The National Catholic Review
The Editors
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For millennia childbirth was a mystery akin to death and just as unpredictable. Children were a blessing from God, and childlessness was seen as an affliction that could be remedied only by divine intervention. Today, prospective parents may exercise far more control over the reproductive process, but medical advancements bring with them a host of ethical quandaries. In Dignitas Personae (December 2008), the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith offers moral instruction on reproductive ethics, but the very technical nature of these questions, together with the strong pressures exerted by the medical industry, still leaves couples bewildered. Here is an opportunity for pastoral leaders to reach out with sensitivity and compassion, ever mindful of the ultimate role God plays in our creation.

The longing for a child is an ancient theme found throughout the Bible. Think of Hannah, despondent before the miraculous birth of Samuel, or Sarah, greeting the news of her impending pregnancy with a skeptical, world-weary laugh. The anguish these women knew is manifest today in the thousands of couples who seek assistance from the rapidly growing fertility industry. The goal of helping couples to conceive is a laudable one, but the fertility industry is moving far beyond its original purpose, pursuing conception with seemingly little concern for the moral cost. The birth of octuplets to a single mother with six other children earlier this year may be an extreme example of the industry’s excess, but there are other troubling signs. At the Fertility Institute in Los Angeles, for example, couples can now choose their child’s sex and eye color. News reports have greeted these developments with appropriate skepticism, a sign that human intuition may ultimately serve as a check on genetic experimentation. Yet it should not take such extreme cases to spark a moral debate.

Unlike countries such as Italy, in the United States fertility clinics are largely unregulated, and the rapid pace of technology suggests further growth. Fertility clinics in the United States are already home to over 500,000 frozen embryos, and the numbers are likely to swell, spurred by an industry that profits handsomely from expensive procedures. Most frozen embryos are left over from in vitro fertilization, the procedure by which an egg is combined with sperm in a laboratory setting. Only a select number of fertilized eggs are implanted in the mother’s womb; the rest are stored, some for future use. The vast majority remain frozen, however, with both couples and clinics reluctant to destroy them outright—an implicit recognition, perhaps, that they are more than just cells in a petri dish.

The moral dilemmas raised by childbirth do not end with conception. With little controversy or moral discussion, genetic screening has become a regular part of prenatal care. As a result, the abortion of children with genetic disorders has become frighteningly routine. According to studies, just over 90 percent of children in the United States diagnosed in utero with Down syndrome are aborted, a practice the columnist George F. Will has called “eugenics by abortion.” Slowly and quietly our society is being diminished, driven by the too widespread belief that medical science is the ultimate arbiter of these grave decisions.

To curtail practices that are so widespread calls for vigorous evangelization as well as regulation. Indeed, the rapid growth of medical technologies presents a serious challenge for the7 church’s teaching on life itself. Is every new life a blessing, one to be welcomed no matter what form it may take? The church rightly calls upon us to answer with an emphatic yes. But how far should one go to bring life about? Dignitas Personae reiterates church teaching that the creation of human life properly belongs to the marital act. Yet if we judge by the number of frozen embryos in the United States, the church’s message is not being heard. The widespread use of genetic screening is an even more alarming sign that the church’s call to care for the frail and vulnerable is going unheeded.

Couples facing infertility or the challenges of caring for a disabled child may understandably feel isolated and overwhelmed. In our culture, it is not surprising that they look to science for assistance. The church can serve as an important ally in guiding them to a life-affirming decision, whether it is ethical fertility treatment, adoption or long-term disability care [see page 13 in this issue]. Perhaps the most effective witness pastoral counselors can offer is simply to listen, always attentive to signs of the Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, at work. Scientific advancements have reduced infant mortality and enhanced life for children in myriad ways. Yet medicine cannot alleviate all of life’s suffering, and one must be wary of scientific attempts to shape life at its earliest stages. The Creator’s words from Jeremiah still resonate: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.”

Comments

Edison Woods | 7/9/2009 - 11:12pm
The response this editorial has aroused is merely proof that we Americans are one step closer to legalized murder in this country. Specifically the legal murder of anyone and everyone who is seen as physically or mentally imperfect. The way things are going soon the land of the brave and the free will become the magazine cover for the prison of eternal death! God forbid it!!!
john vercellone | 7/7/2009 - 2:40pm

A VERY BELATED AFTER COMMENT,I WOULD SUGGEST THAT EVEN THREE DIFFERENT FERTILITY EXPERTS MAYBE NOT ENOUGH TO FIND HELP FOR THOSE HAVING CONCEEPTION ISSUES,AND AFTER THAT THERE ARE MILLION PLUS BABIES BORN IN america of single parent who will give it up for adoption.those two options should be very,very very very well explored before involving oneself wiht artifiial birth..

Roy Tinder | 7/5/2009 - 1:16am

It is all quite simple, in spite of the appearance of complexity.

Primary Principle - Thou Shalt NOT kill. 

 No equivocation.  Uncategorical.  Thou Shalt NOT kill - an innocent human being - from conception to natural death.

No need to contemplate and cogitate and commiserate.  It is very simple: 

Every human being, no matter how disabled or unwelcome or inconvenient, can be justifiably killed. 

Period.

Every time man tries to take the "easy way" out, he suffers the consequences.  The only way, is the right way!  Not always easy - but, always, the right way, in the long-term.

Thou shalt NOT kill!

 

Thomas N Detesco, M.D. | 7/4/2009 - 11:33pm

I think the editorial presents a balanced  approach in our dialogue  on the issue of respect for life.

American and the intellectual tradition it represents can take a leading position in defineing  a true Catholic voice on  an issue  we all must  unifiy our committment to.

Greta | 7/4/2009 - 12:26am

posted comment.."It raises the larger issue of how to integrate and communicate Church teaching to our culture and society, something we haven't quite figured out as yet. "

John Paul II with Theology of the Body and his and Bendict XVI have given us all we need to know and teach.  The problem is not what the church teaches, but the simple fact that so many who know the truth try to bend it or flat out lie about the teaching.  If the truth came from every pulpit in the country for 40 years at the same rate the lies have been told about the spirit of vatican two or the outright denial of settled church teaching, there would not be a major problem. 

john vercellone | 7/2/2009 - 9:06pm

is it not a reality that over 30per cent of all births in the usa yearly for the last 15-25years are from single parent households,deosnt that create a large number of babies for adoption?? A DISAPPOINTMENT A GOOGLE SEARCH FOR PROEJCT RACHEL IN METRO BOSTON REVEALED NO SERVICES FOR EXPECTING MOTHERS BUT THERE WAS A LOT OF PROGRAMS FOR FORMER ABORTION MOTHERS EMOTIONAL PROBLEMS.THIS IS ADMIRABLE BUT WHAT DOES IT SAY TO EXPECTING MOTHERS WHO HAVE NOT TAKEN THE ABORTION OPTION.THIS IS WRONG.I HOPE I MISSED INFORMATION THAT PROJECT RACHEL DOES HAVE PROGRAMS OF SUPPORT FOR SINGLE MOTHERS..THE GIZMOS OF BIOGENETICS IS FULL OF PITFALLS AND FOR THOSE EUGENICS SUPPORTERS(WHICH IVF IS A PART OF EUGENICS IDEOLOGY)IF THEY THINK THEY CAN KEEP THE AMERICAN POPULATION FROM FALLING BEHIND WORLD POPUALTION GROWTH BY HIGH TECH,THE SAME BLIND THINKING(BY THE AMERICAN INTELLECTUAL ELITE)OF THE LATE 1960S STATED THAT NO WAY WOULD CHINA AND INDIA BE ABLE TO MAINTAIN THEIR BIG POPULATIONS OF 750MILLIONS AND 650MILLIONS RESPECTFULY,HEH HMM THERE WAS A GREEN REVOLUTION CONCURRENT WITH THE COMMUNICATION REVOLUTION THAT TODAY INDIA AND CHINA ARE 1.1 BILLION AND 1.4BILLION RESPECTFULLY..IT WILL HAPPEN AGAIN AS AMERICA PLAYS WITH SCEINCE AND TECHNOLOGY FOR CONTROL AND NOT LIBERATION OF THE HUMAN CONDITION

Bill Collier | 7/2/2009 - 1:39pm

From the Editors' comment:

""Only a select number of fertilized eggs are implanted in the mother’s womb; the rest are stored, some for future use."

This statement is not physiologically correct. A "select number of fertilized eggs" are not "implanted" in the womb; the fertilized eggs are instead introduced into the uterus in the hope that one or more may implant in the wall of the uterus. Several fertilized eggs are introduced to increase the odds of implantation. This is a procedure I find morally problematic, but it is the procedure that sometimes follows multiple implantations that I find morally repugnant, i.e., the culling of some of the implanted embryos to increase the survival chances of one or two of the embryos. In my opinion, culling is merely abortion by another name.   

 

 

Anne Chavez | 7/2/2009 - 11:54am

One problem with embryo adoption, aside from the obvious one of how the child was conceived, is the danger that this practice could lead to embryos being conceived and frozen deliberately to be sold for profit to infertile couples.  It's true that many naturally conceived embryos do not survive; some die before, some after implantation in the womb.  This is an abortion-a spontaneous as opposed to a procured abortion.  The one certainty is that each of us began life as an embryo.  We are playing God if we decide which embryos may be destroyed and which may not.

The existence of so many frozen embryos is a true moral dilemma.  The root of the problem is that they should never have been created to begin with.  I am not wise enough to decide what should now be done with these lives;  I do believe we should stop freezing our offspring.

 

 

BRUCE SNOWDEN | 7/2/2009 - 8:14am

Respectfully,  regarding "At Life's Beginning," as best I understand it, the development of Church teachings formulate in response to pulsations within the heart of the  Body of Christ called the "Sensus Fidelium." The expectations of the People of God are illumined in the light of Faith, Faith being a dark light, but fortunately nonetheless truly a light. But this light of Faith is ever in need of replemishing power surges, the power surges of which I speak comimg from the guidance of theological insights, by which Church theologian continually revitalize Faith's dark light, which by its nature is ever flickering. But it must be understood and accepted, that, the sustaining power of theological insights get their validity, their ability to surge, from being plugged into the ecclesial generator called the Magisterium. It is from that source and from no other, that, theologians generate their power surges that keep the dark light of Faith ever vital, even as it flickers!

"Sensus Fidelium" then, is the pulsating heart of the Church. theological power surges the mouth of the Church, the Magesterium the hands of the Church pointing the way. Why can't the heart, mouth and hands of the Church collectively integrate and communicate Church teachings, simply, plainly and without gloss?

Could all of this be so simple it might work? Or is it just too simple to work? In the meantime one hundred thousand frozen zyotes, or embryoes, await a baptism of deliverance!  At any rate all I can do is hope that heads far wiser than mine come up with the right answer in this age of bio-scientific theology, or whatever it's called!

 

BRUCE SNOWDEN | 7/2/2009 - 8:14am

Respectfully,  regarding "At Life's Beginning," as best I understand it, the development of Church teachings formulate in response to pulsations within the heart of the  Body of Christ called the "Sensus Fidelium." The expectations of the People of God are illumined in the light of Faith, Faith being a dark light, but fortunately nonetheless truly a light. But this light of Faith is ever in need of replemishing power surges, the power surges of which I speak comimg from the guidance of theological insights, by which Church theologian continually revitalize Faith's dark light, which by its nature is ever flickering. But it must be understood and accepted, that, the sustaining power of theological insights get their validity, their ability to surge, from being plugged into the ecclesial generator called the Magisterium. It is from that source and from no other, that, theologians generate their power surges that keep the dark light of Faith ever vital, even as it flickers!

"Sensus Fidelium" then, is the pulsating heart of the Church. theological power surges the mouth of the Church, the Magesterium the hands of the Church pointing the way. Why can't the heart, mouth and hands of the Church collectively integrate and communicate Church teachings, simply, plainly and without gloss?

Could all of this be so simple it might work? Or is it just too simple to work? In the meantime one hundred thousand frozen zyotes, or embryoes, await a baptism of deliverance!  At any rate all I can do is hope that heads far wiser than mine come up with the right answer in this age of bio-scientific theology, or whatever it's called!

 

ANN ODONOGHUE | 7/1/2009 - 10:39pm

Is Michael Binder employed by America Magazine? 

Marie Rehbein | 7/1/2009 - 6:13pm

What should be done before the practice becomes commonplace is for it to be made illegal to create and destroy human embryos for financial gain.

NY Diane Elizabeth | 12/31/1969 - 7:00pm

This is like any other moral issue: And I applaude the dialogue and to curtail practices that are so widespread calls for vigorous evangelization. Perhaps the most effective witness pastoral counselors can offer is simply to listen, always attentive to signs of the Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, at work.

In the Rochester, NY community the Catholic Church has the School of the Holy Childhood where children with Developmental Disabilities are educated and loved by the community and the sisters who run the ministry. A proactive approach is called for in the Catholic Church.

One verse that is commonly used is

James | 6/30/2009 - 10:31am

Dr. VerBeek,

 

If an embryo is implanted and dies, this is not a moral failing, its a life-saving medical procedure gone wrong.  The Church has been ambigious on embryo adoption, I think, bcause she doesn't fully understand it.  But there is nothing morally objectionable to affording frozen embryos the opportunity to implant in a willing womb.  of course, one ough not implant 10 embryos if one is only willing ot carry one or two to term, but if the alternative is to let them die in a freezer, than embryo adoption is in fact virtious.

Michael Bindner | 6/30/2009 - 8:54am

The reluctance to destroy frozen zygotes is more likely a reluctance to abandon future profits than a reverence for these cells.  One thing that embryonic stem cell research has taught us, if we will learn the lesson, is that prior to gastrulation, when you remove the chorion to harvest the stem cells, the stem cells survive.  After gastrulation they do not because they are an organism.  Prior to gastrulation they are a potential organism - hence the term pluripotential.  The hard thinking for the Church has less to do with the moral quandry of what to do with the embryos and how to stop manufacture than with the Curia changing its position without losing face.  Until the Hierarchy has the moral courage to examine its beliefs in this area (and face the scientific facts), it should not be too upset with those Catholics who use and who offer this technology when they won't do likewise (especially when the latter have science and truth on their side).

I am not lapsing into scientism here, but am recognizing that natural law reasoning must be based in the natural sciences to be anything but dicta.

Jim | 6/30/2009 - 8:08am

I found the article enlightening and helpful.  As far as the comment on ""embryo adoption" I see this as no answer.  The concept on the surface may seem logical but most transplants fail and abortion is the end result.  Our answer must come from the "Seamless Garment" concept.  The work is long and hard, but we must have reverance for life, yes, even "pre-life", that is the marriage act itself.  Accepting less joins others on the long but slippery slope..  We dare not "draw a line."  We will always slide toward the easy decision.

Theo Verbeek | 6/30/2009 - 7:21am

 Bioscience and the church are in the same situation as they were in the time  of Kepler, Copernicus and his mates with another issue. Mankind's stumbling efforts to try to understand God's glorious universe. Though original sin will be present alas like in all human affairs, don't let us repeat the mistakes of the Galileo affair. Don' rush in where angels fear to tread. It is one thing to condemn obviously wrong actions and trends but the scope of bioscience is much bigger than that.   

P Davis | 6/30/2009 - 7:17am

Excellent article and obviously very timely. It raises the larger issue of how to integrate and communicate Church teaching to our culture and society, something we haven't quite figured out as yet. 

JOHN ryan | 6/30/2009 - 5:16am

i AM SURE BILLIE R HAS NOT READ THE SAME ARTICLE AS ME ENTITLED 'AT LIFE'S BEGINNINIG"; OR PERHAPS HE OR SHE HAS A PRIVATE COPY OF THE CATECHISM OT THE CATHOLIC CHURCH.

 

ROBERT ROWDEN | 6/30/2009 - 2:48am

So far the hierarchy has reputiated adoption of frozen embryos by infertile couples.  It seems to me that they must answer the obvious question of what should be done with the 500,000 already collected. It is not sufficient to say these embryos should not have been created,  In the absence of a womb in which to be implanted they are doomed.

The obvious pragmatic alternative is to use them for research, since their destruction is inevitable.  In our society today such an outcome is entirely predictable.

William Rydberg | 6/29/2009 - 7:27pm

It would be nice to occasionally read an opinion in this magazine that actually supports Catholic teachings as outlined clearly in the Catechism of the catholic Church.  Or am I being unreasonable, I think not..  Come on shape up!

James | 6/29/2009 - 12:23pm

I was disapointed that the document had suc ha negative view of embryo adoption, which seems to be a moral menas by which infertile couples may experience pregnancy and living embryos may avoid a death sentence in the freezer.  I wish the document had been more clear that this procedure is not a violation of doctrinal Churhc teacinhg.

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