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Ethical dilemma of reproductive tech

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POSTED February 8, 2009 4:39 a.m.
Yesterday, I wrote about Nadya Sureman’s controversial decision to allow the implantation of multiple embyos in a quest for maximum fertility and a very large family.  She’ll get to explain her motives more thoroughly tomorrow.  Her interview will air on the Today Show tomorrow, and Tuesday on Dateline.  Meanwhile, her doctor is under investigation for stretching the limits of reproductive ethics, guaranteeing huge hospital bills, and jeopardizing the safety both of the mother and of her gestating babies.  

This case has generated debate that will continue for some time.  I would like to offer a Catholic perspective.  My only problem is that I’ve just been called to San Joaquin Hospital for an emergency.  Just out of Mass, on the way to ICU, I represent all those people travelling too fast to study the complex issues surrounding reproductive technologies and the embryo.

I will conclude this article with a brief quotation from a doctor schooled in Catholic ethics.  But for now, let me just state the obvious:

First of all, everyone knows that the Catholic Church considers fertility a blessing.  Our tendency towards large families – at least in the past – is notorious.  But the purpose here is not a progressive take-over of the world.  If it were, we’d be falling behind already, as other religious and ethnic groups discover the benefits of large progeny.  The Catholic mandate to procreate is based on the dignity of the sexual relationship between married man and woman and the sacredness of the God-given process that leads to conception.  Neither wanting to divorce intimacy from the natural fruit of marital union, nor interfering with the natural mechanism which translates that love into new human life, the Church submits itself to the will of God expressed in the way we are created.

Love between a man and a woman must be, above all else, a mutual act of self-emptying and gift to the other.  By leaving the door open to life, the married couple also cooperate with the creative power of God Himself.

People may disagree with the decision to have many children, especially when the motives are wrong.  But once a child is conceived and born, who would wish it out of existence?  Let me give a recent example, so similar to the blended family of Nadya Suleman.  Those of us blessed to watch the Superbowl last Sunday witnessed a near miracle: James Harrison, NFL most valuable defense player for 2008, intercepted and ran the ball back for a touchdown.  Nothing could stop him.  The commentator marveled at his power, then commented that he probably toughed up as a kid, having been raised as the youngest of fourteen in a combined family.  All of a sudden, fourteen didn’t seem like such an excessive number – at least to the Steelers.  And fourteen is never too many, when each is a human being.

What stresses the ethical boundaries is the systematic production and cold manipulation of the human embryo in an environment of experimentation.

Any reproductive technology which isolates the miracle of conception from its God-given context of love, of mutual gift, and of the mother’s protective womb, already bears within it the potential for serious abuse.

We’ve seen plenty of this, and we’re unfortunately going to see a lot more.

The following quote uses technical language but makes its point well:

“Pope John XX111 taught that…the “transmission of human life is entrusted by nature to a personal conscious act, and as such, is subject to the all-holy laws of God…”  The Church has condemned in vitro fertilization between husband and wife (homologous in vitro fertilization) because it is in itself illicit, and in opposition to the dignity of procreation and of the conjugal union.   It has also condemned in vitro fertilization in which sperm or ovum of a third person is used (heterologous in vitro fertilization) because, in addition, it violates the reciprocal commitment of the spouses and shows a grave lack of regard for that essential property of marriage which is unity.  Furthermore, it deprives the child of her or his filial relationship with parental origins, can hinder the maturing of personal identity, can damage personal relationships within the family, and has repercussions on civil society.  In vitro fertilization is neither in fact achieved nor positively willed as an expression and fruit of a specific act of conjugal union. The human embryo is treated as a product of technology and not as a gift of God.  In its use and in the use of many other techniques of genetic engineering, a human person is objectively deprived of his or her proper perfection.  Such fertilization establishes the domination of technology over the origin or destiny of the person.  This domination is contrary to the dignity and equality that must be common to parents and children. Therefore, in vitro fertilization is morally unacceptable.”     — ”Bioethics”, Dr. John B. Shea, October, 2007
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