When Society Begins in Test Tubes

But by referring to nature the Church doesn’t intend to be naturalistic. Just realistic. Large scale in vitro fertilization is a social experiment which overlooks the real problems that are arising from it.
by Brother John Antonio, LC | Source: Catholic.net

Any fan of Discovery Channel knows that each species of the animal kingdom has a specific manner of reproduction linked to its survival and development.   If the queen of a bee colony decides to lay only two or three eggs a month, the hive won’t survive the winter.  A first-world country with a birth rate below 2.1 children per woman would experience a similar fate.  Then too, linked to the necessity of reproduction for survival is the essential element of education or orientation.  For example, newborn cheetahs go through a long personalized hunting course before being left on their own to find food.   If the cheetah reproduced at a rate of thousands per year like the honey bee, the mother would be confronted with the impossibility of feeding and training a gargantuan litter of hunting students. 

What about homo sapiens?  Does it matter how we come into the world? If our reproduction affects our development like in the rest of the animal kingdom, it certainly does.  In certain aspects mankind is not as pre-determined as other mammals.  We don’t always give birth in the springtime, nor do parents categorically boot their children out of the nest at a given age.  But what would happen, for example, if we started reproducing like arachnids?  A hundred baby spiders break out into nature without ever having met their father.  If applied to humanity, it’s difficult to believe that something catastrophic wouldn’t happen.  And yet, we are soon to find out. 

In vitro fertilization has recently allowed some men to father two to three hundred children by being paid to act as sperm donors.  IVF has been around since 1978, so it in itself is nothing new, but the increasingly indiscriminate use of the method has led to the social phenomena of a generation of fatherless children.  Some governments, rather than being wary of these developments, are actively speeding things along: the British Parliament recently decided that fathers aren’t needed when women seek in vitro fertilization.  While such methods work fine for Certified Angus breeding, something is seriously wrong when human society gets the same treatment as beef.

From the biological point of view it is difficult to maintain a healthy gene pool.  An in vitro child may grow up in a city with 300 anonymous siblings.  He or she could easily befriend, date, and marry a half-brother or half-sister; or at least a first cousin of some sort.  It’s already happening: a sperm donor in Ireland has already been faced with the dilemma of having over 100 unidentified daughters living in the same vicinity of his son. 

A service offering DNA testing may be able to solve that by identifying individuals who share a common father.  In that case, taking a look at a person’s double helix could become the first step to developing a healthy relationship.  But even if that boy or girl doesn’t plan on finding a soul mate, they would still have to live with the jarring prospect of a déjà vu every so often.  They may have their mother’s eyes, but Phil next door could have their father’s hair, nose, and the rest.

On the psychological side, we should ask if a father is an essential element of childhood maturity.  This could get complicated.  But aside from the numerous sociological and psychological studies that clearly demonstrate the importance of good fatherhood we could simply ask, “What is the greatest need of the human person in his or her personal development?” 

The answer is love: we all agree that people need to feel loved.  A child who lost his father tragically through war or natural causes can still feel love at least thanks to the act of self-giving by which he was conceived.  On the other hand, a child whose dad was never there, not even in the moment of conception, is denied this unique expression of a father’s “I care”.  Dad simply isn’t the same as mom, and vice versa.  Nor can surrogate dads or moms completely fill in for biological parents.        

We can never predict with absolute certainty what our society will look like a few generations down the road.  But in light of past and present aberrations it’s difficult to believe that something abnormal wouldn’t happen with the liberalization of in vitro fertilization.  A few decades ago, popular opinion endorsed contraceptives as the solution to enhancing relationships and preventing unwanted pregnancies.  Now, we see that couples tend to stay together longer without it.  Regarding liberation from unwanted pregnancies, 54% of the abortions in 2000 were solicited by women using contraceptives.  Then, single parenting and divorce was in.  In the 90’s people could even laugh along with it in films like Jim Carrey’s Liar Liar and Robin Williams’ Mrs. Doubtfire.  A report by research groups has shown that it may be a subject more fittingly treated in drama than comedy, since the economic disadvantage of single-parent families has put many of them below the poverty level, not to mention costing American taxpayers $112 billion dollars annually.  The seemingly “private” realm of procreation and parenting is actually very social.
Many IVF advocates are quick to reply that its only detractors are those with religious motives.  It’s evident, however, that there’s no need to open your Bible to see the negative effects it causes.  It’s about the laws of nature.  Technology may allow us to harness some of these laws in order to circumvent others—for better or for worse.  We can use medicine to artificially avoid or facilitate childbirth, but we do so following the laws medicine; and then, inevitably suffering the social and medical side effects of a jinxed natural process.  Man cannot, however, completely recreate nature, especially when it expresses the complex spiritual and psychological needs of the human person—needs which technology is unable to completely understand. 

A more explicit expression of this natural law can come to us through a legitimate divine law.  That’s one of the many benefits of the ethical wisdom that the Catholic Church has to offer.  Humanae Vitae was a pastoral attempt to expose some the dangers of contraception.  Similar documents help us to avoid a trial and error process, which can be hazardous when rashly applied to nature and more so when tested on humanity.  Forty years after Humanae Vitae the facts show that, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “The transmission of life is inscribed in nature and its laws stand as an unwritten norm to which everyone must refer.”  The Church’s teachings against indiscriminate IVF are an effort to spare children and parents the unpleasant side effects that accompany it. 

That may sound like a nature-based Discovery Channel conclusion.  But by referring to nature the Church doesn’t intend to be naturalistic.  Just realistic.    Large scale in vitro fertilization is a social experiment which overlooks the real problems that are arising from it.  On the other hand, a realistic look at children shows that they are best served when they come into the world with both a father and a mother close by.    

Brother John Antonio, of the Legionaries of Christ, studies for the priesthood in Rome.

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