In vitro fertilization is not therapy because “it does not treat whatever pathologies are at the root of couples’ infertility,” writes Tim Muldoon on the Patheos website, taking issue with the Nobel Prize in Medicine awarded to Robert Edwards for his work in developing the techniques of human in vitro fertilization. “Infertility is not a medical condition, but rather the result of other medical conditions” that IVF does not heal. One might argue, he suggests, noting that IVF has become a lucrative industry despite its low (30 percent) success rate, that IVF has allowed the medical community to ignore these underlying pathologies and focus instead on achieving successful pregnancies.
Muldoon, who teaches at Boston College, is suitably and humanely moved by the plight of couples experiencing the trial and trauma of infertility, and he acknowledges that we give thanks for the people who have come into the world through IVF, but he does not allow the brush of modern sentimentalism to blur lines and prettify the truth.
And the truth, as uncomfortable as it may make us, is that on both a physical and a spiritual level, in vitro fertilization—difficult and costly as it is—creates an easier and (spiritually) cheaper way for human beings to focus solely on themselves, and what they want, while ignoring those insights into sacrifices they may indeed be called to.
“It interrupts,” he writes, “the transformative process—the conversion, if you will—experienced by many families who ultimately are led to seriously consider adoption. It feeds the natural desire of parents to be genetically related to their children, but it does not raise the question of whether this desire serves a larger good.”
What Muldoon is describing here is a kind of Global By-Pass of the Heart: we increasingly talk about the “global community” and the need for humanity to get past geographical boarders and boundaries, yet we take every opportunity to circumvent our own heartbreak, our own spiritual challenges by any means necessary. In the case of infertility, it seems we first-worlders hold the needs of third-world global communities—like those with children who desperately need to be adopted—in abeyance, only bringing them into focus once our self-reliant technological options have been exhausted. Their needs finally pierce our awareness when our own desires force us to look their way.
Perhaps this is a mystery of love—that our reaching out to others is always rooted in a both a subconscious desire to acquire, and a surrender of sorts. But if this is so, doesn’t it indicate that there is something wrong, on a primary and instinctive level, when our first yielding—our first act of surrender—is directed, not to God or to a human being in need, but to technology and procedure?
This is no treatise against medical treatment or science, and Muldoon obviously is not making an argument against either, but there is an odd parallel at play here and it involves love and God and surrender. Life is good. We seek it out, and wish to hold on to it.
But lately we find ourselves unable to discern how to live and how to die, because our technological options are so varied, the force for life so inherent and the culture so techno-dependent. Instrumentation is coming between our desires and our gut-instincts—our self-knowledge. When that happens we are delayed in understanding our roles and our callings; we are delayed in understanding who we are.
To want a child of one’s own is a perfectly understandable human sentiment. Our biology is designed for reproduction, and our longing for our husband or wife is oriented toward creating the fruit of children. But when we can’t have children, we ought to consider the notion of “calling,” and ask whether playing Creator via petrie dish serves to distort our understanding of our roles and places in this world, and perhaps in the next as well.
Our reliance on procedure indicates that we have conferred upon science an almost unthinking precedence over spiritual or moral considerations. But morality—a notion more acceptable when pronounced from a position of political correctness—is still a consideration.
So why aren’t the environmental morality police decrying IVF?
God aside, when the standard line among the credentialed gentry is that the world already has too many people on it and “globalists” like Ted Turner are publicly suggesting that one-child policies should be instituted in order to “save the planet” and its “dwindling resources,” can IVF be considered “moral”? And if not, then isn’t there something oddly ironic in the Nobel Committee’s awarding a prize for a procedure that attempts to further populate a world widely asserted to be overpopulated?
Maybe it makes sense, if we think the world is overpopulated with other sorts of people living elsewhere, and that it needs more people like us. Then we can ignore the global community we claim we value, and turn to technology rather than adoption to create our families. If that is the case, what a stinging indictment it makes against us and all of our presumed better angels. That sentiment has nothing to do with love, or surrender, at all.
Adoption is already a complicated, arduous and emotional process; having to look beyond national borders for a child to welcome into your life and home is more complicated still, and while stable couples exhaust their resources to invest in the emotional crapshoot of IVF before finally “giving in” to the possibility that they may, in fact, be called to adoption, countless children grow older and become more difficult to place.
All of which makes me want to go study Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae once more, and dwell on this: the Church “urges man not to betray his personal responsibilities by putting all his faith in technical expedients.” For those suffering infertility—and no one should underestimate the deep pain of being unable to conceive a child with your loved one—one of those personal responsibilities may be to surrender, and reach out and gather the global community together, one child at a time.
Elizabeth Scalia is a contributor to First Things where she blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here. Tim Muldoon's IVF column may be read here at the Patheos website, whose Catholic portal Scalia edits.