The Catholic Church secretly helped develop the drug that made IVF possible

Author: John Russell

The Catholic Church has long opposed in-vitro fertilization (IVF), the most common method of assisted reproduction and one which many LGBTQ+ people rely on to build families. But it turns out the Vatican played a key role in the development a breakthrough drug that made the treatment possible in the late 1950s.

Lunenfeld and his colleagues had developed a method of extracting a hormone that they called human menopausal gonadotropin (hMG) from the urine of postmenopausal women. The hormone had been shown to induce ovulation in mice. However, sourcing and collecting enough urine to conduct clinical trials with the hormone had proved challenging.

After presenting his findings to the board of the Serono Pharmacological Institute in Rome in the spring of 1957, Lunenfeld was approached by Don Giulio Pacelli, an extremely well-connected member of Serono’s board who also happened to be the nephew of Pope Pius XII. It was Pacelli’s “fantastic” idea to source the urine from elderly Catholic nuns.

A year prior, in an address to a summit of the Second World Congress on Fertility and Sterility, Pius XII told those present that their “zeal to pursue research on marital infertility — and the means to overcome it — engages high spiritual and ethical values, which should be taken into account.” Regarding artificial fertilization, he warned that “not only is there need to be extremely reserved, but it must be absolutely excluded.”

But when Pacelli presented his proposal to the Serono board in 1957, he told them that “The pope is interested” in assisting, according to Lunenfeld.

“We had a hundred nuns recruited, which gave us 30,000 liters, and the 30,000 liters gave us a hundred milligrams of the substance which we needed,” Lunenfeld told Vanity Fair. “And this was enough to make 9,000 vials of 75 units, sufficient for 450 ovulation induction cycles.”

Little is known about these donors today, but University of Notre Dame professor Kathleen Sprows Cummings says that if the nuns were told anything about Lunenfeld’s research, they may have seen their participation as “a way to cement the Catholic teaching about how important it is to be open to babies, and to have as many babies as possible.”

In 1962, a previously infertile woman treated with hMG gave birth for the first time, and Lunenfeld’s research led to the development of the drug Pergonal. That drug was used in the first successful IVF pregnancy in the U.S. in 1981. While Serono discontinued Pergonal in 2004, a nearly identical drug remains in use to this day — that is, as Vanity Fair notes, as long as IVF remains legal in the United States.

Earlier this year, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that frozen embryos have the same rights as children, creating widespread fear that IVF providers could face criminal charges if they mishandle or destroy an embryo. In March, a little over a week after the court’s ruling and in the wake of several major providers in the state pausing IVF treatment, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) signed a bill shielding IVF providers from civil and criminal liability.

At the same time, the Catholic Church has made clear its opposition to the procedure it helped make possible.

IVF “does violence to human dignity and to the marriage act and should be avoided,” Dr. John M. Haas, then-president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Boston, wrote in 1998. “IVF eliminates the marriage act as the means of achieving pregnancy, instead of helping it achieve this natural end. The new life is not engendered through an act of love between husband and wife, but by a laboratory procedure performed by doctors or technicians.”

The Church also objects to the creation of “extra” embryos necessary in the IVF process.

“Though embryos should not be looked at as children, they should, however, be seen as having the promise of life that develops into a child,” Roberto Dell’Oro, professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and director of the school’s Bioethics Institute, told NPR in March.

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Actual Story on LGBTQ Nation
Author: John Russell

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