Artificial Conception

The recent debate over the birth of octuplets conceived by in vitro fertilization to an unmarried woman has engendered substantial controversy. The debate appears to focus on the number of babies. An unmarried woman deciding to have one baby by in vitro appears acceptable, but not eight -- plus the six she already had.

However, the Catholic teaching on in vitro fertilization and other forms of artificial reproduction warns against the entire process. According to “Donum Vitae: Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation, Replies to certain questions of the Day”, the 1987 document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith prepared by Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI):

“Every human being is always to be accepted as a gift and blessing of God. However, from the moral point of view a truly responsible procreation vis-a-vis the unborn child must be the fruit of marriage. For human procreation has specific characteristics by virtue of the personal dignity of the parents and of the children: the procreation of a new person, whereby the man and the woman collaborate with the power of the Creator, must be the fruit and the sign of the mutual self-giving of the spouses, of their love and of their fidelity. The fidelity of the spouses in the unity of marriage involves reciprocal respect of their right to become a father and a mother only through each other. The child has the right to be conceived, carried in the womb, brought into the world and brought up within marriage: it is through the secure and recognized relationship to his own parents that the child can discover his own identity and achieve his own proper human development.”

A child has a right to be conceived in marriage and to have a father and mother, not conceived in a laboratory, stored in a freezer, and denied a father. Once a society sanctioned artificial reproduction, tragedies, like the birth of these octuplets, were inevitable.

I feel genuinely sorry for the mother. Once the process was begun and the embryos were artificially created, she was forced to decide between implantation of all of them, destruction of some, permanent freezer storage, or donation for scientific research. And once they were implanted, she was probably offered fetal reduction -- the targeting and killing in utero of the “excess” babies. I can understand why a woman so clearly psychologically fragile would be unable to destroy “excess” embryos or kill “excess” fetuses. I wonder if she was informed when the process began that these would be her options.

In vitro conception carries all kinds of risks. There are psychological risks to the mother. How will a woman who desperately wants a baby feel when “professionals” push for elimination in embryonic stage or in utero of some of the babies she has suffered so much to conceive. She will also be offered prenatal testing and abortion for non-fatal anomalies or even if the sex isn’t the one she wanted. Such decisions can leave deep wounds.

The child conceived from sperm or an egg that are not those of the people he calls his parents may spend the rest of his life wondering about his biological parents. Some children conceived by donor sperm are demanding to know who their fathers are. Some sperm donors have fathered several children and these children are now seeking out their biological half-siblings -- looking for some family connection.

The in vitro process itself may not be without risks. Implanting a number of embryos can lead to high risk multiple pregnancies, premature births, various health problems, and in some cases serious birth defects. A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that children conceived artificially have an increased risk of several birth defects, including a hole between the two chambers of the heart, a cleft lip or palate, an improperly developed esophagus, and/or a malformed rectum. It is interesting to note that two of the octuplets’ mother’s other children have birth defects.

Every child is a unique gift of God and deserves the best start possible. “Donum Vitae” was a warning, but few listened. Most Catholics have never even heard of it and don’t know that in vitro is always contrary to the Church’s teaching on responsible parenthood.

Dale O’Leary is an internationally recognized lecturer and author of “The Gender Agenda: Redefining Equality.”