By Charles D. Dern, Ph.D.
The Doylestown Intelligencer's April 4 front page expose’ extolling the wonders of In-Vitro Fertilization (IVF) did not really present arguments against IVF itself, although it did examine the negative side of genetically screening embryos. Additionally, it left out a fundamentally important principle which one must understand absolutely if one is to make a truly informed judgment on IVF, and indeed, any other biomedical ethical issue.
Let us establish up front that no ethicist of note, secular or religious, denies that once sperm and ovum combine, there is a distinct human life. Legal quandaries surrounding the unborn, such as abortion and Roe v. Wade, are mired in debate over whether or not the unborn are “persons,” an ephemeral topic for another time.
Now, there are in the end only two possible foundational views of human life. Human beings either have intrinsic value or they have relative value. The latter view always devolves into utilitarianism wherein an individual human, at any stage in life, is valued only insofar as he or she is of use to society or “wanted” by another individual.
The opposite of this point of view is valuing the human person without considering the particular attributes of that person (which is the definition of true love). That is, all human beings have intrinsic worth regardless of usefulness or desirability to others. This means that the genetically “imperfect” embryo, the baby with Down’s syndrome, the terminally sick child, the mentally handicapped teenager, the severely disabled adult, the elderly woman who has no clue who she is, all must be treated with an inherent respect, no different than the most accomplished and productive among us.
Note well that to claim that an embryo (or any other human being) only has relative value is not to make a scientific claim. It is a value judgment no different than ascribing intrinsic worth to the embryo. One cannot perform an experiment to prove either position. One can adjudicate between the two positions, however, by thinking through the type of society each creates when followed logically and consistently. On this, consider that utilitarians argue that infanticide (Princeton’s Peter Singer) or euthanasia of the demented against their will (Briton’s Baroness von Warnock) are perfectly ethical choices.
Utilitarianism also is at the root of the case noted in the article where eight out of nine embryos were discarded because of a certain disease. As a former embryo with a birth defect myself, I take personal umbrage at the callow disregard that all concerned had for the lives of the eight “imperfect” embryos.
Pope John Paul II anticipated this mentality over twenty years ago in “The Gospel of Life”: “Prenatal diagnosis … all too often becomes an opportunity for proposing and procuring an abortion. This is eugenic abortion, justified in public opinion on the basis of a mentality … which accepts life only under certain conditions and rejects it when it is affected by any limitation, handicap or illness.”
The article also did not cover some unpleasant facts of the IVF process. First, it has a mere 22.4% live birth rate according to Web MD. Second, as feminist theologian Lisa Sowle Cahill writes, IVF “is often given momentum by a rhetoric of ‘desperation’ surrounding the couple and their need to bear a child.” Women “speak of profound personal humiliation, as the intimacy of one’s sexual and procreative capacities is invaded, one’s person is objectified into a set of body parts and reproductive processes and one’s success or failure as a person is equated with the capacity to conceive.”
The Catholic Church is not against using technology to help one become pregnant. Its latest document on reproductive ethics, “Dignitas Personae,” encourages all procedures that remediate one’s ability to conceive naturally. There is even the Pope Paul VI Institute in Omaha, NE dedicated to helping infertile couples using a method called NaPRO and it will help one adopt if treatment fails.
Finally, the moral problem with IVF is that it foments the idea, even if tacitly, that human life is a mere commodity. As Dignitas Personae states: “The blithe acceptance of the enormous number of abortions involved in the process of in vitro fertilization vividly illustrates how the replacement of the conjugal act by a technical procedure … leads to a weakening of the respect owed to every human being.” Human beings must be a gift received. Not a product made at will.
Charles D. Dern, Ph.D. is an adjunct teacher of theology and philosophy and wrote his doctoral thesis on the moral issues surrounding IVF.