Q. What are the Catholic Church's views on artificial insemination? I know it is opposed to in-vitro fertilization, which is something different.
What is the difference between lovingly bringing a life into the world by using new techniques and prolonging a life by using scientific advances such as a pig heart valve? (Indiana)
A. Artificial insemination and in-vitro fertilization (IVF) are two of many procedures today that change or substitute for human reproduction by sexual intercourse and gestation in the uterus of the mother. They are different but share many challenges that question their moral validity.
Artificial insemination is the insemination of a woman by injection of the sperm of her husband or of another donor.
IVF is fertilization outside the woman's body, using sperm of the husband or another donor. The gametes (woman's ovum and male sperm) are united, and conception occurs in a laboratory container where the first stages of new human growth occur. Soon the developing embryo is transferred to another environment, usually the mother's or another woman's womb, for continuing development until the time of birth.
IVF is called heterologous if the gametes come from a man and woman not married to each other, and homologous if the cells come from a husband and wife married to one another.
For us who were raised when there was only one way for a baby to be conceived and carried to term in the womb of its mother, it boggles the mind to realize that there are dozens of combinations today whereby all of this can happen. And each has its own array of religious and human, and therefore moral, questions.
One of them, of course, arises when a third party is involved, when the real biological father is not the husband of the mother, and is perhaps even unknown. The possible (and often real) serious confusions about parental relationship and responsibility are obvious.
The church considers IVF and artificial insemination morally unacceptable for at least three fundamental reasons.
First, from the time the ovum is fertilized, a separate human life has begun that has its own identity and dignity. Commercial, scientific and other procedures often performed on lives begun in vitro violate the respect and physical and spiritual reverence owed to these lives.
Second, IVF procedures particularly involve producing a number of zygotes (fertilized ova). Some or all are usually placed in a womb; all but one or a few of them usually die one way or another. In some procedures, this involves direct killing of human lives; in others, it may not. At the very least it wrongly places new human life in high risk of death.
And third, this process of initiating new human life is a subversion of the dignity and unity of marriage and of the integrity of natural and necessary parental relationships with children as they come into the world.
This aspect of artificial insemination and IVF may seem less tangible, but it is an important and profound one. In the tradition and teachings of the church, as well as in the vast majority of human social traditions throughout history, sexual relations in the context of the marriage relationship are the worthy and solid setting capable of assuring a healthy nurturing of new human life.
Heterologous fertilization, of course, brings in the additional question of marriage fidelity and parental identity and responsibility. But even homologous fertilization deprives human procreation of the dignity that is proper and natural to it.
It needs to be clearly stated that when IVF or any other kind of artificial fertilization does happen, the resulting life is no less human and no less to be accepted with love.
Expanded explanation of Catholic teaching on these matters may be found by Googling "1987 Vatican Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin."
A longtime columnist with Catholic News Service, Father Dietzen died March 27, 2011.