The Pope and the Petri Dish: Is the Vatican Right About Surrogate Motherhood?

The recent Vatican document calling for moral restraints on birth technology has generated animated debate and controversy in the United States and abroad. This debate has been generally welcomed in Rome, because it was one of the main objectives in issuing the “Instruction On Respect for Human Life In Its Origin.” Many countries, including this one, have not figured out how to legislate and adjudicate on controversial issues such as surrogate parenthood, in vitro fertilization, and other artificial means of creating and sustaining fetal life. The “Baby M” case and the confused response it drew from the American public, politicians, and the press is the latest evidence of this. The Vatican hopes to give the technology-driven discussion a moral resonance. In this respect it seems to have succeeded.

Although the Vatican’s initiation of an ethical discussion of artificial conception and birth has been favorably received, the specific content of the teaching has not been so welcome. As usual, dissident Catholics have led the crusade against Rome. Former priest Daniel Maguire found the Church document “another example of celibate men pronouncing on the reproductive rights of women when women’s voices have not been heard.” Colman McCarthy, a Trappist monk emeritus, fulminated in the Washington Post against a “heavy papal hand hitting people hard rather than offering a compassionate pastoral touch.” Groups like Catholics for a Free Choice, a pro-abortion lobby, have also weighed in with derogatory remarks.

Writing in The New Republic, Hendrik Hertzberg notes that the papal document is “an argument from faith, which in this case means an argument from authority. Take it or leave it.” The implication is that anyone who does not share Roman Catholic theology need not take the teaching seriously. Moses Tendler of Yeshiva University td the New York Times that the Pope was confusing the natural with the virtuous. “The word natural is a holy word to the Pope and unnatural means evil,” Tendler observed. But as he viewed it, “Unnatural is not a sin but an opportunity to complete God’s work.” Reinforcing this point, Rabbi Seymour Seigel of Jewish Theological Seminary noted that “when nature plays a trick on us, we have to outwit it.”

Finally the press stressed the apparent impracticality of the Vatican teaching by printing numerous feature stories on families — Catholic and non-Catholic — who cannot seem to endure the anguish of remaining childless. “Parenting is such a strong urge, I don’t think the Church can stop it,” remarked Heidi Plummer, a 40-year-old-Catholic who came to the attention of the New York Times. Backing her up is Georges David of the Center for the Study and Conservation of Sperm, who accused the Vatican of “lacking charity toward couples who suffer.” And Esther Levine of an Oakland, California infertility clinic worried that “Catholic couples who feel the pain of infertility will now feel more so the guilt of sinning.”

Given this avalanche of reaction, barely a day after the document was released, it seems clear that few of these critics studied the teaching with any care. Some even acknowledged that they had not read it. To give one example, the Vatican denies at the outset that its teaching is based on the premise that whatever is natural is therefore morally desirable. “Artificial interventions . . . are not to be rejected on the grounds that they are artificial. As such, they bear witness to the possibilities of the art of medicine. But they must be given a moral evaluation.” In light of this and other cases, it makes sense to go beyond the early denunciation and attempt to understand, and evaluate, what the Vatican is really saying.

The papal document is more than an exegesis on artificial birth technology — it is a statement on human anthropology. The Vatican begins by defining the “true nature” of man as “at the same time corporal and spiritual.” It is the corporal dimension that establishes man’s continuity with the animals, and his spiritual element which traces his connection to God. A vision of man’s intermediate status between animals and angels may strike secular readers as overly dogmatic, but the Vatican merely intends to elevate man morally above the rest of creation. The idea of man’s special dignity which is relative to his unique nature, and which disqualifies him from being treated like an animal, should be acceptable to most religious and non-religious people alike. In its lexicon, the Vatican is presenting its own version of a “human rights policy.”

On the basis of its own view of human dignity, the Vatican proceeds to consider who is eligible for the title of “human person.” The Church is fully aware that this definitional controversy has not been resolved, and has raged through most of human history. The argument has been less over who are human beings as over which human beings are entitled to protection of their “human rights.”

Plato and Aristotle found such gaping inequalities among humans that they concluded that some were naturally disposed to be slaves and others naturally disposed to rule. Until a few decades ago it was considered an open question whether blacks fell within the parameters of human beings entitled to rights. Women, while undeniably human, were for a long time considered unqualified for the masculine right to vote and own property. Even now children do not have the same rights as adults, although they do have the right not to be abused or killed.

While society seems to have developed a rough consensus on the human rights of blacks and whites, men and women, adults and children, it remains ambivalent about the rights of the unborn. Some people regard the interval between conception and birth as the first chapter in a life fully protected by the law and the Constitution; others believe that it is the last best hope for mothers reluctant to have children to reverse the process, or bring it to an abrupt halt.

The Vatican realizes that it is impossible to address the issue of artificial birth technology, and of human entitlements in general, without a clear position on when life begins. The papal report unequivocally asserts that “From the time that the ovum is fertilized, a new life is begun which is neither that of the father nor of the mother.” In other words, life begins at conception. The church does not rigorously attempt to prove this, casually alluding to “recent findings of biological science which recognize that, in the zygote resulting from fertilization, the biological identity of a new human individual is already constituted.”

It seems hard to deny that most of the genetic apparatus is already in place by the time we have an embryo; the main difference between a born child and an unborn child is not biological, but geographical. The one is inside the womb; the other has been detached from it. And yet it also appears clear that there are differences in degree, if not in kind, between a bawling infant and a 60-cell blastocyst. Applying what one may call an ecumenical or inclusive definition, the Church insists that “human life must be absolutely protected and respected from the moment of conception.” On matters like this the Vatican considers itself infallible, but many secularists may agree that even if error is possible, it is better to err on the side of preserving human life rather than turn its fate over to people who often have a vested interest in destroying it.

From the principle stated above the Vatican goes on to argue that “since the embryo must be treated as a person, it must also be defended in its integrity, tended and cared for, to the extent possible, in the same way as any other human being as far as medical assistance is concerned.” The rest of the Church document simply spells out the implications of this.

Is prenatal diagnosis permissible? Yes, claims the Church, as long as it “respects the life and integrity of the embryo and the human fetus and is directed toward its safeguarding or healing as an individual.” In other words, it is acceptable to try and determine prenatal illnesses and maladies, though not to satisfy idle curiosity. It is definitely wrong to do prenatal diagnosis for the purpose of deciding whether the fetus is to be aborted or not.

What about therapeutic procedures carried out on embryos? Fine, says the Vatican, again as long as they are executed for the unborn child’s benefit, do not involve disproportionate risks, and are directed toward improvement of the fetus’ prospects — the same general criteria that would apply to medical treatment for a child or adult.

When it comes to “research and experimentation” on embryos, the Vatican is firm. None of this is permitted unless there is “free and informed consent” from parents and, more important, “there is a moral certainty of not causing harm to the life or integrity of the unborn child and the mother.” Even research “limited to the simple observation of the embryo” is forbidden when it fails to satisfy these requirements.

The reasoning for this stern conclusion is that one is not justified in performing an evil deed even for a good end. In church parlance, this is sometimes called the “consequential fallacy,” the idea that the end justifies the means. Experimenting with unborn children is “a crime against their dignity as human beings.” Therefore, “no objective, even though noble in itself, such as a foreseeable advantage to science, to other human beings, or to society, can in any way justify experimentation.”

The Vatican even considers the fate of destroyed embryos. “The corpses of human embryos and fetuses, whether they have been deliberately aborted or not, must be respected just as the remains of other human beings.” Commercial trafficking in dead fetuses is explicitly denounced.

From what appears to be fairly strong ground — the condemnation of activities that nearly everyone would regard as viscerally outrageous or at least distasteful — the Church considers the specific issues of in vitro fertilization and other similar reproductive techniques. Although the connection is not obvious at first, it soon becomes clear that the procedures outlawed earlier are common to in vitro and related techniques.

In vitro fertilization simply means fertilizing the ovum in a test tube. Heterologous in vitro fertilization refers to the fertilization of a woman with the sperm of a donor different from her husband. Homologous in vitro fertilization refers to the procedure applied to a married couple.

In the case of both heterologous and homologous in vitro fertilization, the Vatican maintains, not all the embryos are transferred to the woman’s body; some are destroyed. The Church views this as a human trying to determine for himself who shall live and who shall die: “the researcher usurps the place of God.” To the extent that in vitro fertilization exposes spare embryos to death or what the Vatican calls “an absurd fate,” it cannot be permitted.

The Church goes on to outline some of the macabre destinies of these wayward embryos. Some of them are frozen by a process called “cryptopreservation.” Some of them are tampered with scientifically with a view to changing their genetic or chromosomic character. The Vatican judges that these techniques offend against human dignity. It even condemns scientific attempts to bring these embryos “to term” through the construction of artificial uteruses, fertilization between human and animal gametes, and the gestation of human embryos in the uterus of animals. These are “contrary to the right of every person to be conceived and to be born within marriage and from marriage.”

Here the Vatican appeals to a controversial — perhaps even theological — principle when it would probably convince more people by simply appealing to their sense of dignity and outrage. Speaking as a former fetus, I know that I would not relish the thought of having materialized via any of the procedures that the Church outlines. Neither would most other people, probably. But the Vatican principle is crucial for the broad application of its argument, as we will see.

The Vatican’s case rests on two grounds. The first is the slippery slope argument. The Church sees the probability of those manipulations of embryonic life that might be considered acceptable opening the door to other, much more dangerous, attempts to shape human life not according to God’s plan but according to somebody’s whim or interest. Now God’s plan, we may concede, is sometimes opaque. Not everyone will follow all the markings on the Church’s road map. Nevertheless there is a moral and racial danger in allowing scientists to set themselves up as arbiters and referees of human life. Given this, even those who are willing to ride on the slippery slope, believing life itself to be such a slope on which tentative distinctions must be made, should see the need to be cautious about where things are headed and at what pace.

The second Vatican argument is based on the concept of the rights of children, including the unborn. Ever since the Vatican’s condemnation of abortion, it has been clear that the church does not condone the termination of embryos and fetuses. But in this document the Church does not consider merely the fetus’ right to life but also corollary rights. These include the right to be treated with the basic ingredients of human dignity and the right to be conceived by married parents through licit sexual intercourse.

The last bit will, to most people, seem somewhat farfetched. Perhaps embryos have a right not to be destroyed, and to dignified treatment as well, but a right to be conceived in marriage? A right to be born directly through loving sexual intercourse, not through any laboratory technique? A right to emerge only from the womb of the mother and not from a surrogate parent? As the Washington Post observed, taking a characteristically dim view of the Third World, “How many of the globe’s nearly 5 billion people were conceived the way the Vatican’s theologians deem proper is unknown.”

Unfamiliar as it seems in this debate, the right of children to their own parents is not a new concept. It is still recognized as the ideal by almost all people that children be born and raised within marriage. Indeed, the importance of such a climate for already-born children (illegitimate black children in particular) has been recognized by all parties to the poverty and welfare debate. The Vatican deserves credit for upholding this ideal, when many have found it more convenient to abandon it. After all, we are often reminded, this is the twentieth century with new and different problems. But the Vatican reminds us that the ideal does not become any less desirable because it occurs less often or is harder to achieve. Ethics is concerned with ideals — the way things ought to be, not the way things are.

Yet there remain troubling exceptions. What to do about the couple that simply cannot have a baby? There is the recourse to adoption, certainly, yet many people want to have the feeling that the child they are raising is their own. To the Vatican’s credit, it recognizes the power of such sentiments. Indeed it sees the legitimacy of such aspirations. But ultimately it rejects the vast majority of methods of artificial conception, including heterologous and homologous in vitro fertilization, on the grounds that they violate the rights of children.

The case is easier to make for heterologous techniques. The Vatican argues that “procreation must be the fruit and the sign of the mutual self-giving of the spouses, of their love and fidelity.” Indeed 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.” The “vitality and stability of society require that children come into the world within a family and that the family be firmly based on marriage.” The evident truth of these propositions rings clear; the Vatican feels no need to parade psychologists to provide proof. From these premises comes the conclusion that surrogate motherhood is wrong. It “deprives the child of his filial relationship with his parental origins and can hinder the maturing of his personal identity.” Furthermore, it “offends the common vocation of the spouses.” Surrogate motherhood is said to be “contrary to the unity of marriage and to the dignity of the procreation of the human person.”

The Vatican doesn’t say it, but it implies that surrogate parenthood and often techniques of heterologous fertilization are morally no different from renting out one’s husband or wife for the purposes of breeding. If adultery is wrong because it is a psychological offense against one of the married partners, spouse-swapping for the purposes of reproduction is even worse, because in addition to breaking the permanent bond between married couples it also permits a child to emerge outside the bonds of that relationship. Some of the moral confusion and physical pain encountered on all sides was evident in the infamous “Baby M” case, and there is little doubt that the child resulting from it all will have difficulty sorting out her place on this earth.

The problem of rental wombs and confused identities for children does not arise in the case of homologous in vitro fertilization. In that case fertilization is performed outside the womb but the zygote is reimplanted in the mother and develops and grows in that “natural” environment. Even here, though, the Vatican is severe. The reason, once again, is children’s rights.

The child conceived must be the fruit of his parents’ love. He cannot be desired or conceived as the product of an intervention of medical or biological techniques. That would be equivalent to reducing him to an object of scientific technology. No one may subject the coming of a child into the world to conditions of technical efficiency which are to be evaluated according to standards of control and dominion.

It seems fairly clear that the standards applied by the Vatican to artificial procreation are much more stringent than its criteria for medical procedures. For instance, the Church does not oppose purifying the bloodstream by artificial, outside-the-body means when natural means are insufficient. One could argue that a homologous in vitro fertilization is similar, merely replacing a natural process which happens to be deficient. But the Church maintains that, because of the potential involvement of a child in the process, different moral criteria should apply.

It is reassuring to have the Church speak up for the ethical prerogatives of children, who are after all the most defenseless and dependent members of a family. The Vatican stresses that no couple has an inalienable right to have children; if so children would be only instruments of their parents’ desires and would have few, if any, rights of their own. The Vatican emphatically asserts that children are “gifts from God”: they are not property to be commissioned, contracted for, or bought and sold.

The Vatican does not have much to offer couples who cannot have children and are unsatisfied with adoption. 1 t does commiserate with them and hint that there are joys and satisfactions to be found in each other. Marriage entails other blessings and gifts besides children, and those can be brought to full fruition. The Vatican also calls for further research in the fight against sterility so couples can procreate “in full respect for their own personal dignity and that of the child to be born.” In the meantime, such couples should not let their good intention to have children induce them to commit unjustified acts such as in vitro fertilization.

Reviewing the Vatican teaching as a whole, it is difficult not to be impressed by the grand moral vision animating it. The Church is often thought to be obsessed with the details of people’s sexual lives; here it is the overarching vista of family life and of human dignity which prevails. Also the Church is often thought to encourage children for the sake of having children as part of a Catholic reproductive ethic. In this document the Church draws a clear moral circumference; children should be brought into the world via licit marital relations.

The Church is going to run into the most trouble with the ethic of hedonism prevailing in our society. Most people simply assume that what causes people pain is, by virtue of that fact, morally wrong. Conversely they assume that what brings pleasure is morally right. That is why initial surveys of public opinion in America suggest that people’s sympathies lie with the barren couple who will do just about anything to have a child they can call their own. Why not? They are suffering. They have a right not to suffer. Let them do what they want.

Perhaps it would have been good for the Vatican to engage this ethic of hedonism more directly in its teaching, so that its rebuttals of arguments against its position would be placed in a philosophical context — people could see the larger horizons of their opinions and assumptions. Nevertheless even in its current form, for those who take the time to understand the Vatican teaching, it is a provocative and powerful one, which does not engage in the simple-minded fallacies cited by the critics, which calls Catholics and non-Catholics alike to a life in which concern for human dignity predominates over technology and expediency.


  • Dinesh D'Souza

    Dinesh D'Souza is an American conservative political commentator, author, and former college president.

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