The Ethics of Fertility Treatments

This Slate article on IVF appeared a few weeks ago, but is worth revisiting for the ethical questions it raises. The author makes the case that fertility doctors should encourage couples struggling to have children to go "straight to IVF," rather than first trying fertility medication and, then, artificial insemination (known as IUI). Usually IVF is the last option, but the author argues that since fertility treatments are so costly, and older women have limited window in which to conceive, the doctors should choose the most efficient treatment. Yet IVF is also the most ethically problematic of the treatments addressed--a fact that is never addressed in the article. During IVF treatments, doctors create several embryos, and implant a select number (usually two or three) in the woman’s uterus. The rest are either discarded, or frozen at the couple’s request. For a variety of reasons, the church is againstboth IUI and IVF. Yet one could make the case--as some ethicists have--that IUI is not nearly as ethically troubling as IVF, and could be used in certain circumstances. So if science is moving away from fertility meds and IUI in favor of IVF, what is a thoughtful Catholic to do? Fertility clinics in this country are already producing hundreds of thousands of unused embryos. (Unlike in some other countries, there is no regulation of the fertility industry here.) An increase in IVF treatments will make this number grow even larger. Politicians and ethicists were ecstatic when scientists announced they could create and study stem cells without using embryos. Yet what was once proposed as the primary source for those tests--embryos produced by fertility clinics--continue to grow unabated. All in all, the ethical problems surrounding the creation and use of embryos seem far from settled. Tim Reidy
Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
9 years 11 months ago
One issue that is rarely mentioned in discussions such as this is the huge number of human embryos (perhaps 60 to 80 percent) that fail to implant in the mother's uterus and consequently die within a few days of conception. If life begins at conception, all the embryos that fail to implant are just as much human lives as embryos created in fertility clinics. If 60 to 80 percent of babies died within a few days of being born, billions of dollars would undoubtedly be spent on medical research to prevent such a tremendous loss. Yet the 60 to 80 percent that die within a few days of conception apparently cause no concern at all. I am unaware of any medical research attempting to prevent early embryo loss in human beings (as opposed to, say, in cattle, where reproductive efficiency is an economic concern). The indifference to early embryo loss in humans is cited by Michael J. Sandel in his book The Case Against Perfection as evidence that people really don't believe life begins at conception. If that is not true, I would say at the very least it is inconsistent to be concerned only about embryo loss in fertility clinics but not the much more massive loss that takes place outside those clinics.
9 years 11 months ago
It simply is not possible to be so scrupulous in defending life as to attempt to prevent the loss of all embryos. It has always been nature's way that many embryos do not survive, and I would question whether someone who is alarmed at the loss of implanted and unimplanted IVF embryos might not be forgetting this fact and be suggesting potentially sinful interference with God's intentions as well. It certainly is possible to believe life begins at conception and believe that life can be lost due to natural causes from that point on. It is also possible to believe that each conception is a unique human being and, in accordance with natural law, that not all human beings are destined to survive to adulthood. Finally, it is possible to believe that some people have the misfortune of being conceived by people who were unable to or chose not to protect them from all threats to their lives.
9 years 11 months ago
The Pope Paul VI Institute offers morally acceptable options for fertility treatment with higher success rates and lower costs by focusing on treating the symptons rather than just getting them pregnant.


Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

The establishment and free exercise clauses prohibit the government from impeding or requiring observance of any religious holiday, including Christmas.
Ellen K. BoegelDecember 12, 2017
Newly ordained Bishop Paul Tighe, a priest of the Archdiocese of Dublin, greets the faithful during his ordination to the episcopate in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Feb. 27, 2016 (CNS photo/Paul Haring).
Bishop Paul Tighe, the secretary of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture, has been called “the Vatican's nicest guy.”
Bill McCormick, S.J.December 12, 2017
President Donald Trump waves to supporters during a rally in Pensacola, Fla., Friday, Dec. 8, 2017. (AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman)
Fewer Americans believe in the biblical Christmas story and a growing number are opting not to attend church services.
Michael J. O’LoughlinDecember 12, 2017
The Trump administration has made clear its principles on immigration; Catholics should answer with a list of ways to reform the system with fairness and humanity.
J. Kevin ApplebyDecember 12, 2017