child, no less a gift – and thus no less worthy of his life or worthy of love – than a child conceived through procreation”. He also recognises a couple’s natural longing for a child and their suffering when this longing is unfulfilled.

The question for Hanby is whether ART involves an “original violence”, harmful both to parents and children thus conceived. He points out that the technology turns babies into artefacts to be engineered, “fragmenting the unity of the person into affective and ‘merely biological’ dimensions”. As well as this, separating the unitive and procreative dimensions of love “divides and reduces the persons who undergo IVF”. When embryonic life is merely “matter to be controlled, selected and worked upon”, it leads inevitably to the creation of multiple embryos, cryopreservation, embryo selection and embryonic research. He concludes: “Contrary to the loving intentions of parents who undergo these procedures, IVF and similar techniques insinuate into the act of conception a multi-layered act of violence.” They also make sexual difference and marriage incidental to the definition of family.

Hanby points out that IVF parents can find themselves “haunted in retrospect by unanticipated anguish over the fate of their ‘spare’ embryos”, and mothers in particular worry about the long-term impact of ART on the health of their children. He says: “It is difficult to acknowledge the violence inherent in IVF without feeling at the same time the need to repent of what no parent should ever be asked to repent of, namely the child that she loves more than she loves herself.” Unable to face the anguish of such questions, everyone involved in ART joins a conspiracy of silence so as not to raise them. We too, are complicit in this silence when the question comes up in conversation with friends and we say nothing. I once tried to do so, and the woman in question marched out of the room and refused to speak to me again.

As Hanby indicates, children born of IVF also experience doubt and confusion: what about their “spare” siblings who were not “selected” for implantation? What about siblings sacrificed through selective abortion – or kept alive in a state of limbo through cryopreservation? There is also the bewilderment when “the daddy’s name is donor” and when IVF is undertaken for single women, those of same-sex orientation, where a surrogate is involved or where a “global baby” has been assembled. What about “lineage, kinship and descent”? The author speaks poignantly in place of the child when he asks, “Who am I – what am I?” when all these relations have been circumvented and made superfluous by technology. To bear the pain of such questions you either have to avoid them altogether or you “will have to find the grace to confront and transcend this original violence”.

A friend once asked a priest: “What do you say to children born of ART who can never know their father?” The priest replied: “You have to help them come to know that God is their father.”

I have only briefly summarised here the themes of this important article and urge readers to check out Humanum for the whole of it. The questions it raises are pertinent to us all.