February 27, 2009


The octuplets

Could anything demonstrate better the wisdom of the Catholic Church’s teaching about bioethics better than the controversy caused by a woman in California who gave birth to eight babies?

As everyone surely knows by now, 33-year-old Nadya Suleman gave birth to octuplets after already having six children under age 7. All 14 of her children came about through in vitro fertilization. Suleman is a divorced, single woman whose mother has been taking care of her children.

She says that she loves children, and that is commendable. But almost everything else about this situation is grotesque.

Some people have praised Suleman because she refused to “selectively reduce” the number of babies in her uterus—kill some of them so that those remaining would have a better chance of survival and be healthier after birth. But that isn’t the point. She should never have had multiple embryos implanted in her uterus in the first place.

Much more than that, there shouldn’t have been any embryos to implant in the first place. They were left over after being created when she underwent in vitro fertilization for her other children.

The Catholic Church has always taught that in vitro fertilization is immoral, but the birth of the octuplets occurred about a month after the Vatican released a new document on bioethics. The document was much more comprehensive than just about in vitro fertilization, but it again condemned it.

The Church teaches that techniques for assisting fertility are morally permissible if they respect the right to life of every human being and if procreation is accomplished as a result of the conjugal act in marriage. Obviously, that wasn’t the case here.

The Church consistently teaches that conception must always result from the conjugal act. That is why it condemns artificial contraception and one of the reasons why it condemns in vitro fertilization. In the latter, that separation begins with the way the father’s sperm is collected and continues in the fertilization of an egg outside the womb.

In vitro fertilization also usually includes the deliberate destruction of human embryos. If they aren’t destroyed, they are frozen. Today, because in vitro fertilization has become so common, there are thousands of frozen embryos, in a sense “orphans.” Proposals to use those frozen embryos for experimentations that require their eventual destruction are not moral.

Even the proposal for so-called “prenatal adoption,” which would allow frozen embryos to be born, although well-intended, is subject to a number of problems. They should not have been frozen in the first place.

As already noted, the Church teaches that procreation must be accomplished as a result of the conjugal act in marriage.

Suleman is not married, so her pregnancy was still another violation of the natural law as expressed in the Church’s teachings. We Catholics believe that marriage is the best way to raise and educate children. Suleman is bound to have a difficult time doing that for her 14 children.

The Church realizes that infertility can be a source of great suffering for married couples who ardently want to have children. Some of them can be helped through moral techniques, but sometimes couples simply are unable to conceive. In those cases, the Church recommends adoption, and thousands of couples have found this to be a satisfactory way to have the family they want.

Other couples, though, for their own reasons, reject that solution. They want biological children and they know that technology enables them to do so. But the Catholic Church insists that just because something can be done through technology doesn’t make it something that should be done.

Perhaps, just perhaps, what happened here will shock enough fertility doctors around the country to make them reflect a bit on their ethical responsibilities. Some of them have criticized the doctor for implanting so many embryos.

Now that Suleman’s 14 children are here, we hope that they will be healthy and that she will find some way to care for them. We can’t understand the people who left messages at the hospital where the octuplets were born saying that they hoped the babies would not survive infancy.

As is almost always the case, this controversial situation couldn’t have occurred if people would thoughtfully consider the Catholic Church’s moral teachings.

—John F. Fink

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