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In vitro for eight

Charles Rice | Monday, March 16, 2009

The California hospital where they were born calls them “Suleman Babies A to H.” Their mother, Nadya Suleman, an unmarried, unemployed 33-year-old grad student, already had six children, ages two to seven, all through in vitro fertilization (IVF). She was surprised when the octuplets appeared after six embryos, conceived by IVF, were placed in her womb. She instantly became Octomom. Reaction, mostly critical, focused on Nadya’s “irresponsibility” and the “professional negligence” of a physician who would perform IVF on a single mother of six.

The case, however, should prompt a reappraisal of the effects of IVF and related techniques on the human dignity of all those involved. On Sept. 8, 2008, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued, with the approval of Pope Benedict XVI, an instruction on bioethics, “Dignitas Personae” (The Dignity of a Person) (DP). DP presents the principles governing IVF and other types of artificial fertilization, as well as new techniques including gene therapy, therapeutic and reproductive cloning, the use of stem cells, both embryonic and adult, and the attempted hybridization of human and animal genetic elements. Space permits discussion here only of DP’s treatment of IVF.

The opening sentence of DP states the theme: “The dignity of a person must be recognized in every human being from conception to natural death.” DP builds on Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical of Pope Paul VI which affirmed the inseparability on human initiative of the unitive and procreative meanings of the conjugal act. “The transmission of life,” said DP, “is inscribed in nature and its laws stand as an unwritten norm to which all must refer.”(6). The natural law dictates that the “authentic context” for the origin of human life is in the conjugal act, “open to life,” between husband and wife. (6) The acceptance of IVF is a predictable result of the acceptance of contraception. Contraception seeks to take the unitive without the procreative, while IVF takes the procreative without the unitive.

Hormonal or surgical techniques, however, that remove obstacles to natural fertilization, such as surgical repair of fallopian tubes, are encouraged by DP because none of them “replaces the conjugal act.” (13) But techniques “which substitute for the conjugal act”(12), are unacceptable, including artificial fertilization, both heterologous (using the sperm of a third party) and homologous (using the husband’s sperm). IVF, followed by transfer of the embryo to the womb, is such a technique.

In IVF, more embryos are produced than are intended to be placed in the womb. Some may be frozen for future use. Those with defects are “discarded.” (15) More embryos are then placed in the womb than the number of children desired, “to increase the chance that at least one will implant in the uterus.” (15) If, however, more implant than are desired, the answer is “embryo reduction” in which the extra children in the womb are “exterminated [by] selective abortion.” (21)

Such a “purely utilitarian treatment” of human life is seen clearly in the genetic diagnosis made before transfer into the womb. “[A]n embryo suspected of having … defects, or not having the sex desired, or having other qualities that are not wanted [is destroyed].” (22) Such reflects “a eugenic mentality that [measures] the value of a human life only [by] ‘normality’ and physical well-being, thus opening the way to … infanticide and euthanasia.” (22) “The acceptance of the enormous number of abortions involved in IVF illustrates how the replacement of the conjugal act by a technical procedure … leads to a weakening of the respect owed to every human being.” (16).

Remember that each embryo is a living human being. IVF affronts the human dignity of the embryo and of Octomom herself. One is treated as an industrial product, subject to quality control, and the other as a receptacle for that product subject to further quality control.

“The Church,” said DP, “understands the suffering of couples struggling with problems of fertility. [T]he desire [for a child], however, should not override the dignity of [a] human life,” nor can it “justify the ‘production’ of offspring.” (16) And the desire not to have a child cannot justify the abandonment or destruction of a child once he or she has been conceived.” (16)

IVF often requires repeated attempts to achieve success. Multiple oocytes (unfertilized eggs) can be taken from the woman and frozen for future use in “artificial procreation.” Such is “morally unacceptable” (19), as are proposals to use frozen embryos for research or treatment of disease; such “would treat the embryos as mere ‘biological material’ and result in their destruction.” (19)

Adoption of frozen embryos, who could be implanted in the adopting woman’s womb and carried to term, could give them a chance to live. On the other hand, it would encourage, and materially cooperate with, the IVF industry by making adoption a profitable outlet for its “products.” DP does not address these concerns, although it describes “prenatal adoption’ as “praiseworthy [in its] intention of respecting and defending human life.” (19) But then it concludes that, “all things considered, … the … abandoned embryos represent a situation of injustice which in fact cannot be resolved. Therefore John Paul II made an ‘appeal … that the production of human embryos be halted, taking into account that there seems to be no morally licit solution regarding the human destiny of the … ‘frozen embryos,’ which … should … be protected by law as human persons.” (19) A more detailed discussion by the Magisterium of the “prenatal adoption” issue would be helpful.

The “Suleman Babies A to H” ought to make us think. We can proceed down the path laid out by the contraceptive separation of life from conjugal love. That path leads not only to IVF but to other techniques discussed in DP, including embryonic stem cell research which taxpayers will now fund by order of President Obama, cloning and other refinements. They involve the acceptance of utilitarian murder on a mass scale. The alternative is to return to the natural law and the recognition of every human being, from conception to natural death, as a person who has, from God, a right to life that transcends the state.

Professor Emeritus Rice is on the law school faculty. He may be reached at 574-633-4415 or rice.1@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necesarily those of The Observer.