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Arbiters of Life and Death: Boldly, Foolishly Playing God

BY Helen Alvaré

December 14-20, 1997 Issue | Posted 12/14/97 at 2:00 AM

 

“Many of the critical moments in our lives require that we rise to meet responsibilities given to us, not chosen by us.… We are bound to our children, not because we chose them, but because we were given them; simply because they are our children, our very near neighbors.”

So wrote the U.S. Catholic bishops in their October 1995 statement, Faithful for Life. Who could have known that events would overtake it so soon, making the second sentence of this reflection almost a quaint time piece. In particular, the part about “not” choosing our children. For at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City, The New York Times recently reported that couples are already doing just that: choosing for implantation in the woman's womb from among embryos whose biological parents have been selected for certain desirable pedigrees. This, in turn, is one very, very short step away from manipulating the basic building blocks of the human person—genes—to more precisely determine the human person created. A technical nicety that experts assure is just around the corner.

Also showing the degree to which we are throwing providence to the wind—the surprising reactions to the news of the McCaughey septuplets. The amount of public sentiment for “selective reduction” (abortion) of some multiple births, even mandatory “reduction” is stunning.

“How else to control outcomes?” goes the argument. How else to have our cake (fertility and assisted reproduction technologies) and eat it too (no excessively multiple births or disabled neonates)?

Bobbi McCaughey's response to the news that she was carrying seven children was the model of acceptance: She expressed reliance on God and then turned the question around to ask her critics which of the seven they would destroy.

On the other extreme, however, the well-known ethicist George Annas opined that: “Women who conceive more than [three or four fetuses] should agree to selectively reduce the additional fetuses.… If people won't agree in principle … they're not ready to protect their child and that should be a pre-condition to having medical assistance to have a baby—that you put your baby's health before your own wishes and ideas.” (Make that some babies’ health. Moral pronouncements purporting to support babies, which endorse killing them, can get bizarre.)

God gave us an inch— co-creation—and we stole a mile, frighteningly unaware that no one could possibly play God with the skill of the very Author of life and death.

Some will argue that we ought not to be surprised by such sentiments—in a country where 1.5 million unborn children are “reduced” from one to zero every year. But unfortunately, there is still room for surprises. Abortion often involves denial of the value of the unborn. With “reduction,” however, there is a simultaneous acceptance and rejection of human life. Human beings at the identical stage of development are chosen for destruction based on their degree of vulnerability, or even location in the womb. A harrowing Wall Street Journal account of one couple's “reduction” surgery put it this way:

“Dr. Evans hovers over the woman's belly with a foot-long needle and examines shadowy uterine images on the ultrasound scanner. He looks for a deformity that would make the selection easier. But finally he says: ‘We don't see anything obviously wrong with any of them, so we're just debating which is easiest to get to.’… [H]e punctures the chest cavity of one fetus. ‘Perfect,’ he whispers. He injects three cubic centimeters of potassium chloride. The fetus flails its arms and legs, then stops.”

This national obsession with control is also observed in another public conversation—that concerning the recent rash of neonaticides by teenage mothers around the country. A New York Times article by Steven Pinker suggested that murderous maternal inclinations are not really aberrant in human history. In fact, it was suggested, they may be a programmed response to the maternal understanding that a child is not favored by circumstance—its mother's age, unmarried state, etc.—to thrive. So out you go.

The mother of the seven sons in the Book of Maccabees cries out: “I do not know how you came into being in my womb. It was not I who gave you life and breath, nor I who set in order the elements within each of you” (2 Mc 7, 22-23). Modern man and woman instead argue that the moral questions raised by human intervention into reproduction are “beside the point.” “It's normal human nature” to want to choose the characteristics of your children, so “don't accuse us of playing God,” says a famous fertility specialist.

Helen Alvaré is director of planning and information in the office of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.