Alternative Reproductive Technologies: Implications for Children and Families

Testimony of Richard Doerflinger on behalf of the Committee for Pro-Life Activities of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops before the House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families

May 21, 1987

The title of this hearing—"Alternative Reproductive Technologies: Implications for Children and Families"—reflects the same concerns expressed in the Vatican's recent Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation. This document urges that public policy regarding these technologies be guided by two key principles: the human dignity of the child, especially the child's fundamental right to life from the time of fertilization onward; and the integrity of marriage and the family. These principles are widely recognized as proper concerns not only of specifically religious belief or private morality buy also of legislation that seeks to serve the common good. For example, human rights declarations by the United Nations affirm that children need "special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth,"1 and recognize the family as "the natural and fundamental group unit of society" which is "entitled to protection by society and the State."2 I would like to discuss each principle in turn, then comment on federal policy regarding in vitro fertilization.

1.    The Dignity and Rights of the Child at Every Stage of Existence

Practices which violate the life and physical integrity of the newly conceived child can range from abortion, to the discarding or freezing of "spare" embryos produced in the laboratory, to experimental manipulation. Congress currently opposes such practices by barring federal funding for abortion and for harmful non-therapeutic experiments on the unborn child. In 1985 the Health Research Extension Act improved protections for the human subject in fetal experimentation and imposed a three-year moratorium on any waiver of such protections by the Secretary of HHS.3 A waiver would only be necessary if one wished to authorize unethical experiments—those which subject an individual human being to risk of harm or death solely to gain knowledge for the benefit of others. Hence when the moratorium expires in 1988 we will urge Congress to bar such waivers permanently.

Some groups and individuals studying the issue of experimentation on the human embryo have suggested allowing non-therapeutic experimentation until 14 days after fertilization, because of speculations about the significance of phenomena such as implantation and twinning. We share the conviction expressed last year by the Select Committee commissioned by the Australian Parliament to study this issue, that "no one event succeeding fertilization is such that it can bear the weight that some would attach to it" for the purpose of justifying harmful experiments prior to that event.4 The newly conceived member of the human species should be accorded the respect due to a human subject at every stage.

2.    The Integrity of Marriage and Family

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, "the Constitution protects the sanctity of the family precisely because the institution of the family precisely because the institution of the family is deeply rooted in this Nation's history and tradition."5 That institution's integrity, hence its proper role in maintaining the order of society, can be eroded when relationships between husband and wife or between parent and child are blurred or redefined in some reproductive procedures. Without ignoring the needs of infertile couples, society must take care that procedures designed to help build families will not unintentionally undermine the social and legal status of the family.

Of Special concern are methods which introduce outside third parties into the marriage relationship for purposes of reproduction. It is now possible for a child to have as many as five parents: the "genetic" parents or sperm and egg donors, the gestational mother, and the couple that intends to raise the child. In such arrangements the child is denied his or her right to a unified family, and the moral and legal responsibilities traditionally seen as inherent in being a biological parent are diffused and rendered problematic. Family relationships are redefined in terms of commercial contract law, risking the reduction of human beings to the status of objects. Surrogate motherhood has rightly been criticized along these lines for its tendency to exploit the biological mother as a "surrogate uterus" and to reduce the child to a commodity for sale.

3.    Federal Policy on In Vitro Fertilization

In 1979 an Ethics Advisory Board reported to the Secretary of HEW on the advisability of funding in vitro fertilization projects involving humans. The Board concluded that federal support would be "acceptable from an ethical standpoint," but it refrained from recommending such support, citing "uncertain risks" to both mother and offspring, "the dangers of abuse" such as experimental manipulation of the embryo, and the fact that the procedure is "morally objectionable to many."6 Citing abortifacient elements of the in vitro procedure and other factors, the U.S. Catholic Conference was among those successfully urging the Secretary not to institute such funding.

Recent developments have only heightened the concerns that led us to take this position. In vitro fertilization has become a source of embryos for unethical experimentation as well as a means for introducing additional parties into the marriage relationship. The cost in terms of human embryonic lives is enormous, with one recent international study estimating that out of 14, 585 fertilizations in 62 in vitro centers, only 4 percent resulted in a live birth.7 Efforts to prevent or cure diseases that cause infertility represent a responsible alternative way of investing taxpayers' dollars. Especially at a time when health programs may suffer severe cuts in the drive to meet budgetary targets, our government should seek to maintain and improve access to basic health car for the poor rather than diverting funds to more spectacular but morally questionable technologies.

Finally, it is our view that much of the demand for exotic reproductive technologies is due to the fact that many infertile couples see adoption as difficult or impossible. The federal government is not doing nearly as much as it can and should to remove obstacles to adoption. Adoption does not divide or redefine families, but copes with the reality of non-existent or non-functioning families in such a way as to benefit everyone — the child, the birth parents, and the adoptive couple. Yet the only federal program facilitating adoption for unmarried pregnant teenagers, the Adolescent Family Life program, has never received adequate funding and now risks being phased out altogether; a federal tax deduction for the expenses of special-needs adoption was eliminated by the 1986 Tax Reform law after being in existence only five years. These and other avenues deserve renewed consideration as means for helping children, infertile couples, and society as a whole. Thank you.


  1. Declaration of the Rights of the Child (1959), Preamble.
  2. Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), Article 16.
  3. Public Law 99-158; 42 U.S.C. 289g.
  4. Senate Select Committee on the Human Embryo Experimentation Bill 1985, Human Embryo Experimentation in Australia (Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra 1986), p. 26 (para. 3.9).
  5. Moore v. City of East Cleveland, 431 U.S. 494, 503 (1977) (plurality).
  6. See "Report of the Ethics Advisory Board," Federal Register, June 18, 1979, pp. 35056-8.
  7. Greg Erlandson, "Vatican Concerned About High Death Rate of Embryos in Labs," National Catholic News Service, March 12, 1987 (reporting on a study presented at the Third World Congress on In Vitro Fertilization and Embryo Transfer held in Helsinki, Finland, in 1984). Cf. "Wide Disparity in IVF Practices," Medical Tribune, September 18, 1985 (in a survey of 54 IVF clinics registered with the American Fertility Society, 52 percent of the clinics reported no live births); "Advises Telling IVF Patients Truth About Rates of Pregnancy," Ob. Gyn. News, March 1-14, 1987 (chance of a live birth from each in vitro cycle is 5-7%, and the patient should be prepared to undergo at least six treatment cycles to improve chances for success); Editorial Capsule, "The In Vitro Fertilization Pregnancy Rate," Medical Tribune, November 27, 1985 (condemning "the widespread practice of inflating the IVF pregnancy rate"); and studies cited in Human Embryo Experimentation in Australia, supra, note 4, pp. 133-5.