Universitas, Number 10, November 2001

IVF - A Definition

dgboland 2001



The acronym IVF has become a shorthand way of referring to the process of fertilisation, by artificial means, as adopted in the case of humans. Generally speaking, of course, it can be applied to all processes of artificial generation or breeding, including those in plants and animals below man, where it is a perfectly legitimate procedure. In humans it takes on the character of a medical procedure and thus acquires the notion of being a cure for a natural defect, which is infertility. In plants and animals it can be directed to this end, but more usually it is used as a means of breeding better quality crops and offspring.

There are, of course, those who see humans as animals only and therefore fit subjects for eugenic "engineering". Thankfully, these are in the minority and generally fall into the category of the "mad scientist". That is not to say, however, that they do not sometimes win over the powers that be, as happened in Nazi Germany. There is little support so far, then, (or am I already behind the times?) for using IVF for purely "scientific" purposes, where humans are concerned, i.e. improvement of the species generally or weeding out mental defectives and those who do not measure up to certain humanistic standards.

There is an issue, however, in the contemporary mind, about the use of IVF as a cure for the sad human condition of infertility. Though the public generally may not have any clear ideas on the matter, the medical experts who argue for such a procedure for such a purpose would appear to have gained the ear of the politicians who make the legal rules in relation to such things. As a consequence we may say that the community is gradually being "educated" to consider it as a normal medical procedure.

The issue is, however, whether there can be a legitimate or moral use of IVF in the case of human reproduction. Certainly, it cannot be ruled out a priori. For any technical, including medical, procedure is of itself morally indifferent and one has to examine the circumstances of its use closely to determine its moral quality. The word "contraception", for instance, has come to be generally associated with what used to be called "artificial contraception", which most societies in the past considered an immoral practice and the Church still condemns. But, having become generally accepted in modern societies, no such qualification of a moral kind now seems in use. The significance of the adjective "artificial" was to oppose it to "natural", taken in a moral sense. So "artificial" was equivalent to "unnatural", a specialised sense in the moral context. This implies, of course, that there may be "natural" or "moral" contraception.

What was the test? The technical, or medical, process in contraception is an intervention in the biological processes involved in human reproduction. This necessarily relates to the individual woman or man concerned. Now such a medical intervention may be justified for the sake of the health of an individual person as a whole. Thus in the case of a woman it may be done in order to regularise her periods. Such a use of the "pill" in therefore not to be regarded as "artificial" contraception, not because it is not a use of the medical "art", but because it is an exercise of that art "co-operative with nature", and therefore quite in accord with the natural in moral terms. Indeed, such a use of "the pill" is not rightly regarded as being against conception. If conception is not had on account of its use that is an effect that is accidental to its legitimate use and therefore in the ordinary case not morally relevant.

It is to be noted that the legitimate use of drugs (such as the contraceptive pill) or other means that have the side effect of preventing conception is limited to what is strictly medically necessary. As medical means they must be directed at the alleviation of a medical condition. They are not legitimate means of "family planning". But the point to be made here is that there can be occasion for intervention in the reproductive system of the individual. Whether it is moral or not depends upon whether it can be seen to be for the good of the individual human as a whole, or as in accord with his or her nature as human.

How, then, should we view IVF? First of all, there seems to be less scope here for its legitimate use. So far as the health of the individuals is concerned it is difficult to imagine any medical condition that might be alleviated by such a procedure. Obviously, a strong desire to have a child is not enough. Infertility is not a medical condition that affects the individual as an individual. There may be occasion to remove sperm from a male or ova from a female for the sake of their health but the subsequent joining "in vitro" can hardly have any relevance to the health of either. It is simply an artificial method of producing a child. In any case, so far as I know, no one is claiming that the procedure has any medical significance apart from overcoming infertility.

Can we find, however, a legitimate use of IVF apart from something that is necessary for the health of one or other of the parties involved? It obviously supplies for a deficiency in the natural process of conception. How, then, might we see it as helping in some way this process? According to the most common present practice the two parties involved are kept quite separate. As far as I know the sperm and ova are obtained quite independently of any act of intercourse between them. Given the current indifference to the moral dimension of the matter it would seem to be quite superfluous that the couple should engage in sexual intercourse for the purposes of the procedure. But, apart from the moral questions involved in producing sperm outside of marital intercourse, without any medical reason so far as the health of the male is concerned, I do not see how artificial fertilisation in humans can be justified except as related in some way to natural intercourse. The technical or medical art can only be called in aid of a natural process. It is an art "co-operative with nature". The fact that it is used legitimately in plants and animals below us, even though quite separate from what is natural intercourse there, is precisely because it can be seen as a rational use of things below us, in so far as they are naturally ordered to our good. This does not apply to our use of ourselves, or of fellow human beings.

However, this is not to say that there can be no occasion for the legitimate use of IVF. I am indebted to my colleague John Ziegler for an example of such a use; Consider the case, by no means unknown, when some degree of infertility results because sperm cells released in marital intercourse are always or nearly always ineffectual in reaching the ovum to fertilize it. This can be because of a deficit in numbers, or a defect in the cell's 'swimming' mechanism, or in the seminal fluid, or in fluids of the genital tract, and so on. In this very case of integral marital union, but not otherwise, it would be legitimate then to assist conception artificially by fertilization of the ovum provided none but those very sperm cells were used, and provided the homicide you speak of were avoided. In such a case, it would be actually a good moral act.

Unfortunately, however, almost universally what is meant by IVF in the case of humans is a procedure that bypasses the natural method of conception (because it is ineffective). It substitutes the production of a child outside the natural union of husband and wife by a procedure quite unrelated to that union. That is an illegitimate production of a child.

This procedure which people generally identify as IVF, in the case of humans, has no medical justification. We should note well that we are here talking strictly only of the procedure in itself. Accordingly, we are supposing that the sperm donor is the husband. The relevant immorality arises from the generation of the child outside the integral marital union of husband and wife. Should the donor be other than the husband, that circumstance would add the evil of adultery to the procedure. What we are also saying is that even if there were no risk of loss of embryonic life (when it seems that this may indeed be routine and a part of the process) the procedure is morally illicit. Such a circumstance, in so far as it involves the taking of innocent human life, adds the evil of homicide to the already immoral actions of the perpetrators.

It should be pointed out, however, that, given the confused state of mind generated by those who are considered "experts", whether medical, political or ethical, in these highly emotional matters, the ordinary persons who resort to what is an illegitimate use of IVF may well be able to plead invincible ignorance as an excuse. The arguments are aimed at the evil, not the (possibly unwitting) doers of evil.

dgboland 2001


dgboland 2001 is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted November 2001. It was published in Universitas, No. 10 (2001).
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