Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A heartless defense of children's dignity


In a society seemingly dedicated to killing children, it’s refreshing and delightful to find couples who have an always-room-for-one-more attitude. And it’s also heartbreaking when such a loving couple has difficulties in conceiving and carrying children to term.

For that reason, it’s hard not to feel like a heartless bastard when you have to explain the Catholic Church’s opposition to in vitro fertilization. It’s like telling your son or your daughter that they can’t have that dog in the window: no matter how well you explain it, you’re afraid all your child is going to get out of the explanation is that you’re a big meanie and that you don’t love him.

In 2009, Sean and Carolyn Savage were caught in a media storm when she received another couple’s embryo by mistake. After birth, the child was immediately handed off to his genetic parents. That very day, the Diocese of Toledo released a statement condemning IVF.

Now Sean Savage, a “cradle Catholic”, has written a post for CNN’s Belief Blog, arguing that the Church should change its teaching on IVF. As much as I sympathize with the Savages’ situation, I find it odd that they didn’t learn from the experience. You’d think giving birth to someone else’s baby might have caused some deeper reflection.


Savage begins, “According to the Roman Catholic Church, the only moral route to conceiving a child is through sexual intercourse. As a Catholic, I find the church’s position to be discriminatory against couples who have medical conditions that prevent them from conceiving in that manner.”

The use of the word “discriminatory” tells us something of Savage’s unstated premise, an attitude or presumption of which he may be completely unconscious. In this context, an act or precept is “discriminatory” if it unjustly deprives someone of a good or service to which s/he is entitled as a matter of natural justice. Savage’s unstated premise, then, is that couples are entitled to bear children of their genetic combination.

But that’s not the case. Children aren’t “goods” in the sense of merchandise, possessions or materials. People aren’t “entitled” to have children as they’re entitled to food, shelter and gainful employment, any more than they’re entitled to marry someone against the other person’s will.

Should a couple be so lucky as to have children, they have certain fundamental rights that relate to their responsibilities as parents. And certainly, should a woman choose to bear a child, she has the right in natural justice not to be forced or coerced into an abortion. But the child is a person in her own right, with a fundamental dignity that attaches to that personhood, and therefore with rights springing from that dignity.

Savage then attempts to deconstruct the CDF instructions Donum Vitae and Dignitas Personae to find a Catholic theory that could allow IVF:

[Donum Vitae] states that “even if it (IVF) is considered in the context of ‘de facto’ existing sexual relations, the generation of the human person is deprived of its proper perfection; namely, that of being the result and fruit of a conjugal act.” Dignitas Personae echoes this position by stating “human procreation is a personal act of a husband and wife, which is not capable of substitution.”
I am personally opposed to the intentional destruction and discarding of unwanted embryos and understand why this is condemned by the church. But to state that a child born of IVF is less perfect than a child created through sexual intercourse is absurd. Is the church truly claiming that our beautiful and innocent daughter, conceived through an IVF procedure, is somehow “less” because of how her physical life began [emphases mine—TL]? In her, Carolyn and I see God’s precious creation.

That, of course, is not the CDF’s argument. Let’s look again: the word “perfection” is modified by the adjective “proper”, which tells us that generating humans outside of the conjugal act substitutes an improper perfection for a proper perfection, not imperfection for perfection (which is what Savage infers).

How is this perfection “improper”? It’s improper because IVF reduces the child to “the product of an intervention of medical or biological techniques … an object of scientific technology” (DV, II:4c). Even if every questionable technical aspect — destruction of unused embryos, masturbation — were taken out of the equation, it still “remains a technique which is morally illicit because it deprives human procreation of the dignity which is proper and connatural to it” (II:5). 

In other words, by its very nature IVF treats the child as a consumer good, made in a factory. That's an intolerable offense against her dignity as a human person, which no claim of entitlement can in natural justice overcome.

“Babies born of IVF are here because their parents loved, respected and longed for these children well before conception,” Savage declares. “These children could not get here through the conjugal love of their parents and it took a very deep love, respect, and commitment to pursue the medical treatment needed to conceive through IVF. There is no doubt in my mind that God is working through loving parents and ethical doctors to allow these children to come into this world.”

As hard as Savage tries to make it sound like a pure love of children which drives the act, his own words hint at the real motivation. Not just any child would do; otherwise the Savages would have turned to adoption. No, the child had to have their genes, not somebody else’s. Again, the unspoken assumption of entitlement spoils and corrupts what would otherwise be a noble sentiment.

In the end, Savage is attempting a consequentialist argument. Of course, once you say that of any moral argument, people tend to get defensive, or back away hastily: “No no no, that’s not what I’m trying to say!” Anyone with any ethical or historical sense recognizes the dangers inherent in end-justifies-the-means thinking: the history of the twentieth century stinks with the corpses of people who died because of it.

But without casting any aspersions on the Savages’ good intentions, we can still detect the hypocrisy involved. For Savage is “personally opposed” to the destruction of embryos, as well as he should be, yet he’s willing to suffer their destruction so long as it results in a baby with his and Carolyn’s genes.

And that’s how the “culture of death” poisons even people who should be lauded for being willing to have children. Because they’ll only have their own children … even if it means destroyed embryos and children going unadopted.

And somehow the Church is heartless for recognizing that fact.