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Reproductive Technologies and the Vatican

Martin L. Cook

Even casual readers of newspapers and viewers of television news programs have been exposed to the issues raised by the use of new technologies to affect and control human reproduction. From the protracted legal battle that surrogate mother, Mary Beth Whitehead-Gould, waged to win custody of Baby M, to the bizarre cases of inheritance rights of frozen embryos in Australia, there is a growing awareness that it is now possible to manipulate human reproduction in ways that challenge our moral and legal assumptions.

On March 10,1987, the Vatican responded to these recent developments in reproductive technologies by issuing a 40-page document called "Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation." This "instruction" was not only aimed at influencing the decisions of Roman Catholics, but also was intended to influence national legislation worldwide on biomedical issues.

What did the document say? It opposed all technological interventions into the process of human reproduction. More specifically, the document condemned artificial insemination and embryo transfer, in vitro fertilization, and surrogate motherhood under all circumstances. It also opposed experimentation on embryos when such experiments were not of direct therapeutic benefit to the fetus, and amniocentesis (a procedure used to detect fetal defects) when done for the purpose of deciding whether or not to abort the fetus.

The moral basis for these pronouncements is a familiar one in Roman Catholic moral teaching. Official Roman Catholic teaching maintains that human life begins at the moment of conception. From this claim follow the following moral judgments: a fetus or an embryo must be respected and treated as a human person with dignity and rights, including the right to life. Amniocentesis for the purpose of genetic screening is obviously morally objectionable because abortion is wrong. Similarly, the experimental use of embryos is condemned because it violates human dignity, reducing embryos to objects and instruments of scientific knowledge.

The moral argument underlying the Vatican condemnation of other practices is not so obvious. Why, for example, does the Church object to the artificial insemination of a childless woman with her husband's sperm? Such practices are opposed on the grounds that the sexual act has two purposes Ñ the unitive (emotional or spiritual) and the procreative (biological). Since these functions "by nature" belong together, it is always wrong to separate them. Artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, and surrogate motherhood are immoral because they involve sexual acts that are procreative, but not unitive. And, rightful conception must respect the inseparability of the two meanings of the sexual act. In response to the suffering of infertile couples who want to have children, the document says that couples do not have a right to a child, claiming that such a right would make the child an "object of ownership." Childless couples that avail themselves of these reproductive techniques are said to violate a more important right of the childÑthe "right to be conceived, carried in the womb, brought into the world, and brought up within marriage."

The reception of the "Instruction" has been (perhaps predictably) mixed. Anyone familiar with the issues recognizes the gravity of the moral concerns raised by the new reproductive technologies. Many are grateful for the Vatican's raising them in such a public way and hope that a more informed and broad public debate will result. On the other hand, many distinguished ethicists and moral theologians have raised significant objections to some of the moral judgments made. Rev. Richard McCormick, S.J., perhaps the most distinguished Catholic moral theologian in the U.S., objects to both the process by which the document was written and to some of its specific judgements. He notes that Church officials failed to consult any major medical ethics experts outside of the Vatican, and questions whether a more participatory process drawing on the expertise of Church scholars throughout the world might not have produced a different document. He also objects to some of the arguments prohibiting the use of reproductive technologies to treat infertility: "If experience is our guide, medical interventions to overcome sterility are precisely manifestations of the love between husband and wife."

The Church's instruction is likely the first rather than the last word in what promises to be a long and extensive debate. Whatever the judgments individuals make about its conclusions, there can be little question that the issues go to the heart of what it means to be human. These technologies place on our horizon unprecedented human control over our own genetic futures, our social and kinship patterns, and our relationships with our siblings and our offspring. Most will agree that it is prudent to look, and to look hard, before we embrace them all without question.

This article was originally published in Issues in Ethics - V. 1, N.3 Spring 1988

November 16, 2015