There seems to be no end to the novel ways in which scientists want to engender new human beings. As if God's ways were not the best! We have in vitro fertilization (IVF), by which “test tube babies” are brought about in a petri dish. We have for sperm donor banks, and there are now newspaper advertisements for egg donors. There are tens of thousands of frozen embryos in states of suspended animation, waiting to be implanted in some womb or simply destroyed. We have the Chicago physicist, aptly named Dr. Seed, who wants to be the first human being cloned and who has set up a Human Clone Clinic. Now we have the fancy-sounding “flow cytometry sperm sorting” with IVF, which allows for the sex selection of a baby before it is conceived.
Why would someone want to choose the sex of one's child, anyway? Well, couples who want only two children would presumably want one of each. There may be those who have had five boys and want at least one girl without running the risk of another boy. Sometimes there are very serious reasons for trying to avoid a child of one sex or another. Some inherited diseases will afflict only girls, or only boys. Hemophilia, for example, is an inherited disorder among boys; it prevents the coagulation of blood, leaving the sufferer open to the constant risk of bleeding to death. Potential parents of hemophiliacs would understandably want to avoid having a boy.
It is now possible to determine which sperm carry the X (female) chromosome and which carry the Y (male) chromosome.
This new “reproductive technology” is based on the fact that an X (female) sperm has 2.8% more DNA than a Y (male) sperm. The sperm are stained with a fluorescent dye which binds to the DNA and highlights the difference between the two kinds of sperm when they swim through an ultraviolet laser beam. Because a female sperm has more dye bound to it, the glow is slightly brighter than for a male sperm, distinguishing the two. The sperm are then separated; the X sperm is used for a female, the Y sperm for a male. This requires, however, that the sperm be joined to the egg in a glass dish in the laboratory.
There are many moral problems with this procedure. One is that the sperm is collected by immoral means, foreign to the marriage act. Another is that the new life is engendered in a glass dish (in vitro). This has been condemned by the 1987 Vatican document Donum Vitae because such a procedure replaces the marital act. The Church insists that new life must be engendered as a fruit of the conjugal act between spouses. The in vitro technique also leads invariably to the destruction of unused embryos. Furthermore, it is not known what harm the fluorescent dye might have on the child's genetic makeup.
But what is striking is that this new technology, like so many fertility or contraceptive techniques, was first developed for use with animals, in this case cattle. Dr. David Cran, a research scientist with Mastercalf Limited in Aberdeen, Scotland, and Dr. Lawrence Johnson of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, worked closely to develop this kind of sperm sorting. Their work aims to allow farmers to breed only the livestock they need, avoiding the unwanted birth of male calves in dairy herds, for example.
Christian societies have rightly been averse to taking methods developed for livestock and using them on human beings, because of the transcendent worth and dignity of the human person and because of the dignity of the marital act by which life is transmitted. It is regrettable that in today's secularized, de-Christianized societies human beings are sometimes treated little differently than animals.
“The transmission of human life,” declared Pope John XXIII in the 1961 encyclical Mater et Magistra,” is entrusted by nature to a personal and conscious act and as such is subject to the all-holy laws of God: immutable and inviolable laws which must be recognized and observed. For this reason one cannot use means and follow methods which could be licit in the transmission of the life of plants and animals.”
As the Psalmist put it, “we have been created a little lower than the angels,” and our dignity far surpasses that of animals.
Dr. John Haas is president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Boston.