By Mary E. McClusky
February 20, 2009
The story of Nadya Suleman's recent delivery of octuplets has released a firestorm of opinions about responsible motherhood and the complications of in vitro fertilization (IVF). Suleman already had six young children at home when she had six more embryos implanted at a fertility clinic. The result – eight babies (some from twinning) and a flurry of media interviews questioning her choices. Some criticize her for indulging her desire for more children despite being unmarried, on disability and living with her mother. Others criticize the doctor for allowing so many embryos to be implanted. No one is getting it quite right. As Catholics, how do we affirm and support the desire for children, yet reject the wrongs inherent in some assisted reproductive technologies?
It helps to understand that these situations are a direct result of our increasing view of human life as a commodity, rather than a gift. Did Nadya Suleman truly act out of selflessness for her children, or was she too blinded by her own desire for a large family to consider that her future children deserve two parents and the greater safety of a natural pregnancy? The modern fertility industry perpetuates the idea that children are a right, instead of a gift, and guarantee "success rates" for infertile couples. Many today want children on their terms, shutting God and natural law out of the process.
Courts are increasingly intolerant of doctors who refuse to perform these procedures. The California state Supreme Court ruled last year in Benitez v. North Coast Women's Care Medical Group that a physician's right to refuse to perform artificial insemination for two lesbians can be trumped by an anti-discrimination law.
Critics argue that the Church says "no" to modern science and rejects the opportunities presented by new technology. On the contrary, the Church welcomes the incredible power and potential of medicine to assist, not replace, the natural human act of procreation. To distinguish between the two, there is an ongoing need for firm ethical guidelines.
In December 2008 the Vatican released its formal instruction, Dignitas Personae: On Certain Bioethical Questions, as a follow up to the twenty-year-old "Donum Vitae." The document teaches that we can say "yes" to present and future medical interventions that assist the natural God-given function of human procreation while also respecting the intimate bond between husband and wife. Scientific developments "are certainly positive and worthy of support when they serve to overcome or correct pathologies and succeed in re-establishing the normal functioning of human procreation." Couples should be supported in their desire for children, but also gently reminded that even the tiniest embryo has equal human dignity. He or she deserves to be brought into this world through a sexual act of total and committed love between married parents. In vitro fertilization fails that test.
In the face of increasing dangers to human lives manipulated by the fertility industry, we should spread the Church's "yes" to authentic love and life. By promoting moral means that support the bodily and spiritual integrity of all persons, we witness to the truth that even the tiniest human life has dignity and is made in His image.
To read Dignitas Personae, go to: usccb.org/comm/Dignitaspersonae
Mary McClusky is Special Projects Coordinator at the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. To learn more about the bishops' pro-life activities, go to www.usccb.org/prolife.