The Family and the Biotech Revolution

COMMENTARY: Unguided by the truth about the human person and sexuality, advances in biotechnology are distorting the world’s understanding of marriage and the family.

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Not a month goes by that a parishioner doesn’t ask me to help with a difficult moral question troubling his or her family. These questions frequently involve sexual choices in some way, but they aren’t answerable with the simple black-and-white moral code that worked 50 years ago.

The moral landscape has changed completely, and, as a result, ordinary people are faced with extraordinarily complex moral problems our parents and grandparents could never have imagined.

The list of issues is long: A Massgoing widow in her 80s asks if she should attend her granddaughter’s “wedding” to another woman. A couple planning to be married are living together with their Catholic parents’ approval. A middle-aged woman tells me she didn’t attend her brother’s “wedding” to his boyfriend — but asks whether she should attend the christening of the child whom the two men have obtained through artificial insemination and surrogate motherhood. A childless couple asks me for the best clinic for in vitro fertilization, while another couple doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with their decision to be sterilized permanently without ever having children. A friend tells me how his teenage son announced he was the sperm donor for the “wife” of his daughter so the couple could have a child that was genetically theirs.

We seem blind to the fact that we are living in the midst of the most astounding technological revolution the world has ever seen. Biotechnology is the umbrella term for all the advances we have made in medical know-how, and reproductive technology is the most socially revolutionary subdivision of biotechnology. To put it simply, we no longer approach the transmission of human life as a sacred mystery — but, rather, have reduced it to the status of a baby-making machine that we’ve learned how to switch on and off.

With artificial contraception, sterilization and abortion, we turn the baby-making machine off. With artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, fertility treatment and surrogate motherhood, we turn the baby-making machine on. With the right amount of money and time, we assume we can have a baby when we want one and avoid having a baby if we don’t want one.

The result is a revolution in our understanding of relationships, sexual identity, marriage and the family. For the first time in history, the human race has assumed the power to separate sexual activity from procreation. This has been a time bomb planted at the heart of the traditional family, because the traditional family — rooted in the truth of human sexuality — was about a man and woman coming together in a lifelong, loving relationship, open to procreation and raising children. Their home was established as a nest for their young, to be nurtured in a safe and loving environment. Within this context, the sexual act had meaning and purpose and even an eternal dimension. The sexual act was a loving union that was also potentially creative in a powerful and awesome way. When the husband and wife made love, they could also make a baby.

Sadly, this relationship has been broken for the vast majority of human beings in the developed world. If the sexual act is not about procreation, neither is marriage — and if marriage is not necessarily about procreation, then it must be about recreation. The sexual act (and, by extension, marriage) is merely another way for people to pursue self-indulgent pleasure. Furthermore, if sexual activity is not necessarily linked to procreation — and is thus unmoored from moral constraints — it follows that any form of sexual activity is licit.

This is why the present war over same-sex “marriage” will soon fade in significance. People with same-sex attraction don’t really want to be married. They want their attraction to be recognized and affirmed — and “marriage” is their way to gain that recognition.

The reason I say that the same-sex “marriage” debate will soon fade is that marriage itself will have been destroyed. If a man can marry another man and a woman another woman, then anyone can marry anyone. If “bisexuality” is licit, then two men and one woman might make a “throuple,” or two men and two women who interact might “marry” each other. It doesn’t take much thought to conclude that if marriage can be whatever anyone wants it to be, then it is nothing at all.

Catholics, who have the strongest theological, anthropological, ethical and historical grounds for defining marriage, rightly see the crisis in marriage. But we really haven’t seen anything yet. As reproductive technologies continue to become more widely available on a global scale, the confusion about sexuality and marriage will be spread to the whole human race. The experience of the developed world has shown that while reproductive technologies can be used to turn the baby-machine both off and on, it is most frequently turned off. The demographic winter that is approaching will not only be for the developing world, but for our entire race, and there is only one solution for the problem.

The solution is for Catholics to understand clearly the simple facts of natural human sexuality, to teach them to our children and to live them out to the best of our ability. The solution is to offer an attractive, pro-life alternative by building strong, vibrant and creative families, along with dynamic human communities. 

The future of our faith and our whole human family may depend on it.

Father Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest

of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina.

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