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Septuplet Case Offers Teaching Moment on Fertility Drugs

BY John Haas

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

 

No sooner had Bobbi McCaughey of Carlisle, Iowa, given birth to seven babies at once than pundits and public commentators began to pontificate. Some said Bobbi and her husband, Kenny, should have aborted some of the children to lessen the health risks for those remaining. Others asserted it is immoral to bring so many into the world.

Still others criticized McCaughey's statements that allowing all the children to be born was an act that came out of her trust in God. She didn't trust in him, they scolded, when she turned to fertility drugs.

Spectacular events, such as the birth of septuplets, are “teaching moments” and there is no better source to help us understand such events than the teachings of the Catholic Church, which Pope Paul VI called “the expert in humanity.”

McCaughey bore so many children precisely because she was having difficulty having children. She was treated with a “fertility drug” that led to several of her eggs ripening at the same time. (Normally only one egg matures each month.) At least seven of the eggs that matured became fertilized, and she began down the road that would lead to a rush of media attention and also to personal family joy.

The Church is not opposed to attempts to overcome infertility. In 1987, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued Donum Vitae (The Gift of Life), a document dealing with the morality of various technologies then being used to correct infertility. It judged some of them, such as in vitro fertilization (“test-tube” babies), to be immoral, but others, it determined, were morally sound.

“Scientists therefore are to be encouraged to continue their research with the aim of preventing the causes of sterility and of being able to remedy them so that sterile couples will be able to procreate in full respect for their own personal dignity and that of the child to be born,” the document said.

McCaughey had been on a fertility drug for more than a year with no success. So her doctor suggested she try the powerful drug Metrodin. It worked. The 29-year-old woman showed no lack of trust in God. Rather she was attempting, with the help of science, to correct a “defect of nature” so that she could achieve one of the purposes of marriage—child-bearing.

The Church has always supported the attempts of science to overcome biological defects. After McCaughey conceived seven children, she continued to trust in God, refusing to allow doctors to destroy any of the gifts that had been entrusted to her.

Not all couples who have multiple pregnancies have the moral fortitude of the McCaugheys. Multiple births are not uncommon when fertility drugs are used. Since the risk of premature birth and abnormalities increases with every additional baby, some parents will choose to abort one or more of their children so that the surviving ones will have a better chance. But this involves a couple in an abominable evil—killing some of their children—for the supposed benefit of the others.

If fertility drugs are used to overcome childlessness, certain common-sense moral rules should be followed. Since the effect of the drug will vary with use and with the patient, doctors should avoid the risk of multiple births by using lower dosages or weaker drugs. These approaches lead to fewer health risks for the mother and for the children in the womb. Further, a fertility drug should not be used in conjunction with an immoral procedure such as in vitro fertilization by which the egg of the woman and the sperm of the man are joined in a petri dish. After fertilization, the embryo is placed in the uterus of the woman.

The moral norm couples should use to evaluate particular technological means of overcoming infertility is whether or not the technology replaces the marital act, rather than simply assisting it. If the medical intervention helps the marital act achieve its natural purpose, which is what happens when fertility drugs are used, then it could be morally permissible. If it replaces the marital act, as is the case with in vitro fertilization, then it is immoral. The reason for this norm is that both the human person and the means by which a human person is engendered are of such value that neither can ever be violated.

We do not “make” babies. Such a notion would mean reducing a human person to the level of a manufactured product. Nor do we turn the marital act into a “manufacturing technique.” It is to be a personal act of love between husband and wife, which God may or may not bless with new life.

As Donum Vitae states, “On the part of the spouses, the desire for a child is natural: it expresses the vocation to fatherhood and motherhood inscribed in conjugal love.… Nevertheless, marriage does not confer upon the spouses the right to have a child, but only the right to perform those natural acts which are per se [by their very nature] ordered to procreation.”

One human being cannot have a “right” to another human being. By virtue of being married husbands and wives do have a “right” to the marriage act. Married couples “make love”; they do not “make babies.” Indeed, as we know from Scripture (and common sense) babies are “begotten, not made.”

John Haas is president of the Pope John Center for the Study of Ethics in Health Care in Boston, Mass.