What we have today is a bit of a departure from my normal style, more of a “teaching” post, if you will. Maybe because it’s Sunday? Or maybe because I slept for 9.5 hours last night and my brain is functioning at 130%. Probably that. But rest assured, I’m not planning to talk at you for the entire month. This one just came out kinda … professorial. So proceed with caution. Or don’t. It won’t hurt my feelings.
Catholics seem to be, how can I put this … a tad obsessed with life.
Life from the moment of conception until the moment of natural death. Life-long commitment within the marriage relationship. Openness to life within marriage. Support for life in all its ages and stages, especially among the poor and marginalized. Building a culture of life to combat the influence of the culture of death. Eternal life.
Yeah, we’re totally enamored with life. And there’s a reason or two.
It’s worth noting that faithful Catholics take God literally (and seriously) when it comes to marriage being a life-long commitment. And hand-in-hand with the understanding that marriage is for life comes the concept of openness to life.
Here’s what openness to life does not mean. Having as many kids as is physically possible. Only having sex when the woman is fertile. Pumping out baby after baby to the detriment of the mother’s health, the father’s health, the overall wellbeing of the family, etc.
It also doesn’t mean going to extraordinary lengths or using illicit means to achieve the heartbreakingly beautiful end result of a child.
So we don’t pop ’em out till we drop, we don’t dial up Rome to find out if we’re expected to produce 11 or 14 kids to fill those empty seminaries, and we also don’t turn to IVF or surrogacy or sperm donation or any other illicit means in the pursuit of a biological child.
And it all comes down to respect for human life and for the autonomy of the human person.
Those might not seem like related topics (perpetual pregnancy vs. IVF, etc.) but there is a common thread that runs through them both, and it’s the idea of the person as commodity.
In the first example, both the mother and the child (but primarily the mother) are being used, are being viewed primarily for what they can do and whether they can produce and not for who they are.
We must never reduce the human person to the sum of her parts … or productivity.
In the second case, the matter of IVF and other illicit means of fertility assistance, the person being reduced to the level of commodity is the child.
The parents are too, to a certain extent, with the collection of the proper parts and pieces (usually done via means which violate their dignity and the integrity of their sexual relationship) and in the use of their bodies (or the bodies of donors) as little more than incubators or parts-suppliers. But primarily it is the child(ren) who suffers the evil of being reduced to a thing, a commodity, a very intensely desired and sought after prize … but a prize nonetheless. In other words, a possession.
A lot of people have a really hard time seeing any connection between contraception and reproductive technologies because we have such a mental block in place. Sex and babies have been so effectively severed from one another that there’s almost no capacity to dialogue with somebody of the prevailing cultural mindset about the personhood of the parties involved, or the dignity of human sexuality.
Since sex has been reduced to a recreational activity at best and a financial transaction or a laboratory procedure at worst, it’s a tough sell to the modern mind to reveal the mystery and the dignity inherent in sex and it’s procreative power.
It’s also a really tough sell to tell someone who wants a baby that there’s no guarantee, and that they don’t actually have the “right” to possess a child of their own genetic makeup.
Because children are only and always a gift.
It is this sacred and inviolable belief that informs both our rejection of contraception and our inability to participate in illicit or immoral means of fertility assistance.
So to the couple seeking to avoid a pregnancy at this time in their marriage, the answer is: wait. Do not do the thing that could bring a child into your lives right now. You might not be prepared to care for or to fully welcome a child right now, and that is fine, but a child is only and always a gift. And to the couple desperate for a child of their own, a child to carry their genes and their hopes and dreams into the future…wait.
However, your heart is breaking (and this is so hard to write, and this is so hard to understand) manipulating and creating human life in a petri dish denies your child/children their basic human rights and dignity. Even if only one embryo is created (thereby avoiding the moral conundrum of frozen embryos (and the even greater sorrow of little teeny persons filling dumpsters with other medical waste) your child deserves to be conceived in the safety and privacy of his or her mother’s body. It is his fundament right.
This is such a hard concept. In only a few decades we’ve gone from “could we possibly?” to “why the hell not?” in so many areas of science, and reproductive science is at the forefront of innovation. But just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.
Just because we can harvest eggs and sperm and spin them and clean them and genetically select the most promising embryos from a batch created in a lab…doesn’t mean we should.
Just because we can keep the “extra” embryos frozen on ice, suspended indefinitely until the parents either save up for another attempt or decide to dispose of them or “donate” their children to science (or to another family)…doesn’t mean we should.
Just because we can take a donor egg from one woman and fill it with the genetic material from another woman and combine it with the sperm from a man…doesn’t mean we should.
Just because we can extract the raw material from an older woman and her husband and implant the created embryo into the uterus of a younger, healthier surrogate to carry their pregnancy to term and surrender the child who grew inside of her body back to them…doesn’t mean we should.
In each of these examples the dignity of the human person is being trampled upon. But, you may protest, what about the dignity of the parents and their right to have a child?
I would gently remind you that no such right exists, that we are not guaranteed genetic offspring of our own making, and that the rights of the individual are always superior to the desires of another person.
Our children do have the right to exist, but we do not have the right to summon them into existence by whatever means necessary. And we certainly don’t have the right to dispose of other lives in order to arrive at the successful delivery of another.
This includes the mother’s life. So by the same line of reasoning, to ask a woman to carry as many pregnancies as is physically possible, to expect her to go beyond openness to life and to demand total surrender of her will and her intellect in the realm of family planning and mothering…this also is unethical.
But so is contraception. So is forcing a woman to alter her body, either chemically or surgically or by means of a barrier, so that she is conveniently available for use without fear of repercussion. Even if she is a willing participant, an enthusiastic participant, even, in her own sterilization…it is still a grave violation of her human dignity.
Okay, this went way longer than I was expecting and I have to get dressed for the day, but I promise we’ll talk more about IVF and contraception and being chained, barefoot and pregnant, to the cookstove.
Until then, keep the Synod (which started today!) in your prayers, and ask the Lord for wisdom and understanding as you ponder these teachings for yourself. They’re not easy. But they are life-giving (ha.)