One of the hazards of being off school for a snow day is that you might be channel surfing and get sucked into watching an episode of Katie Couric's new talk show. There was a story I just had to hear: A fertility clinic had accidentally implanted another couple's child into a woman's womb. I am absolutely thrilled to say that the woman this happened to never contemplated abortion. She said that her first thought was, "What if someone had accidentally been implanted with my child? I would be on my knees begging her to carry my child to term." And she did. She and her husband contacted the other couple with the news that they had another child on the way - and they were overwhelmingly grateful that their child was going to be allowed to come into the world. Nine months later, after the healthy birth of a boy named Logan, the woman at the heart of the story was told that her body was unable to endure another pregnancy. Still wanting to welcome the children she and her husband had partnered with the lab to create, the couple hired a surrogate to carry their twin girls to term.
The story reminded me of a short post I wrote in 2009 where, with the help of The Office's Michael Scott, I talked about the dark side of IVF (in vitro fertilization). The most shocking thing that I had discovered about IVF was how many "extra" embryos - human beings - are created in the laboratory, but never inserted into a mother. (That's standard practice.) There are over 400,000 frozen embryos in the United States alone! Those are human beings in suspended animation. Since I wrote that post, even the mainstream media has caught wind of how a higher percentage of children conceived through IVF are born with significant birth defects, in comparison to their normally-conceived peers (9 percent vs. 6.6 percent). As with the story on Katie Couric, these are problems - serious problems - that God wants to safeguard us and our children from.
The Magisterium of the Church (the teaching office exercised by the pope and bishops) has always been clear that IVF is not compatible with God's will. Before I say anything further let me state categorically that the Church has never, and will never, look down upon anyone conceived through IVF! No matter how a person is conceived, he or she is a human being and has the same dignity as every other human being. (That goes for a person conceived through an act of fornication, adultery, IVF, and even rape. If the Church believed differently then we wouldn't have canonized saints, such as St. Martin de Porres, who were born out of wedlock. Give it a hundred years and we could very well have a saint who was conceived through IVF.) You won't catch me condemning parents who have used IVF either; the vast, vast majority have done so with no awareness of its difficulties or the Church's teaching on the subject.
In addition to the problems with IVF cited above, why do the Church's teachers - the shepherds to whom Jesus committed His flock - feel compelled to speak out against the use of IVF?
To safeguard the dignity and well-being of the child. There are truths we have to keep in mind:
1. A child is not an end, a good (to be sought in a lab), but a person with his or her own inviolable dignity and rights.
Yes, we experience the yearning to be parents to a child of "our own." But the child is not our property; the child is his or her own person, with his/her own rights.
2. Every child has the right to be conceived through an act of love between its parents.
The child is a person, and persons are meant to come into existence through the sincere, bodily gift of his/her mother and father to one another. (The child is not a product that a doctor can mistakenly implant in the wrong mother.)
Last year a friend shared his niece's plight with me: At age 16 she discovered that she was conceived through IVF. She also discovered that she was the sole surviving embryo of several that had been created. She confided in her cousin (my friend's daughter) the sense of shame she felt - her brothers and sisters being allowed to die, so that in a sense, she could live. It messed with her mind. She was angry with her parents. Not to mention her initial reaction - "I was made in a lab?"
3. Sex, by its very nature, is love-giving and life-giving.
Everyone thinks the Catholic Church's oppostion to contraception is crazy, but it both maintains the reality of the sexual act and the dignity of the child(ren) produced by it. What do I mean?
"This pregnancy was an accident." Bull. An accident is when something goes wrong. If a pregnancy resulted from your lovemaking then biologically everything went exactly right - it couldn't have gone better! Contraception has twisted how we see reality. A child is never an accident, never some unforeseen by-product of a night of romance.
Creating a new life is an inseparable part of the sexual act. And those who do try to separate it out, eliminate it, are doing something against nature. Only by ignoring that obvious truth can an individual - or a society - speak of the growing child as an "accident."
When a Catholic husband and wife make love, they give their whole selves to one another. There is nothing about their fertility that needs to be suppressed or treated as a hindrance to their love for one another. If they are practicing NFP (natural family planning), and come together during a time in the wife's cycle when they believe her to be infertile, and if a pregnancy should result; then they understand that their child is anything but an accident - a surprise, sure; but never an "accident"! That child is the result of their love - a beautiful gift entrusted to them by God. That child is its own person, brought into existence to enrich the world and spend eternity with God.
The child did not come into being to meet a need felt by the parents. The child is the fruit naturally springing from their love. They are there to love the child - to pour themselves out for the enrichment and growth of this new person. In doing so they will be enriched - both in the way they image and make present the love of God, and in the love their child returns to them. But it is an enrichment that takes place while safeguarding the dignity and rights of the child.
The vast majority of people who have sought IVF have done so innocently, without anyone raising even one of these issues with them. They know that they want to give their love to a child and have never heard its darker side or the moral problems associated it. The Church's vision of sex and procreation safeguards the dignity of the child as well as prevents horrible situations like that being experienced by my friend's niece or young Logan from today's Katie Couric show. Someday Logan will hear the story of his conception. There is the silver lining of the woman who respected his life enough to carry him to term ... but there's so much else there that will likely be difficult to hear. And it doesn't have to be that way.