Tyler Arnold
Catholic News Agency

An Alabama Supreme Court ruling that recognized the personhood of embryonic life sparked a nationwide debate about in vitro fertilization (IVF) over the last three weeks — but some people might be unaware that the industry’s death toll for preborn life is likely higher than that of abortion.

IVF is a fertility treatment in which doctors extract eggs from the woman and fertilize the eggs with sperm to create human embryos in a laboratory without a sexual act. IVF can cost the couple between $20,000 and $30,000 for a single treatment.

Because IVF treatments have a low success rate — about 50% for women under the age of 35 but significantly lower as women get older — clinics create far more human embryos than they intend to bring to term. Although this is meant to maximize the chance of the woman bearing one healthy child, it has also resulted in killing or indefinitely freezing millions of excess embryos.

IVF clinics do not report the exact number of embryos that are killed in their care, but clinics normally extract between 10 and 15 eggs for one treatment. According to the IVF clinic chain Illume Fertility, if the clinic extracts 12 eggs, about 80% — nine or 10 eggs — will be viable and about 80% of viable eggs will successfully fertilize to create embryos — making about seven or eight embryos per patient.

The CDC estimates that more than 238,000 patients attempted IVF in 2021. If clinics created between seven and eight embryos for every patient, that would yield about 1.6 million to 1.9 million over a year. Despite these high numbers, fewer than 100,000 embryos were brought to term, which suggests that somewhere between 1.5 million and 1.8 million embryos created through IVF were never born.

Alternatively, the abortion industry claimed about 985,000 lives from July 2022 through June 2023 — suggesting that the IVF industry could be ending nearly twice as many human lives every year.

Patients can freeze excess embryos for future use or adoption by other couples — but freezing the embryos can cost the couple thousands of additional dollars. Even when they are frozen, most end up abandoned. From 2004 to 2019, there were fewer than 8,500 live births from donated embryos. The United States has permitted IVF treatments since the early 1980s and estimates suggest there are between several hundred thousand and 1.5 million embryos currently frozen.

The substantial majority of embryos were either intentionally killed or died at some point in the IVF process.

Intentional and unintentional embryo deaths

When clinics determine which embryos get to live and which are assigned to death, the clinics perform tests to “screen out genetic diseases that the couple wants to ensure the embryo doesn’t have,” Melissa Moschella, a professor of medical ethics at The Catholic University of America, told CNA.

After those tests, the embryos are “graded in accordance with their quality,” she said. “Those that are deemed healthiest are the ones that are chosen for initial implantation.”

Joseph Meaney, the president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, told CNA that when clinics detect “genetic anomalies or other health conditions,” those embryos are “immediately taken aside and killed.”

“Essentially what they’re trying to do is sell a product … [and] anything other than [a healthy baby] — they are eliminated [through] a quality control process,” Meaney said.

But embryonic testing and grading is not the only step in which embryos die, according to Meaney: “Some of them die in the thawing process” and “some of them fail to implant.”

Even after implantation, Meaney noted that women have a “higher miscarriage rate than average with IVF babies.” In the case of successful implantation — if there are more preborn children than the mother wants to give birth to, the least healthy ones in the womb are aborted through a process called “selective reduction,” he noted.

“At every stage in the process, there’s a mortality rate,” Meaney said.

Embryos that survive the testing, grading, and thawing process but are not chosen for implantation are normally discarded, which ends a human life. Some are donated for scientific research and suffer the same fate. Even if they are frozen, Meaney said they “are basically orphans there” and “they’re essentially abandoned in cold storage.”

Politicians treat IVF differently than abortion

Despite the exorbitant destruction of human life integral to the IVF process, the public and its elected officials treat the subject very differently than they do the deaths caused by abortion.

After the Alabama Supreme Court ruling, which forced some IVF clinics to suspend services, the court received backlash from Democrats and Republicans. In Alabama, the Republican-led legislature adopted a law to shield IVF clinics from civil or criminal liability, which self-identified pro-life Gov. Kay Ivey immediately signed. Ivey and other Republicans who supported the bill claimed that protecting IVF is pro-life.

Michael New, a professor of social research at The Catholic University of America and pro-life activist, told CNA that IVF is “a thorny issue for us politically.” He said that no one could get elected on banning IVF, but “if you can’t ban something … [at least] stop promoting it.”

“It’s wrong to create embryos without the intent of seeing to it they’re carried to term,” New said.

Moschella also recognized the uphill political battle. “It can be difficult to see the harms of IVF because the harms are inflicted on very tiny human beings,” he said, adding that anyone who respects the right to life should at least “prevent the creation of spare embryos beyond the number that is safe to implant.”

“Embryos created through IVF should receive the same protections as any human beings — mainly protection from assault [and] protection from intentional killing or destruction,” Moschella said.

Meaney echoed the same sentiment, saying a preborn life created through IVF is just as valuable as one conceived naturally: “No matter how it’s done … that individual is a member of our species [and] is a new human being.”

“Our human nature comes to us from our DNA,” and “the beginning of that process happens at conception — at fertilization,” he said.

The Catholic Church opposes IVF because it separates the marriage act from procreation and destroys embryonic human life. Acknowledging the advances in science available today to those seeking help having children, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops warns Catholics on its website of the ethical issues involved.

“The many techniques now used to overcome infertility also have profound moral implications, and couples should be aware of these before making decisions about their use,” the guidance reads.

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