Through the Looking Glass

In his highly prophetic classic Brave New World, Aldous Huxley tells of a world in which all women are forced to turn their eggs over to the state. The eggs are then placed into a manufactured environment which serves as a mother’s womb. Selected sperm is withdrawn from a sperm bank to fertilize the eggs and a new life is grown under supervision. This new process is called “decanting,” rather than birth.  While most people in the 1930s would have thought this impossible, today this possibility looms ever closer.  Much of what he described has become commonplace in our world today through the use of reproductive technologies such as IVF and artificial insemination.  It is so common that one of Time Magazine’s “100 Hundred Questions for the New Century” was whether we will still need sex to procreate.  One would think that because the Church is “pro-child” and opposes such things as artificial contraception that she too would be promoting these reproductive technologies.  This is because they aid in bringing about the great good of human life.  However, because the Church is concerned with “the dignity of the human person and his integral vocation,” she teaches that many of these techniques are morally wrong (Donum Vitae (DV), Introduction, 1).

There are a variety of these techniques available today.  The Church opposes the use of some of these means and not others.  The basic principle at play in the use of these reproductive technologies is whether a given technique assists or substitutes for the conjugal act.  If it assists the conjugal act then it is morally licit and if it replaces the conjugal act it is illicit (DV, Section II, 6).  In general the Church refers to the latter as “artificial fertilization” procedures.  Among the most common of these procedures are in vitro (literally means “in a glass”) fertilization and artificial insemination.

With this distinction made, it is instructive to look at the foundation the Church uses for making her moral judgment.  In 1987, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) released the Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation—called Donum Vitae in Latin—that formally addressed the moral issues associated with these new reproductive technologies.  In it, the CDF put forth three reasons to support the Church’s position.  They are the dignity of the child, the inseparable link between the unitive and procreative aspects of the conjugal act, and the “language of the body” (DV, II, B 4-5).

IVF Dish

All persons from the moment of conception have equal dignity because they are made by God in His own image.  This means that every relationship is one of equality between persons.  However with the use of artificial fertilization, the relationship between parent and child is not truly a communion of persons but one of producer and product.  In essence this is “equivalent to reducing the child to an object of scientific technology” (DV, II, B 4c).

Furthermore, once the child is viewed as a product rather than a person, the temptation to subject him to quality control measures becomes great.  In practice it also leads to other evils that are associated with the production of “excess” human lives that are either subject to abortion (referred to benignly as “selective reduction”), frozen for later use or made subject to medical experimentation.  One study estimated that on average only 1 out of 30 children conceived outside the womb actually survive.

The personalistic norm of then Karol Cardinal Wojtyla illuminates what is at the heart of the push for reproductive technologies.  The norm in its negative form states that a person is “a kind of good which does not admit use and cannot be treated as an object of use and as such the means to an end.”  The foundation of the acceptance of these reproductive technologies then is a utilitarian ethic.  This can also play out in that many couples who struggle with infertility (or even single women and same sex couples) think that a child will make them happy and they therefore should have one at all costs.

The second reason that is put forward by the Church is the inseparability of the unitive and procreative aspects of the conjugal act.  To see why this is the case, we must look at the nature of marriage itself.  Part of the nature of marriage is that there are four fundamental goods: fidelity, permanence, openness to children and friendship between the spouses (c.f. CCC 1643-1654).  For any act then to be marital, it must be perfective of these goods in some way.  Therefore in order for the conjugal act to be truly marital there must not be a “break between the unitive significance and the procreative significance” of the marital embrace (Humanae Vitae, 10).

If the marital embrace is a participation in the goods of marriage then procreation “cannot be likened to those existing in lower forms of life” (DV, Introduction 3). What this means is that there is a fundamental difference between procreation and reproduction.  Procreation is a personal act.  “Pro-create” literally means to create for.  This means that the spouses create for God in that it is God who gives life while the spouses transmit it.   Practically speaking this means that we may not create human life in the same manner (such as in test tubes) that we manipulate animals.

The difference between procreation and reproduction is one that is very often missed because of the failure to see children as a gift and not a right (DV, II, B, 8).  Although one of the sacred duties of marriage is to “accept children lovingly from God,” this does not mean that the spouses have a right to have children by any means necessary.  They must have “respect for the fundamental criteria of the moral law” (DV, Intro).  It truly means that the spouses have a willingness to accept children should God bestow that gift on them.  Janet Smith has a great analogy that she uses to explain this.  She says that infertile couples are like soldiers who go through years of training and never actually fight in a war.  They do not have the right to start a war to fulfill their assignment.  The assignment is not so much to fight as a willingness to fight.

The final reason that the Church offers is that these reproductive technologies violate the “language of the body.”  As we will see, this notion is closely linked to the inseparability principle that was discussed above. This is a notion that is central to John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.  It is essential for developing what he called an “adequate anthropology.”

Man, made in the image of God (Gn 1:26), is a body person.  This means that the body is not just something accidental or a mere house for the soul.  The body is not just part of the person but instead is the person as expressed in the physical world.  If the body is the way a person expresses himself, then in some way man must image God, who is a communion of persons pouring themselves out in an eternal exchange of self-giving love, in his body.

John Paul II puts it,

“(T)he body, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden since time immemorial in God, and thus be a sign of it” (John Paul II, General Audience, Feb 20,1980).

In revealing something of the mystery of God, the body in its sexual complentarity has a spousal meaning.  The spousal meaning of the body is the body’s “capacity of expressing love, that love in which the person becomes a gift” (John Paul II, General Audience, Jan 16,1980).  The spousal meaning of the body is expressed most especially in the conjugal union of spouses.  In order for this union to be an authentic sign of the Trinity it must be a true communion of persons (unitive) and lead to the possibility of a third person (procreative).  The child’s origin then must be directly based upon an act of bodily self-giving by the spouses and not as the result of a laboratory procedure.

Aldous Huxley may have been prophetic in seeing many of the reproductive technologies that have come about, but it was perhaps the twentieth century’s greatest prophet who saw the ethical consequences.  We would all be well advised to heed the warning of John Paul II when he said that once “the human body, considered apart from spirit and thought, comes to be used as raw material in the same way that the bodies of animals are used…we will inevitably arrive at a dreadful ethical defeat” (Letter to Families, 19).


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