Many Catholics were bitterly disappointed when President Bush announced, on Aug. 9, his decision to allow limited federal funding of human embryonic stem-cell research. Not a few said the United States had reached a new low in its descent into disrespect for human life. Some said they felt betrayed. “What happened to George W. Bush's solidarity with the Church in its passionate defense of life?” they asked.
If we are to be honest with ourselves, however, we must admit that the genie has been out of the bottle for two decades, with no organized, sustained opposition from the Church in the United States — even from many of us engaged in the pro-life struggle on a daily basis. Human embryos have been destroyed routinely and in untold numbers through the technology which makes embryonic stem-cell research possible — in vitro fertilization (IVF) — for two decades now, without any proportionate outcry from Catholics.
This fact was not lost on supporters of embryonic stem-cell research. On CNN's “Larry King Live” July 30, actor Christopher Reeve used it to question the sincerity of our position on the issue. “In … fertility clinics, every day of the week, fertilized embryos that will not be implanted in the womb are headed for the garbage.
“Now, if you believe that life begins the moment that an egg is fertilized, then it would seem to me that [this would provoke] outrage …”
In the June 25 issue of Time, journalist Michael Kinsley made the same point, noting that, in spite of the enormous controversy over embryonic stem-cell research, “President Bush is not searching for a compromise on the issue of fertility clinics because there is no issue.
“The Roman Catholic Church and others are publicly opposed to high-tech fertilization techniques, but they are not beating the drum about it.”
Acknowledging our failure to “beat the drum” is not merely an academic exercise, as if the stem-cell issue and related problems have gone away. On November 26, technicians at Advanced Cell Technology, a private company in Worcester, Mass., announced they had successfully created the first-ever human clone.
Mary Ann Liebert, publisher of the on-line journal that carried the company's announcement, remarked that the people objecting to cloning today are the same people who objected to in vitro fertilization 20 years ago, implying that, just as in vitro has become routine, so will cloning. She's probably right, unless we Catholics return to the source of the problem.
Doctor, Can You Spare a Human?
To be fair, Richard Doerflinger, policy director of the secretariat for pro-life affairs of the United States Catholic Conference, points out that the conference has regularly made public statements and sent out information on in vitro fertilization and related issues in the Respect Life materials sent out annually to pastors, schools and hospitals. He says the issue of embryonic stem-cell research required a special effort on the part of the Church because the government was proposing to make cooperation in the destruction of human life an official policy.
Still, Doerflinger agrees that the controversy over embryonic stem-cell research has raised important questions about our response to in vitro fertilization. “I've been hearing from people in the pro-life movement who are not Catholic, that they had taken a pass on [the issue of] in vitro fertilization in the past 20 years, but that they are reconsidering their stance and [the position of] the Catholic Church,” he says. “Obviously, it's also a teachable moment for Catholics themselves, who may not have paid much attention to the Church's concerns about this procedure in the past.”
While there are no statistics on the number of Catholics who use in vitro methods to achieve pregnancy, we may infer from more general statistics that the number is large enough to be of grave pastoral concern to the leaders of the Church. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine estimates that 6.1 million couples in the United States — some 10% of couples of childbearing age — experience infertility due to various causes. In at least 35% of these cases, in vitro fertilization is the treatment of choice.
Since 1981, more than 95,000 babies have been born as a result of this science; given that the success rate with the latest technologies is still only 29%, the number of couples who have undergone the procedure must be much higher than 95,000.
Moreover, each in vitro attempt involves the creation of approximately eight embryos — most of which are frozen as “spares,” many of which are eventually destroyed for research or discarded.
The upshot: Millions of human lives are at stake.
The Church's teaching on in vitro fertilization and other assisted-reproduction technologies was explained in detail by the Vatican in the 1987 instruction Donum vitae (The Gift of Life). In vitro fertilization is immoral, the Church says, chiefly because it removes procreation from the natural, marital act of mutual self-giving: “Such fertilization entrusts the life and identity of the embryo into the power of doctors and biologists and establishes the domination of technology over the origin and destiny of the human person. … Such fertilization is neither in fact achieved nor positively willed as the expression and fruit of a specific act of the conjugal union.”
Fortunately, the Church's teaching is finding a receptive and growing, if still small, audience.
Steve Bozza, director of Family Life Ministries for the Diocese of Camden, N.J., has instituted a ministry to serve Catholic couples experiencing infertility. Working with two married couples as fellow counselors, Bozza has begun advertising the new service across the diocese and integrating the issue of infertility with the Family Life catechesis materials provided to parishes. He is also working on a guide which couples can use together at home in working through the problem. In February, the diocese will begin offering natural family planning classes specially designed for couples experiencing infertility.
Bozza has found that many couples are receptive to the Church's teaching on in vitro fertilization if it is presented to them in what he calls a “holistic” way.
He says that he tries to “heal the heart first, and then you're able to more adequately address the moral issues.”
Bozza asks couples to reflect on what the experience of infertility and their proposed solutions may be doing to their marriage. “What is this doing to you, your marriage and your vocation as a married couple?” he asks. After focusing on the couple, Bozza turns to the child they are hoping for. “Look,” he urges, “at the basic rights your child has” — starting with the child's right to be conceived, in love, close to his or her mother's heart.
“What I hope to be able to do,” Bozza concludes, “is to be able to give them their dignity back. If they can rediscover what they loved about each other even before they got married then I've accomplished something. Then they can look at this difficulty that they're having and say, ‘Well, maybe there's something to what the Church is saying.’”
This is a good and hopeful first start. While in vitro fertilization doesn't make the headlines like the debates over stem-cell research and human cloning do, and while it isn't dividing the nation as abortion has for three decades, it is nonetheless an issue into which the Gospel of Life desperately needs to be injected.
David Curtin writes from Toronto.