What “Personhood” Means for In-Vitro Fertilization

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What “Personhood” Means for In-Vitro Fertilization

Robin Marty

A new study suggests a way to make IVF more successful. But if a "personhood" law ever passed, it would be difficult to do.

According to researchers in the U.K., those undergoing in vitro fertilization may find that they have more success if they use frozen embryos, rather than newly-created embryos, for implantation.

Via Raw Story:

The doctors who led the work suspect that IVF embryos that were frozen make for healthier babies because they are implanted long after the woman’s ovaries were stimulated with drugs, so hormone levels in the womb have had time to return to normal. This means the embryos implant in a more natural environment.

Another theory is that only high-quality embryos survive the freeze and thaw process, though survival rates for frozen embryos are now more than 90% in some clinics.

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If this is correct, a change in protocol could have positive implications for those who are struggling with infertility, especially due to the costs associated with each implantation.  If a woman can be successful on her first implantation simply by not starting with fresh embryos, she could save literally tens of thousands of dollars in fertility treatment.

But such advances will be for naught if the people behind the egg-as-person movement have their way. Although “personhood” proponents have said that IVF wouldn’t necessarily be illegal, there is little doubt that it at the very least would interfere with both established best practices and new methods. The Catholic church forbids IVF due to the nearly inevitible destruction of embryos, since those that are of poor quality are discarded rather than implanted. And just as frozen embryos in the United Kingdom study may make for more effective treatment because lower quality ones won’t survive the freeze-and-thaw process, those who believe a fertilized egg is a person would consider that to be outright murder as well.

Treatments acceptable to the Catholic Church include the use of drugs to increase the number of eggs produced, surgery to eliminate blockages in the husband’s or wife’s body, and gamete intra-fallopian transfer (GIFT), which is similar to in vitro fertilization but not as efficient. In GIFT the wife’s eggs and husband’s sperm are injected together into the woman’s fallopian tubes in the hope that an embryo will result.


Catholic teaching states that human life begins at the moment of conception, when the egg and sperm unite to form an embryo. In IVF that union occurs in a petri dish. Usually several embryos are created in this way. A doctor then transfers one or more of them to a woman’s uterus. The others are frozen for possible future use or destroyed.

For the church the destruction or demise of an embryo during the IVF process is the unnatural ending of a human life, says Father Thomas Nairn, the senior director for ethics at the St. Louis-based Catholic Hospital Association of the United States.

Dignitas Personae (The Dignity of a Person), an instruction published by the Vatican in 2008, asserts that all of the ways of indefinitely storing or disposing of an embryo are morally wrong. That, Nairn explains, is because all threaten or actually end the life of the embryo.

Just as science advances, anti-choice activists push an agenda to subjugate medical best practices with archaic religious beliefs.