A surrogacy story has recently made headlines all over the world: David and Wendy Farnell, an Australian couple, contracted with a Thai woman, Pattharamon Janbua, to carry their in vitro fertilization (IVF)-created embryos. Pattharamon gave birth to twins, a boy with Down syndrome and a girl. The Farnells took the girl home to Australia and left the boy, named Gammy, in Thailand.
The Farnells say that they were told that Gammy was going to die, so they left him behind. It is telling that nowhere in the couple’s statements do they mention going back to get him. Pattharamon is now committed to raising Gammy as a part of her family. In an ominous twist to an already tragic predicament, David Farnell is a sex offender who spent three years in jail for sexually molesting two 10-year-old girls. Now, Pattharamon wants the baby girl back, too. She has said, “Because she is my baby; she was in my womb.”
The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano ran an op-ed commenting on Gammy’s story, stating, “In reality, there’s little to be indignant about: If you accept the logic of a child as a product, this is the obvious consequence.”
It is no secret that the stance of the Catholic Church — which categorically rejects the “logic” of regarding any child as a mere “product” — is wildly unpopular. In a society that thinks any way to make a baby is the right way to make a baby, the Church is often seen as a backward institution that rejects and shames infertile couples. We are labeled as “haters.”
In reality, nothing could be farther from the truth.
What is the Church really saying when she rejects artificial reproductive technologies (ART) like IVF and surrogacy? The Church teaches that to create human life outside of the act of intercourse between husband and wife is unethical. Why? There are many reasons, but the most compelling is because we all deserve the absolute best start in life.
There is no safer or more loving place to begin one’s life than in our mother’s womb, as the result of the loving embrace of parents wholly committed to each other and to raising the child that their love has begotten. It is against the dignity inherent in each of us to be conceived anywhere else. Ideally, we would also be raised by our genetic parents so that we can know and be loved by those who created us.
Of course, we humans are flawed. We make mistakes. Some of us cannot be raised by our genetic parents, which is the case in adoption. Adoption attempts to make the best of a less-than-ideal situation, and often with remarkable success.
By contrast, artificial reproductive technologies intentionally make children in complicated circumstances.
In IVF, embryos are created by lab technicians in a laboratory. Being conceived in a laboratory can be a dangerous prospect. Embryos are bar-coded or radio-frequency tagged so they do not get lost or transferred to the wrong mother. If they are lucky, they end up in the right womb; if not, they may be placed in the deep freeze or donated to researchers to be ripped open for parts.
Shocking statistics released by the United Kingdom’s fertility authority show that, in Britain, for every one child born using IVF, as many as 30 embryos are created.
Increasingly, IVF utilizes donor egg or sperm to make babies. The children of anonymous donor sperm or eggs are purposefully denied the ability to be known and loved by one of the human beings who created them.
Surrogacy typically entails embryos being produced by IVF, many times with donor gametes, and then placed in a rented womb. A child is intentionally created to be snatched from the one person she has known for the first nine months of her life. In the case of commercial surrogacy, where the surrogate is paid beyond her expenses, the child is handed over for financial gain.
So why not embrace these technologies if they bring new life into the world? Catholics are supposed to be pro-life, are we not?
The problem is that once we embrace less than the best for the next generation, whether we realize it or not, we marginalize them. The children of ART become products, not the God-given gifts that they are.
William E. May, a well-known Catholic theologian, said it beautifully, “When a child is begotten through the conjugal act, he comes to be as a gift from God, a gift crowning the spouse’s mutual gift of themselves to each other. When a child is ‘produced,’ it comes to be not as a gift from God, which in truth it is, but as a product of human control.”
You may be thinking that there is no way children so wanted that their parents go to great lengths and expense to have them will ever be treated as anything other than precious gifts. Unfortunately, one only needs to look at any newspaper or gossip rag to know that May and the Church are right.
Unlike the Thai woman and baby Gammy, here are other stories of children who were treated as products that have not gotten as much press.
In 2010, The Washington Post ran an exposé on Gillian and Paul St. Lawrence, both fertile and in their 30s. The St. Lawrences have used IVF to create five embryos that they will keep frozen until it is more convenient for them to raise children. Gillian explains, “Our five frozen embryos, which we call our baby blastocysts, will remain in storage until we are ready to use them. ... Now, we have some insurance against future infertility.” These children are not seen as “gifts.” Instead, five human lives have been created and put in “storage” until they are ready to “use” as the St. Lawrences’ project in order to provide themselves “insurance.”
Also in 2010, the Times of India reported on the birth of baby Daniela. The article’s headline shouted, “Surrogate Baby Tours World Before Birth!” Daniela started out as a frozen IVF embryo. She was shipped to India by FedEx in a cryo-cylinder, along with four other embryonic siblings, and then detained at customs like a package. She was finally transferred to an Indian surrogate. When she was born, her parents flew in to pick her up. In the article, there was no mention of what happened to the other four embryos.
To cut the high cost of IVF, Dr. Ernest Zeringue, a California doctor, has been making embryos in bulk. Zerinque creates a batch of embryos from one sperm and egg donor and divides up the siblings between budget-conscious couples. The Los Angeles Times reported, “The clinic, not the customer, controls the embryos.” For the near 50% reduction in price, parents agree to having a non-biologically related child that will have biological siblings he or she may never know.
Last year, the television show Parent Makers followed same-sex British couple Barrie and Tony Drewitt-Barlow. The Drewitt-Barlows have used surrogates and donor eggs to have five children. In the trailer for the show, Barrie tells his curly-haired son Orlando, “I paid for a gorgeous designer child with green eyes, olive skin and straight, blonde hair.” Orlando defends himself by responding, “I don’t have straight hair. I don’t care about that.” Barrie retorts, “Yeah, but I care.”
Surrogate Crystal Kelley was offered $10,000 to abort the IVF baby she was carrying when the intended parents found out that the baby had abnormalities. Kelley refused. The parents hired a lawyer who told Kelley she was “obligated to terminate this pregnancy immediately.” When Kelley still refused, she was then informed that when the child was born, the parents were going to take custody of the baby and give her up to be a ward of the state. Kelley moved to a state where she, as the surrogate, had parental rights. She gave up the baby to a couple she met through support groups for families with children who have special needs.
In 2011, The New York Times exposed the practice of “selective reduction.” Selective reduction is a euphemistic term for the aborting of one or more fetuses in a multiple pregnancy. What many people do not realize is that abortion is the fail-safe for IVF. To boost success rates, many more embryos are transferred to the mother than she can safely carry. When more-than-the-desired babies result, some of them are aborted by lethal injection. In the Times piece, a mother of IVF twins undergoing a selective abortion for one of the babies articulates, without even knowing it, why Church’s teaching matters:
“If I had conceived these twins naturally, I wouldn’t have reduced this pregnancy, because you feel like if there’s a natural order, then you don’t want to disturb it. But we created this child in such an artificial manner — in a test tube, choosing an egg donor, having the embryo placed in me — and, somehow, making a decision about how many to carry seemed to be just another choice. The pregnancy was all so consumerish to begin with, and this became yet another thing we could control.”
These are by no means the only stories where the children of ART are treated less like human beings and more like expensive purchases. The lack of outrage tells me that society as a whole has forgotten the needs of the child in favor of the wants of the parents. When we as a culture embraced technologies like IVF and surrogacy, we naturally had to accept the marginalization of the very children that are so desperately desired.
As Catholics, we are not “haters” for opposing artificial reproductive techniques. We are not trying to shame or abandon infertile couples. We, instead, are standing for the principle that we all deserve the best: to be begotten out of love for love and treated as the God-given gifts that we are. Catholics cannot stand by and be silent while children increasingly become man-made objects no better than products we can control.
Rebecca Taylor is a clinical laboratory specialist in molecular biology.
She writes about bioethics at her blog, Mary Meets Dolly.