Gifts of the Womb
IVF & the Marital Union
One of the saddest of losses a husband and wife can suffer is the inability to have a child, to find that their love for each other cannot bear its natural fruit, cannot be incarnated in a new boy or girl. People suffer very much when they cannot conceive a child or carry him to term. It is not surprising that most Americans have seen in vitro fertilization (IVF) as a blessing, as science repairing a defect and thus (as Christians would put it) helping marriages become more fully what God intends them to be.
This is a delicate point to make when speaking of something that affects suffering people who want what they ought to want, but IVF is not a blessing that helps married couples reach the true end of marriage. It is a sin that damages their marital communion.
Why? Because it is unnatural? The writer of the letter on page 7 mistakenly believes that this is the basis of the Christian objection to IVF. The truth, however, is that mere Christians object to IVF primarily because in IVF the child-to-be is treated as a product of manufacture—as an operational objective to be achieved by the application of technical means. This, we believe, is incompatible with the nature of marriage and respect for the dignity of a child as a person.
Someone might object by pointing out that a married couple can treat ordinary sexual intercourse as a technical means of producing a child, and thus make the child an operational objective and a product of manufacture. To this we say: true. And when they treat intercourse in this way, their conduct is, however physically “natural,” morally defective in precisely the way in which resort to IVF is morally defective.
Does this mean that it is wrong for spouses to want a child? Not at all. It means that they should hope for a child only under a certain description: namely, as a gift, a gift added to the gift of their marital communion as it is consummated and actualized in their sexual congress.
In this way, their marriage, and particularly their sexuality, is not turned into an instrument they use to reach the goal of procreation, but is faithfully regarded by them as itself an intrinsic good, as an end in itself, and not a mere means. The child-to-be is not treated as an object to be produced by the application of technique, but as a gift added to the good of their marital communion, and as a perfective participant in the organic unit—the family— established by their one-flesh unity in marriage. The integrity of marriage and the dignity of the child are both fully respected.
The fact that in using IVF both husband and wife agree to use each other as instruments for achieving a common goal makes no moral difference. Their sexual union is not properly regarded as an instrument, and is in fact much less a true and fruitful union to the extent that it is treated as if it were an instrument, even an instrument they both use for agreed upon (and even desirable) goals. The fact that IVF can produce a child genuinely loved by his parents also makes no moral difference. No child should be manufactured, even if his parents want the product.
What we are saying may be made a bit clearer by considering an example. Henry VIII commits precisely the sin involved in IVF when he has intercourse with Queen Catherine—for whom he no longer has any affection, but to whom he is legally married—with the sole objective of conceiving an heir. Though natural and in a technical sense lawful, his behavior is not morally upright.
Indeed, strictly (morally) speaking, it is not even marital. Intercourse is given to husband and wife as an act of marital communion, actualizing spousal unity in conduct that fulfills the behavioral conditions of procreation and thus unites them organically, i.e., as “one flesh.” Henry in our example has intercourse with his queen not for the sake of marital communion, which might be blessed with fruit in an heir, but as a technique of reproduction.
To put it another way: Henry, one assumes, would have been at best indifferent to the choice between having sexual relations with Catherine and submitting to IVF. In fact, he might have preferred IVF with Catherine to save his sexual energies for his mistress Anne. All he wanted from Catherine was an heir. She was to him not a wife but a womb.
For many Christians, and apparently for most Americans, IVF is regarded only as a technological way of overcoming a physical defect—as a miracle of science. Conceiving a child in a laboratory and having him implanted in a womb is morally no different from having a cataract removed and implanting a new lens in the eye. In both cases, the body does not work and science can make it work. The way it does so, the technology used, is morally indifferent.
We recognize the good intentions of infertile couples who resort to IVF. We sincerely wish we could endorse their conduct. But we are bound to oppose IVF because the Christian cannot treat marital sexuality as a means nor the child conceived as a product of manufacture. These are not heartless and irrelevant abstractions, but the corollaries of truths we have been given. Because we know what marital sexuality is, we know what it is not.
Both marital sexuality and children are gifts. The answer to infertility is not to transform procreation into manufacture. The answer is certainly not to treat children as objects, however highly desired or prized, and however much we are willing to love them once they have been produced. IVF is something Christians must oppose.
The answer is, as it always is for Christians living in a fallen world where suffering is unavoidable, to hold to the truths we have been given, to suffer with those who suffer, to offer them what help we can, and to create friendships in which their loss is not denied but is partly healed.
— The Editors
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“Gifts of the Womb” first appeared in the March 2005 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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