Another In Vitro Fertilization “Oops…”

The December 28 New York Times reported another “oops!” in vitro fertilization (IVF) moment. A technician in Utrecht may have mixed up sperm used to fertilize eggs, leading to the members of 26 couples perhaps not being the parents of the babies they contracted to produce.

I admit that last sentence is a bit awkward: it would be nicer to say “leading to 26 couples being unsure if they are the parents of the babies they conceived.” Indulge me temporarily—I have my reasons for how I formulated that thought.

In the procedure used by the technician, one sperm is injected from a pipette into one ovum, guided by a microscope. When the technician finished the procedure, he “discovered that there was still genetic material on the tip of the pipette,” i.e., there were still sperm there. That meant they could either be the intended father’s … or somebody else’s. The New York Times conveniently leaves the question of how other sperm got there somewhat open, “evidently because the technician had mistakenly used the wrong kind of rubber apparatus on the end of the pipette.”

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The “problem,” of course, is that in the normal order of things, all those little sperm are mostly all fertile. That’s why, in normal sexual intercourse, one does not have to pre-select the one sperm “most likely to succeed,” nor are sperm from multiple men usually involved. But when one is open to life as given by God, these are not “problems.”

But IVF is not just sex with a little technical “help.” It simply replaces the human embrace of sexuality with a sterile lab technique. Except that, sometimes, the sterile lab gets the sperm samples mixed up.

Pope Pius XII presciently envisioned what IVF implied when, in 1951, he condemned artificial insemination because it turned the love that gives life into a mere lab procedure by “reduc[ing] the common life of husband and wife and the conjugal act to a mere organic function for the transmission of seed would be but to convert the domestic hearth, the family sanctuary, into a biological laboratory.” Intentions alone are not enough: what we do matters. What we do speaks. A dead body is a fact: but whether the way it got dead—by a bullet in the head or by a heart attack—is inseparably part of how we evaluate an act. The same is true of how life begins. Just “wanting a baby” is not enough to make what we do to have one irrelevant.

By making sex and even the father and mother irrelevant to the production of the child, the child is necessarily reified—he is necessarily turned into a thing to be produced. And when the beginning of life becomes a production process, production flaws can creep in.

In normal sexual intercourse, the “wrong” sperm is not likely to result in conception, unless we are talking about surrogacy or about rape. But in IVF, the “wrong” sperm is just a technical mistake.

In normal sexual intercourse, a child may be hurt during the gestational process, but one loves one’s baby even if he is sick or handicapped. In IVF, the child necessarily is thought of as a product for which the parents have contracted so that, if the wrong sperm is used or developmental handicaps enter the picture, the “product” can at least in theory be rejected as part of “quality control.” Inspector 13 now acquires a sinister quality….

Consider a similar story which emerged in 2014 in Poland. After the previous Polish government decided to promote IVF and cover it under the national health plan, a 30-year-old woman gave birth to a genetically handicapped child. Subsequent investigation disclosed that the woman’s husband had been mistakenly used to fertilize another woman’s ovum, which was then implanted into the 30-year-old. The “mistake” apparently came from sloppy gamete labeling.

The clinic was fined about $20,000 and lost its government contract, which caused the clinic director to fear that it might result in its closure. Nobody explained what happened to the handicapped child.

IVF inherently separates childbearing from marriage (which can only be aggravated when it is employed—as it has to be—in the lesbian and homosexual “marriages” legalized by Obergefell, which are inherently sterile). It contaminates parenthood. And, most important, it inherently turns childbearing into a lab technique for Gnostic dualist Americans. And mix-ups turn into claims for damages, excuses for abortions, or pernicious ideas in law like “wrongful life.”

The late Professor William May prophetically foresaw the fundamental ethical flaw in IVF when he suggested the procedure violated the Creed: unlike Christ—who ought to be the model for all men and women—children coming from IVF are “made, not begotten.”

IVF, May insisted, is inherently nonmarital: although many married couples use the procedure to make babies, there is nothing inherently in the procedure that requires the gamete donors to be married. The creation of life is not the result of a human embrace of spouses: it is a technical achievement carried out as a lab procedure. It might be used on behalf of married couples, but it doesn’t have to be.

IVF is typically hawked as a last possible resort for those who want a baby. But hard cases make bad law. If public policy is to be guided by the best interest of the child, one should say that the production of children in labs is clearly not. It may be in the interest of relatively affluent couples who can resort to this procedure, as well as to the artificial reproduction industry that makes lucrative profits from what Jennifer Lahl has called the “wild West” of these unregulated businesses. It is exactly what the modern Polish philosopher Zbigniew Stawrowski meant by the phrase “sleek barbarians”—well-situated folks who invent “rights” and then claim themselves the victims, to the detriment of the real victims (usually children)—sleek, because nobody really likes to think of barbarians in lab coats or medical coats. They’re so “scientific.” At least as scientific and progressive as Josef Mengele and other white-coated barbarians ….


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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