Human Embryos are Made in the Image and Likeness of God

“Society as a whole must respect, defend and promote the dignity of every human person, at every moment and in every condition of that person's life.” —Pope St. John Paul II

(photo: Master of the Spes Nostra, “Memorial Tablet With the Visitation”, c. 1500)

In a recent scientific “breakthrough” (the subjectivity of the term—and the sarcastic tone in which I’m using it—necessitate my putting it in quotes), researchers have found a way to edit the DNA of embryos. For the first time ever in the United States, these scientists were able to successfully eliminate the gene responsible for a heritable heart condition, shortly after a male donor’s sperm was injected into the eggs donated by a number of women. The hope is that eventually this service will be available to couples using in vitro fertilization. It’s believed that the technique could be applied to all kinds of hereditary diseases, including the gene mutation associated with breast cancer.

Now I readily admit that this is one of those things that may, on the surface anyway, seem good. Compassionate, even. And of course, very forward-thinking. Believe me when I say that I  understand why some might hear about this “breakthrough”, and consider it a wonderful development in the field of science. You see, I happen to have two adopted daughters with Down syndrome. Both of them also have, as a result of Trisomy 21, fairly serious heart defects. They’ve undergone a combined total of three heart procedures between them so far, including open heart surgery. I am therefore well-acquainted with the cardiac ICU, the exorbitant costs associated with surgery, and the stress a parent experiences when facing down something so incredibly daunting, with their child. I get it. I really do.

But, as promising as it all may sound in theory, this recent research is both highly unethical and morally problematic. It is also disturbing and heartbreaking. I’ve written a bit before about some of the problems regarding in vitro fertilization, in general, which you are welcome to read here. As Catholics, we know (or are, at least, able to know) that it is outside of God’s plan for married couples to have their children created by physicians and scientists, in laboratories, outside of the marital embrace. No matter how well-intentioned the parents (or medical providers) might be.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that parents utilizing in vitro fertilization “dissociate the sexual act from the procreative act. The act which brings the child into existence is no longer an act by which two persons give themselves to one another, but one that “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 a relationship of domination is in itself contrary to the dignity and equality that must be common to parents and children.”

That is, frankly, all we really need to know when it comes to research like being performed on embryos, who even in their small and vulnerable state are human beings made in the image and likeness of God. As a parent to children with special needs, I can certainly appreciate the desire to spare other children from being born with medical conditions, but I can NOT condone the means—namely, creating people with the sole purpose of using and then, presumably, destroying them. No doctor, lab technician, or egg or sperm donor has the right to trample upon the sacred gift of life with such dismissive, utilitarian disdain. The Catholic view towards IVF and embryonic research may not be popular in our modern age, but it makes sense and rings true. Precisely because it is.

One thing that we can all agree on, Catholics and supporters of unethical research alike, is that our world is terribly imperfect, the human condition is dreadfully broken, and there will be suffering this side of Heaven. One of the biggest challenges we face as human beings is to make peace with this truth, to place our faith and trust in God, and to uphold the dignity of every human life, regardless of age, ability, or socioeconomic status. We can pray and hope for good scientific solutions to some of our sufferings, yes, but we must never make them the highest good. We must not pursue the ends through destructive and gravely immoral means. We must not throw all virtue and scruples to the wind, as we chase after an ever-elusive, suffering-free utopia.

Pope St. John Paul II, in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, wrote that “Respect for life requires that science and technology should always be at the service of man and his integral development. Society as a whole must respect, defend and promote the dignity of every human person, at every moment and in every condition of that person's life.”

But what does it say about our culture, when this is not being extended to the most vulnerable among us: tiny and defenseless human beings, otherwise known as embryos?