Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli
On Sept. 27, 2016, New Scientist, a weekly international magazine, reported that a team of American scientists had produced the first three-parent baby through genetic engineering and in vitro fertilization. The scientists did their work in Mexico because the revolutionary technology using the DNA of three individuals to produce the baby is not legal in the United States. Some are greeting this latest break-through with great enthusiasm as a way to stop certain diseases. Others are expressing their grave concerns about the morality of such technology.
For almost 40 years, our secular culture has wholeheartedly embraced and promoted in vitro fertilization as an ethical reproductive technology. Good-intentioned individuals desiring to have children have not always taken the time to assess critically this method of manufacturing babies. As for any human act, discernment is required to determine whether it is moral or not. Before acting, the judgment must be made whether in vitro fertilization is in accord with God’s creative design or not.
There are many blessings in marriage. Each family is a sanctuary of life where God entrusts a child to the care of a mother and father. “Children are a gift from the Lord, the fruit of the womb, a reward” (Ps 127:3). As the Second Vatican Council teaches, “Children are the supreme gift of marriage and contribute very substantially to the welfare of their parents” (Gaudium et Spes, 50).
Sadly, in the United States, one out of every six married couples must deal with infertility. In 30 percent of all cases, male infertility is a factor. In 6 percent of all cases, the woman has difficulty in conceiving a child. The desire of these couples to cooperate with God in bringing a child into the world is noble and praiseworthy. So also is the desire to overcome the obstacles preventing the conception and birth of a child.
Medical methods used to have a child that respect the dignity of the human person and the very nature of marriage as established by the Creator are moral. Thus, couples may use fertility drugs. They can also have a surgical procedure to eliminate any blockage. These methods help a husband and wife conceive a child in the exchange of their conjugal love.
However, there are other medical methods that compromise the nature of the marriage and the personal dignity of the child at conception. These methods separate procreation from the intimate expression of love between husband and wife. These same methods produce human life and then discard it at will. Such methods are immoral. Simply put, any medical method that assists the marriage act to achieve pregnancy is moral. Any method that takes the place of the marriage act to produce a child is not.
When in vitro fertilization is used, an embryo is produced in vitro — in a petri dish — in a laboratory. The embryo is manufactured by experts, using the raw material from two or more donors. The embryo is brought into existence outside the mother’s body and not within a conjugal act of love between a husband and wife. This type of reproductive technology separating procreation from sexual love reduces the child to a product.
Furthermore, in such reproductive technology, multiple embryos are created. Some are selected and implanted in a woman. Others are dismantled for their DNA and then disposed. Still others are simply destroyed. Even after embryos are implanted in a woman, doctors will make a selective reduction, that is, destroy those they judge less promising. In some cases, they will even destroy embryos to reduce the number of children wanted. These procedures demean and diminish the value of human life. Since the embryo is the very beginning of the human person, a coherent respect for the dignity of the person prohibits such procedures.
Sometimes, to produce a child, doctors will use donor eggs from one or two women or donor sperm from one man. As a result, the biological father or mother of the child is someone other than the parents involved in this procedure. The child produced has little chance, if any, of ever knowing his or her biological parent.
In reproductive technology that produces children in laboratory dishes, the child truly is a product of human manufacturing. These procedures “expose [man] to the temptation to go beyond the limits of a reasonable dominion over nature” (Donum Vitae, 1). The life and death of the child at the most vulnerable stage of human existence become subject to the decision of experts. Thus, these experts abrogate to themselves what belongs to God alone as the giver of all life.
Scientific technology can be helpful. However, certain procedures are more than an intervention to assist procreation. They are substitutes for the conjugal union of love between a man and woman that remains open to life as a gift from God. As John M. Haas, the President of The National Catholic Bioethics Center, says, children are “begotten, not made.”
Furthermore, altering embryos to be born free of disease is one step away from “designer babies.” In this case, parents have their future child altered before birth so that the child has the characteristics that the parents themselves want. Each technological advance of this kind brings us closer to Huxley’s Brave New World. As Stuart Newman, New York Medical College Professor of Cell Biology and Anatomy, has remarked, “The attempt to improve future people is not medicine… but a new form of eugenics….”