Friday, December 19, 2008

Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Back in the Water

Right after the election, a congregant asked me what would happen to the advocacy work of the Religious Institute now that we didn't have to worry about the President and the White House.

I told her that there would still be plenty of work for us to do.

In the past week, as you know if you've been reading, the inauguration team asked Rev. Rick Warren to do the invocation, dismaying many in the progressive religious (and secular) community -- and yesterday the Bush administration with only a few days in office released the new regulations that require any federally funded health facility, including family planning clinics, to hire staff who can choose not to provide health services they disagree with.

The Vatican last week issued a major paper against Assisted Reproductive Technologies. I asked my colleague Dr. Kate Ott, a Catholic ethicist, for her response. She wrote:

Released on December 8, 2009. “Dignitas Personae: On Certain Bioethical Questions” is a statement of the Roman Catholic Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

As Catholics, like myself, celebrate Advent and re-tell the mystery of the Christmas story – it's fitting to reflect on reproductive technologies. The document is internally dated September 8 by the Vatican, which is the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin. The Church has drawn our attention to two doctrines regarding extraordinary births - Mary (Jesus’ mother), born free of original sin and Jesus, well let’s just say he was a reproductive mystery. The miraculous biblical stories of birth fit more closely with our notions of reproductive technologies than with the Vatican's re-assertion that the authentic context for human life is an act of reciprocal love between a man and woman in marriage.


An analogy of Jesus’ birth and modern IVF is not a direct corollary. Yet, it does leave me puzzled every Christmas that a tradition who so staunchly advocates a strict pro-heterosexual marriage, anti-abortion/reproductive technology stance celebrates an unwed, young woman becoming pregnant without engaging in sexual intercourse. The story lacks marriage and a male/female act of “reciprocal love” a.k.a. penile-vaginal sexual intercourse.


I don’t raise this issue in support of open doors to all reproductive technology or that faith in God alone cures infertility. Rather, I suggest we reflect with greater care and more awareness on our stories of birth, infertility, and disease. The biblical tradition and our religious heritage are not neat and tidy. Infertility and disease affect communities. Births and how they come about affect communities.


The title, Dignitas Personae means “the dignity of a person.” What Dignitas Personae, and Donum vitae before it, have failed to articulate is how the dignity of all lives is to be affirmed from conception to death. Instead the Church focuses completely on an embryo’s dignity to the exclusion of women’s lives, their families, and those who live with chronic diseases. Ethical positions on assisted reproductive technologies and embryonic research become more complex and richer when we ask about the dignity of ALL persons. The seamless ethic of life from conception to death is one we can affect positively or negatively with responsible scientific exploration and intentional ethical deliberation. To truly recognize the dignity of all lives – a couple struggling with infertility, a patient with Parkinson’s disease and his family, or a community that suffers from genetic disorders - we need to look beyond heterosexual procreative rules to a communal understanding of reciprocal love and justice.

I don't think the Religious Institute needs to worry that we will not be needed any time soon.

3 comments:

Pam said...

I think it is a mistake to suggest that Dignitas Personae elevates the dignity of the embryo (which many in our culture completely deny anyway) over the dignity of the infertile couple, the individual with Parkinson's etc. The point of recognizing the dignity of the human person from conception to natural death is that no human being - not even the smallest, the most vulnerable, the weakest, or the most inconvenient to its present or prospective caregivers - can be destroyed based on its wantedness or usefulness. This protection - focused most often in the MEDIA on human embryos (admittedly weak, small, vulnerable and inconvenient to many) - also extends to the disabled, to the unemployed, to the criminal on death row (whose death no matter how much desired by victims' families or others is not justified because of his or her intrinsic human dignity recognized consistently pretty much only by the Catholic Church). It extends to gays and lesbians, whom hate criminals would like to de-humanize and feel justified in killing (and some would be tempted to abort in the womb, if it could be determined, just as girl fetuses are in many parts of the world, which is hateful in and of itself), as well as religious and ethnic minority groups, such as the small, weak, vulnerable and inconvenient groups being persecuted in Darfur.

In important ways, all humans are like, or could easily become like, a human embryo, unwanted, undesireable, inconvenient, a burden, to SOMEONE more powerful than we are, and if the right to life is based only arbitrary distinctions, any one of us could be vulnerable.

I have a toddler with leukemia and boy, is his condition ever inconvenient. Does that affect his wantedness or his right to life? If his condition burdens me or my autonomy, am I justified in getting rid of him? Do I favor killing other human beings to try to find the potential for a cure for him? No and no. But policies and philosophies advanced by many (even here at this forum) would say, or at least taken to their logical conclusion answer yes and yes.

The pain of infertility is also recognized by the Church - and suffered by many within and without. Just as I would, as a mother, really WANT to sacrifice anyone and everyone to find a cure for MY beloved child's cancer - I know that couples who desire a child may feel desperate to have their heart's desire fulfilled. However, in society we need to live by principle, not by emotional wants. When I write the following I am in no way disrespecting the pain of a couple's infertility, and I can well understand the desperation to have a child using whatever means or technology is available. However, regardless of how valuable a life is when it was been created (and IVF babies, of course, cloned babies or "designer' babies once created have intrinsic human dignity), when life is no longer viewed as a gift from God, but rather as an object to be created or obtained to my own specifications at any cost, the door is opened for the objectifying of lots of other lives.

Pope John Paul II developed his anthropology based in part on his personal experiences seeing human beings denigrated and reduced to being objects - under both fascism and communism (the human being was an object that existed at the pleasure of and for the good of the state). Some people got along very well under both Nazism and communism - just as some people get along great being conceived through ART, or even designed - as babies sought by women in the NYT a few months ago who are lining up to get sperm from one particular Danish sperm donor in order to have "beautiful Viking babies". Many, probably most, are definitely born to deserving, good, loving parents and have a good life. In contrast, others' dignity may not be respected - they may be created with expectations that they cannot live up to - what if a beautiful Viking baby that was created at great expense turns out to be troublesome, or gets ugly later in life? Human beings exist for their own sake and are intrisically valuable - their value is not contingent on their value to other persons.

In death penalty considerations, we often say that letting lots of guilty criminals go is worth it if only ONE innocent person is saved from unjust execution. What about the policy of widespread creation of embryos? A policy that embryos are objects to be grown according to need and desire of adults - with some growing into much loved babies, some sliced and diced for research purposes, and some frozen and destroyed - is this a good policy for human beings generally? Might it desensitize us over time to the plight of embryo-like living human beings (like the severely-disabled, premature babies, or even poor children living on the street in the developing world)? Are the benefits to some suffering couples worth the societal slide into acceptance of eugenics and utilitarianism as regards human beings?

I think the Church is villified for standing on principles, such as the dignity of ALL human life, because our society has decided that everyone is entitled to have our wants fulfilled. We are an emotion-based culture, an immature culture, where immediate gratification of our wants is seen as a basic human right, while principles (and those who advocate for them) seem to be the big bad grown-up thwarting all our joy.

Even where people disagree with the final conclusion of the Catholic Church hierarchy, I believe that the principles the Church propounds should be considered more thoughtfully. In the end, the principle in question is whether human beings'(ALL human beings') right to life is contingent on wantedness and convenience to others, and at some point in all of our lives, it is likely that we will be inconvenient to SOMEONE. Hopefully, if universal respect for human dignity from conception to natural death does not prevail, that SOMEONE won't be stronger or more powerful than we are.

What we can learn from the Christmas story I think is NOT that God used IVF for his own Son, but rather, that HE, in choosing where and how to be born into the world, freely chose circumstances that were by the world's standards less-than-ideal. (I don't read anywhere in the Gospel that he was a beautiful Viking baby...) Also that Mary, His Mother, changed history by saying YES to his humanity even though it was socially a suicide course to her - as far as she knew it meant that she would be put aside by her betrothed, and maybe even convicted and stoned for adultery - I don't know. But her fiat, which Catholics make much of, reflected her unconditional acceptance of God's plan for humanity, even though it pretty much looked like it would ruin her life, and her plans, and she did not understand it. For Catholics this season, the miracle of that fiat is that it turned out to be critical to the salvation (not so much the Heaven-and-hell salvation I mean here, but the reconciliation of humanity to God) for the whole world. What she thought would be a disaster, it turns out would only have been a disaster if she had insisted on having it her own way, under her own total control.

Debra, I haven't been able to read or comment here much in the past year because of my toddler's cancer illness. I know that especially at the beginning of his diagnosis you have been keeping him in prayer and I appreciate it. I hope we are coming out of the worst now and that I can get back to participating in these important discussions. I appreciate your willingness to post alternative thoughts and viewpoints here. I wish you, Dr. Ott and all in this online community a holiday season filled with peace and good will.

Cassandra said...

That's a beautiful and articulate post, Pam. Prayers for your son!

Rev. Debra, I, too, appreciate your openness to post differing views.

Debra W. Haffner said...

Cassandra and Pam, you are always welcome here because I know you write with care and respect...it's only the hateful and hate-filled comments that I don't post. I think you would both be aghast at the so-called Christians who write hate speech and threatening messages.

Pam, I'll ask Dr. Ott if she'd like to respond to you here or off line.