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“Reducing” Pregnancies and “Wanting” Children*

William E. May, Ph. D.


For the past few decades, fertility clinics have been inducing women to hyperovulate in order to have many eggs available per session for fertilization in vitro or other “new reproductive” methods such as SIFT (Sperm Intrafallopian Tube Transfer). As a result several embryonic human persons are clinically generated.   In order to increase chances of “pregnancy” several embryos are implanted in a woman’s womb in hopes that at least one will implant. Often, two or more will implant, posing risks for the health of both the babies and the woman.  Doctors, with the consent of the women made pregnant this way, then “reduce” the “excess” number of “pregnancies” (=unborn babies) by killing them in the womb. “The procedure,” as Ruth Padawer notes, “involves a fatal injection of potassium chloride into the fetal chest. The dead fetus shrivels over time and remains in the womb until delivery.” 1

“Wanting” babies through use of “new reproductive” technologies

Obviously the women 2 who conceive as a result of these technologies “want” a baby, a “child of their own’ (either together with their partners, whether married to them or not, or as unmarried individuals). In fact, they desperately want one and go to considerable expense and visits to fertility clinics to achieve this goal. But the baby they “want” comes to be as a “product” inferior to its producers (i.e., the men and women who produced the sperm and ova serving as the raw material that is then used by the doctors and technicians at the fertility clinics). As a product, the baby so “made” is subject to “quality controls,” and babies who do not measure up to standards (whatever they may be) are discarded, i.e. aborted as unfit. The standard practice in IVF is to hyperstimulate the ovaries and to produce larger numbers of embryos than the one (possibly two) that is normal in a natural cycle.  Large numbers of embryos are produced so that there can be several attempts to achieve embryo transfer from a single egg pick up cycle.   The chances of a pregnancy resulting is higher if multiple embryos are transferred at a time.  That practice continues in the US even though the evidence has shown that there is a much higher risk of disease and abnormalities in the children that are survivors of a multiple transfer compared to when only one embryo was transferred, and even though there is a much higher loss rate of embryos from multiple embryo transfer.   The loss rate in IVF is an issue with less than 4% of embryos produced on IVF programs surviving. 3  In some jurisdictions, such as in Australia, the regulations now prohibit multiple embryo transfer.  Many of these embryos are also deliberately “eliminated” in the laboratories prior to implantation into a woman’s body, and, as noted already, “excess numbers” of “pregnancies” (i.e., unborn manufactured babies) are “reduced” by killing them in the womb using the process called “fetal reduction”. After all, most of the women made pregnant by these new methods do not want to raise a handicapped child, nor do most of them, when they are in their 50’s or 60’s want to endure “the chaos, stereophonic screaming and exhaustion of raising several teenagers.” 4

These women (their doctors, sexual partners, etc.) accept the claim “No unwanted child ought ever to be born,” and the way to avoid this tragedy is to practice contraception and, should contraception fail, to have recourse to abortion as a backup.

“No child ought to be unwanted, i.e., unloved”

This is a counter-claim to “No unwanted child ought ever to be born,” and it is central to the pro-life movement. Many pro-life advocates who strongly defend the right to life of all innocent persons from conception/fertilization to natural death may practice contraception, judging it a proper way to exercise responsible parenthood, and they would never abort a child conceived because of failed contraception. This article in no way judges them because only God can read the human heart and His only begotten Son made man warns us not to remove the speck from our brother’s eye while ignoring the beam in our own. But this article springs from the conviction that these pro-life champions are simply mistaken, largely because contraception is so widely accepted in our culture as at times necessary to protect basic values.

Moreover, many people today see no moral difference between “artificial” contraception and the “natural” contraception involved in the “natural family planning” (NFP) approved both by the Catholic Church and others who oppose “artificial” contraception. Surely something is not morally bad because it is artificial. In addition, it seems clear that couples would not practice NFP unless they did not “want” to conceive a child.

But “not wanting to have a child” and then abstaining from the kind of act reasonably believed to be the kind of act through which a child comes to be is quite different from not “wanting the child” one could have by engaging in this kind of act. There are many good reasons why couples choose not to have sexual intimacy at any given time and one of them may be that it is a fertile time and they do not want another child at that time including wanting to space their children.  There are many good reasons why couples, married or not, legitimately do not want to have a child, i.e., to cause a pregnancy. This can well be a good end: it surely is such for unmarried individuals and married couples if the wife has been told that getting pregnant might cause her death, grave bodily harm, great difficulty in caring for children already born, particularly if one has special needs that are very demanding (e.g., cystic fibrosis). But the moral issue involves the means one chooses to attain that legitimate end.

A good description or definition of contraception is the following: contraception is an act freely chosen to do something, prior to, during, or subsequent to a freely chosen genital act precisely to impede conception (e.g., using condoms, spermicidal jellies, diaphragms, etc.) Couples who choose this kind of act in order to attain the good end in question definitely contracept. Here the act is simply described and not labeled as either good or bad. But if couples contracept it follows that they are not willing to become mothers or fathers as a result of that act and that the pregnancy is “unwanted.” It also follows that if a child is conceived despite the steps taken to impede its conception it comes to be at least initially as an “unwanted” child.

Couples who practice NFP do not do this, that is, they do not contracept. They (1) choose to abstain from the marital act (a genital kind of act) when they reasonably believe that were they to do so a pregnancy could result. Abstinence from this kind of act is certainly not contraception. They then (2) choose to engage in the marital act when they reasonably believe that, for factors over which they have no control (the woman’s fertility here and now), engaging in this act will not result in a pregnancy. But they choose to engage in it because it has more than a procreative meaning; it has a unitive meaning, i.e., it makes husband and wife literally one flesh. If a child is conceived despite their choosing to engage in the kind of act through which the woman can become pregnant, the child conceived does not come to be as an “unwanted” child because they have done nothing to “unwant” him or her. Moreover, the resulting pregnancy is not, if they are rightly practicing NFP, an “unwanted” or “unplanned” pregnancy but is rather a “surprise” pregnancy and that God, the author of marriage and giver of human life, will give them what they need to care for this child, the supreme gift of marriage. They realize, as a wise man wrote some 50 years ago: "when a man and a woman capable of procreation have intercourse their union must be accompanied by awareness and willing acceptance of the possibility that 'I may become a father' or 'I may become a mother.'” 5

Couples who use IUDs or the OCP face an additional problem in that one of the acknowledged mechanisms involved is to reduce the chances of embryos implanting.    IUDS cause an inflammation of the endometrium that reduces the chances of implantation.  IUDS are thus not so much contraceptive, but abortifacient.  Some of the also contain progesterone which also has an impact on the lining of the endometrium.  The two hormones used in the combined oral conceptive pill have different effects.  The effect of the oestrogen is mainly to prevent ovulation and it is thus mainly contraceptive.  However progesterone has less of an effect on ovulation and more of an effect on the endometrium and on the cervical mucus.  The low dose combined pills and the progesterone only pills have a much higher probability of relying on the effect on the endometrium and thus being abortifacient rather than contraceptive. 6


The babies “wanted” by those who resort to the new reproductive technologies in order to have them are unfortunately not wanted for themselves as persons equal in dignity to their mothers and fathers; they are products “created” or “made” by them with the help of the doctors/technicians at the fertility clinics they go to. Such babies are discarded in the laboratory prior to implantation in a woman’s body if they do not measure up to arbitrary standards; those implanted in the womb can still be eliminated or “reduced” if this is desired by the persons who authorized their manufacture. Procreation has been turned into “reproduction.”

Contraception, unfortunately, is rooted in the belief that no unwanted baby ought ever to be born or that every child must be a wanted child. This belief in reality robs the child of his/her intrinsic value. The truth is that no child, just as no human person, ought ever to be unwanted, i.e., unloved. After all, Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them.”


*I thank Nicholas Tonti-Filippini of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Married and Family in Melbourne, Australia, for his excellent suggestions, made after I sent him an earlier draft of this essay. He advised me of  some isues of legal significance and practice in Australia.

1. Ruth Padawer, “Unnatural Selection: The Two Minus One Pregnancy,” New York Times Magazine, August 14, 2011. Her article stimulated me to write this brief essay.

2. Padawer includes lesbian couples among the women obtaining their “wanted” babies by use of new reproductive methods.

3. Victorian Assisted Reproductive Technology Authority Annual Report 2010  p. 34 http://www.varta.org.au/annual-reports/w1/i1003573/   Accessed 21/2/2011.

4. A quotation from one of the persons Padawer interviewed for her article.

5. Karol Wojtyla (later Pope John Paul II), Love and Responsibility, originally published in Polish in 1960 and in English in 1979, p. 228.

6. Nicholas Tonti-Filippini and Mary Walsh "Oral Contraceptives: Abortifacient or Contraceptive?" Linacre Quarterly February 1995


Copyright ©; William E. May 2011

Version: 28th September 2011

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