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Benedict XVI recently asked the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to turn its attention to the ethical challenges that new biotechnologies pose. Aware that the Church “cannot and should not intervene on every scientific innovation,” the pope charged the congregation with “reiterating the great values at stake, and providing the faithful, and all men and women of good will, with ethical and moral principles and guidelines for these new and important questions.”

To help direct the congregation’s reflection, he offered two principles: “(a) unconditional respect for the human being as a person from conception to natural death; (b) respect for the originality of the transmission of human life through the acts proper to spouses.”

Around the same time the pope gave his address, the Drudge Report highlighted a story out of Newcastle, England, where scientists have created human embryos with three biological parents. Meanwhile, the February 2 issue of the New Scientist noted the work being done with stem cells to create “female sperm” and “male eggs.” This will allow same-sex couples to have children biologically related to both parents, a goal that an accompanying editorial praised while calling the “fears” of critics “largely irrational.”

What should all of this tell us?

Benedict’s principles are obviously correct¯and yet they point to a problem that serious ethical thinkers, especially Catholic thinkers, have not really faced up to. They have given us good public arguments on embryo destruction and abortion, all the death topics. But they seem not to have given us persuasive public arguments on reproduction and parenthood, all the creation topics.

The pope’s short address left out much recent debate about enhancement technology and treatments that move “beyond therapy” to make us “better than well.” Yet, if we apply Benedict’s two principles correctly, much of the theoretical problem with enhancement technology is sidestepped, purely as a practical matter. Without embryo experimentation and assisted reproductive technologies, enhancements become largely impossible and the theoretical problem disappears.

Nonetheless, scientists could develop means that are morally acceptable (some, in fact, already exist), and so ethicists need to begin thinking about the ends that these enhancement technologies might serve. Likewise, the relative ease with which the Church can speak publicly against embryo destruction is married oddly to the relative difficulty it experiences in explaining the prohibitions on certain assisted reproductive technologies. Addressing this challenge should be a top priority.

Benedict argued that non-conjugal reproduction such as in vitro fertilization had created “new problems”¯the freezing of human embryos, for instance, and the selective abortion of medically implanted embryos, together with pre-implantation diagnosis, embryonic stem-cell research, and attempts at human cloning.

He argued that these “clearly show that with extra-corporeal artificial fertilization, the barrier that served to protect human dignity has been violated. When human beings in the weakest and most defenseless stage of their lives are selected, abandoned, killed, or used as mere ‘biological material,’ how can it be denied that they are no longer being treated as ‘someone’ but rather as ‘something,’ hence, calling into question the very concept of human dignity?”

Worth noticing is that his public argument is about the consequences of assisted reproductive technologies, how they result in embryo killing, freezing, and other abuses. The argument never touches on any objection to IVF per se¯how the creation of new human beings in this way is itself wrong.

The Western tradition of moral reflection has produced a long line of reasoning about the fundamental worth of people and the immorality of direct killing. Battles over civil and human rights at home and abroad have taken up and developed the historical arguments about human dignity and equality. We have developed traditions of rationality about these questions¯competing traditions, no doubt, but traditions of thought on these topics all the same.

So when debates about embryo freezing, manipulation, or killing arise, moral philosophers and theologians have rich resources for identifying the wrongs involved. It’s easy to speak to the public about all this. Start with the science that shows the humanity and individuality of the embryo, and then make philosophical arguments about the equality of all human beings as persons possessing inherent dignity. Finally, add the well-developed moral and legal prohibitions on directly killing innocent persons and you quickly arrive at the conclusion that killing human embryos is wrong.

In other words, religiously grounded thinkers make arguments about killing. They don’t simply pronounce, “God says it’s wrong.” As Benedict charged the CDF, they use arguments that can guide both the faithful “and all men and women of good will.”

With assisted reproductive technologies, things are different. There has not been much of a tradition of talking about human procreation. A general taboo about procreating outside the context of marriage, yes, but no extended analysis was really necessary while there was only one way to make a baby. All that changed in 1978, with the birth of the world’s first test-tube baby, Louise Joy Brown. And it has left us without an effective vocabulary or framework to talk about the relevant issues in the public square.

Test Tube Babies

According to the typical Catholic argument against IVF, nonconjugal procreation severs the intrinsic tie between the procreative and unitive meanings of sex and fails to show respect for the dignity of a new human person in his origins. IVF treats, in Benedict’s words, the new human life as a “something,” not a “someone.” From the passage quoted above, it might seem that the pope is objecting to all this on the consequentialist grounds that it often results in embryo killing. But the problem, as he knows, is also in the very act of conception. It turns procreation into production and makes what should be the fruit of a loving embrace the result of technical manufacturing.

Most people find this argument hard to swallow. Consider a young but infertile married couple who, like most newlyweds, desperately desire children of their own. If you told them that by using IVF they would be viewing their child as a “something,” or turning procreation into production, they would not be convinced. (Or, at least according to current statistics, most couples in this situation aren’t convinced, assuming they’ve even heard the argument.)

In fact, given what the Bible says about the blessing of fertility and the curse of being barren, it isn’t hard to understand why many people have an inchoate view of IVF that is entirely favorable. When IVF isn’t being used for the egregious ends that Benedict bemoans, but merely to overcome infertility, it’s harder to convince people of the wrong.

Maybe they would be more convinced if we worked backward from the clear cases that people do reject. Those bad consequences do not come from nowhere; they are implicit in the procedure of IVF, regardless of the ends to which it is put. Pointing out how the same basic attitude toward new life underlies all the evils might help bring to light the principled wrong. Benedict didn’t create the link between IVF and embryo destruction; IVF opened that link, and Benedict is only pointing it out.

Mom, Dad, and Mom?

Still, creating embryos solely to destroy them seems a vastly different act from creating embryos to overcome fertility problems. And for those who don’t have any moral objections to homosexual acts, allowing gay and lesbian couples to have biological offspring appears an obvious, even self-evident, good.

So what can the moral philosopher say about a three-parent embryo? The goal of the procedure isn’t to produce embryos for research parts but to provide parents with a healthy child. Consider a husband and wife who conceive an embryo that is at risk for mitochondrial genetic disease. The three-parent technique involves transferring the nucleus of this embryo into another woman’s enucleated ovum. Because the mitochondria aren’t located in the nucleus but only in the ovum’s cytoplasm, transferring the nucleus out of a diseased setting and into a healthy one protects the developing child. The third parent provides nothing more than surrogate cytoplasm.

Once you’ve accepted the moral validity of IVF, what is the added harm of transferring the zygote’s nucleus into a different enucleated egg? If this prevents the onset of disease that would have occurred with the previous mitochondria, what harm is done? How could anyone be against securing the health of these genetically at-risk children?

In answer, we could point to the well-worn arguments about killing. The research needed to make the embryo develop to term will require trial and error, with the resulting destruction of countless embryonic human lives. For that matter, even when perfected, this method will always involve the destruction of a human embryo, the one whose nucleus is removed.

The problem with the arguments against killing is that they leave us unable to form an objection if scientists can achieve the same result without killing¯as, for instance, if they created an embryo with genetic material from a mother and father immediately set in the enucleated egg of a second mother. This would provide parents with a healthy child, and no embryos would have been destroyed or cloned, just created¯with three biological parents.

Such a procedure would have profound impact on how we understand paternity and maternity. And what can we say in response? At a gut level, most Americans would have an initial reaction against this technique¯what Leon Kass has called the “Wisdom of Repugnance.” But IVF showed us how quickly this repugnance and its wisdom vanish.

Biology Matters

So what is the moral grounding for the assertion that a human being should be conceived by a married mother and father in a conjugal act?

The arguments given by proponents of these technologies may help us in crafting the counterargument. New technologies will soon find a way for gay and lesbian couples to have children¯and to have their own children. But if there weren’t something to the idea of biological relatedness, why would homosexual activists be celebrating this advance? Isn’t that because what people really do want is not just any old kid but their kid?

Biology, however, cuts both ways. It clearly matters for the homosexual couple: They want to have their own kid, and they’ll use “female sperm” or “male eggs” to make it happen. Gender also clearly matters. While many LGBT sympathizers argue that gender is a social construct, gays and lesbians clearly think the gender of their partner matters¯it’s what makes them homosexual. Yet might biology and gender matter to these children? How will the child react when he learns that his biological origins do not include a mother or a father but two men, one of whom turned his stem cells into an egg? Might the child have a valid preference about the gender of his parents ?

Historical Parallels

There is an interesting parallel to be drawn between Benedict’s recent address and Paul VI’s encyclical letter Humanae Vitae . Both popes were examining serious moral questions that involved acts that they considered intrinsically wrong in principle. For Paul VI, it was the contraceptive pill; for Benedict XVI, nonconjugal reproduction. Yet in both cases that intrinsic wrong was opaque to most of the public.

Both these acts sever the connection between procreation and sex¯but in opposite directions: one promises sex without babies; the other promises babies without sex. Both divorce procreation from love, and both make for compelling, heart-wrenching justifications: the couple who can’t afford children now and want to contracept for a time; the happy but infertile spouses who want a child of their own.

Paul VI, writing at the beginnings of the contraceptive pill and the sexual revolution it would launch, took a prospective prophetic stance¯with four general predictions: that the acceptance of the pill would produce “marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards,” that men would “forget the reverence due to a woman” and “reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires,” that governments would embrace contraceptives and “even impose their use on everyone,” and that the limits “to the power of man over his own body and its natural functions” would be eliminated.

Be it widespread premarital and extramarital sex, divorce, abortion, pornographic exploitation, or our current biotech dream of a “posthuman future,” it’s hard to argue that Paul got it wrong. Uniting the statements of Benedict and Paul is an appeal to the practical consequences of accepting a principled evil.

Work to Be Done

Some will find this line of reasoning insufficient. Designer babies, embryos on ice, cloning, and embryo destruction are a far cry from IVF used to produce a healthy newborn, and a logical connection between the latter and the former is hardly clear. Likewise, one can use the pill without engaging in extramarital sex, divorce, or female exploitation.

What then can we say to the otherwise virtuous user of IVF and contraception? Paul VI did not rest his argument on predicted consequences alone. He proposed that the connection between the procreative and unitive aspects of the marital act is both natural and divinely ordained. But he did not give us much of an argument as to why these have to be united and how we know that fact.

One argument might focus on a philosophical anthropology: the natural ends of the body and the proper function of the sex organs. Another line of argument might focus on the goods of human flourishing at stake in contraception and IVF and how only a sexual act open to life protects those goods. When we use contraception, we orient ourselves against the good of life itself¯and, in the same way, when we use IVF to create a new human being, we treat that being solely as a means to our own purposes.

I’m inclined to favor the latter approach, but work must be done to put any such argument in public language. In America, there is no regulation of reproductive technologies at all: Any woman can conceive a child using any method that will work. And any man can donate the sperm, anonymously or otherwise. And, if the new stem-cell technology pans out, any woman could donate the sperm, too.

What we need is to build robust, publicly accessible arguments about procreation and the moral norms that govern it. We need to develop deeper discussions about the meaning and nature of parenthood, gender, and biology. And to the arguments we already have about the killing of embryos, we need to add arguments about the conditions under which we may bring those embryos into existence in the first place.

Ryan T. Anderson is an assistant editor at First Things . A 2007 Phillips Foundation fellow, he is the assistant director of the Program in Bioethics at the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, New Jersey.


BBC on Three-Parent Embryos

New Scientist magazine, Feb 2, 2008

Benedict XVI’s address to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Jan 31, 2008

Humanae Vitae

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