Moral Opposite Day

Do you remember “Opposite Day” from childhood?  “Sure, I’ll give you half my candy bar if you give me your fruit Roll-Up…just kidding: it’s Opposite Day!”

When adults play Opposite Day, the results are far more sinister.  This year the Nobel Prize Committee played Moral Opposite Day by awarding their prize for medicine to Dr. Robert Edwards, the inventor of in vitro fertilization.  A Vatican official quickly condemned the Committee’s actions, and rightly so.

The Church’s objections to in vitro fertilization are perhaps not as well known as they should be:  the procedure turns reproduction into a technical process instead of an act of love and involves the mass-production of embryos, the majority of which will be discarded when they are no longer deemed useful.  Because the procedure’s rate of success is low, a larger number of human embryos are created than what are normally needed, and those that are deemed defective or prove to be “unnecessary” are killed or frozen.

A more thorough and expert discussion of the problems with in vitro fertilization, as well as the morally acceptable alternatives to it, can be found on the USCCB website.  However, even a brief consideration of all that the procedure involves should be sufficient to understand how it results in the reduction of human life to a commodity.  Any time we find ourselves applying the adjective “unnecessary” to a human life, we have already entered a brave new world of moral horror.

I realize that my language is strong, that the desires of couples who resort to IVF for a child are complex and profound, and that many of these couples, even Catholics, are also completely unaware of the moral implications of their actions.  The failure of those given the responsibility to teach the faith is at least as blameworthy as the actions of such uninformed couples.  But the mentality and ethos that makes IVF so unproblematic for so many warrants strong language.

Take, for example, this article sent to me last week by a friend in Canada.  A couple contracted with a woman to bear their surrogate child, but when they discovered that the child had Down syndrome, they pressured the mother into having an abortion.  An advocate for the parents protests, “Why should the intended parents be forced to raise a child they didn’t want?  It’s not fair.”

It’s not fair.

The article also recalls “one case where the mother conceived twins, the parents asked for a procedure to reduce the number of fetuses to one, and the whole pregnancy was inadvertently lost.”  What sort of “a procedure,” I wonder, did they mean?  Strong language is necessary here because of the tendency to hide the unpleasant truth behind euphemisms and because of the gravity of the questions involved.

What’s at stake could not be more important:  are human beings—and one’s own children no less—simply consumer products?  Is having a child like ordering a meal at a restaurant—“Oh, send that one back, it has too much salt”?  Is having a child about love at all, about care and acceptance, or is it about self-fulfillment, about having an experience?

I wrote a post several months ago about my generation’s tendency towards “spiritual tourism,” how, for many, spirituality is mostly about having new experiences without really ever committing to one.  The shallow dilettantism of such an outlook precludes Christianity because it precludes love.  Love requires commitment.

The great, awful irony in this situation is that the rise of the “reproductive technology” industry in the West has coincided with a yearly abortion rate in the millions.  It’s not that there are too few children, nor too many; it’s just that they’re inconvenient, poorly timed, the wrong color, not exactly what we ordered.  Adoption is not appealing because it’s not the kind of experience the couple desired.

What we’re dealing with is a profoundly debased understanding of what human existence is; it’s as if that principle of salesmanship “the customer is always right” has been turned into the categorical imperative.  How else to explain a couple complaining that “it’s not fair” that a woman whom they got pregnant (!) does not want to kill their child?  It’s Moral Opposite Day.

I don’t only want to condemn what’s wrong in the prevailing secular outlook, though calling evil by its name is certainly necessary.  But there is a better way of approaching human existence than what our consumer mentality offers.  I mean simply understanding human life as a gift and treating it as such.  I would submit that life has been understood in this way, as something profoundly good, even sacred, by nearly every culture in every time, and that the exceptions to this rule—those societies that have treated human beings as mere material for building up the State, for example—only serve to prove its indispensible value.  Unfortunately, many parts of the Western world have already joined those societies that see people as things instead of gifts.

Those disturbed by a mentality that would “reduce” a pair of twins to a more manageable one need to give more serious consideration to the view of human life proposed by the Catholic Church, in all its integrity, a view which sees the hand of God in human procreation.  The Church’s understanding of what it means for a life to come into being comes out of a deep and ancient wisdom, a wisdom far more human and humane than the ethos of a world that demands children be planned to meet our specifications.

Those who advocate abortion, artificial contraception, or “reproductive technology” often do so in the name of alleviating human misery, which accounts for the self-righteousness that we see in their arguments (“It’s not fair!”).  But they ignore the far more profoundly dehumanizing misery they create.  Who would want to go through life as the sort of person who impregnates a surrogate mother and then pressures her into killing her child because it has Down syndrome?  Who would want to grow up with parents who have killed one’s twin sibling in utero?  How will such a child feel when she inevitably fails to live up to the designer specifications her parents have for her future?

In C.S. Lewis’ meditation on the afterlife, The Great Divorce, the author dwells on the degree to which Hell is our own creation, the realization of our own fantasies, our living forever with what we think we want.  I think this brave new world of “reproductive technology” is already just such a hell on earth—like some endless and eternal hospital ward, sanitary and polite, where we’ve sealed the windows closed and the fluorescent lights never dim, and we are left with the inhumanity we’ve created.

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9 Responses to Moral Opposite Day

  1. Qualis Rex says:

    Very hard-hitting post on a rather draconian and ghoulish subject, Anthony. IMHO, the Nobel committee started playing “opposite day” in 1973 when they awarded the Peace prize to Henry Kissinger.

  2. Pete Lake says:

    Anthony,

    I bet in heaven, Pope Paul VI, is comforted in knowing that, in “your sacred office . . . as counselor and spiritual leader . . . [you are honoring/will honor] your principal duty . . . to spell out clearly and completely the Church’s teaching.”

    AMDG

  3. Martha says:

    Great post, Tony! If anyone reading isn’t aware, the Pope Paul VI Institute treats infertility solely through Church-approved techniques. This is certainly a sensitive topic, but if you’re fortunate enough to speak with a couple considering IVF before they’ve gone through with it, consider suggesting this fine group to them. Not only do they have higher success rates overall (that’s success in getting the couple to conceive naturally, I mean) than IVF, it’s quite a bit cheaper. Even someone who’s not morally opposed to IVF can appreciate that, and making the suggestion can be a way of evangelizing the Church’s teaching on the value and dignity of human life.

    Bravo for this post, Tony, I really enjoyed it. 🙂

  4. Debra Schluter says:

    I am reminded of my mother’s horror when my sister, pregnant with her first child at age 38, explained to my mother that she was undergoing amniocentesis, routinely done at 20 weeks, precisely halfway through the 40 weeks of pregnancy, to determine if the child she was carrying had any identifiable genetic “flaws,” particularily, I am going to assume, trisomy 21, or Down syndrome. My mother was mortified. “And what if you find something wrong?” she asked, “Are you going to choose not to have it — halfway through your pregnancy — because it is not “normal?” What is normal?” I remember my sister was struck dumb by our mother’s indignation — by her very real questions. My sister was flustered, and stammered a “no,” but one could tell she was clearly uncomfortable and had not given much thought to a procedure OB doctors routinely perform, or what she might do with the results. I know today, as the proud mother of a wonderful son, my sister would not hesitate to carry into the world a child others might consider imperfect. As a 48 year-old pre-menopausal married woman, and mother of five children ages 27 to 10, I know the odds of my getting pregnant with a Down syndrome child are now 1 in 35, vastly lower odds than my younger counterparts. I, too, would welcome such a child into my life, as would my family. We can say that easily now, because we are mothers — many parents learn perhaps too late that any and every child is a gift. I cannot imagine the horror of becoming a parent via IVF, after “eliminating unecessary embryos,” or “reducing” a set of twins or rejecting and aborting a child for what we might consider imperfect genes — and then realizing afterward the very real cost — to humanity, to our children, and to our souls. Yikes.

  5. Excellent article Tony! I too find the current attitude towards children really distrubing.

    My older two kids have a friend named Lily. Lily is in a wheel chair. Not only that, at four years old Lily can’t speak. She can’t sit up. She can’t eat. She can’t even communicate by electronic methods, although they are working on that. She is profoundly disabled, although the doctors believe that intellectually, she is on a similar level to other four year olds. Not what her parents were expecting, for sure.

    A few weeks back an older lady in our neighborhood held a tea party for Lily and the other neighborhood girls. She decorated the garden with silk parasols and tables covered with beautiful linens. Balloons were tied to the backs of chairs and “tea” was served in lovely hand painted cups. Not for Lily. She can’t drink, but for the other girls. A blanket was set nearby with books for reading when the tea was finished. The girls, Lily included, arrived in dresses and hair bows.

    It was the most amazing thing I’ve seen in a long time. The other girls, who ranged in age from two to twelve, immediately saw Lily as just one of the girls. They talked to her at the table and asked her questions, which she’d respond to with a smile. They ran around the garden taking turns pushing her and laid her on the blanket for book time. When they built a fort out of parasols and quilts they took the time to bring her in. You’ve never seen a bigger smile than she had on her face that day. Her joy and the other girls’ joy at helping her was profound.

    I’m pregnant with my fourth kid in seven years and I know that each pregnancy is a sort of risk. I thought about that briefly while I watched them from the “grown up’s table” with her mother. Of course I pray that my babies will all be healthy. Every mother does. Even Lily’s mother prays that somehow, some way, science will eventually help her daughter to live a more normal life, but watching that scene I can’t understand how anyone could conclude that the challenges Lily faces and overcomes on a daily basis somehow make her life less valuable than the other children who were there that day. Children, all children, are a gift from God. The example that little girl sets with her bright shiny smile everyday is an absolute witness to that.

  6. Pete Lake says:

    We do need to change our attitudes towards children.

    I think, for the most part, most Catholics still view children as a gift from God. However, how often do we forget that when we welcome children — all children — we are ourselves being generous with God and his Church. In cooperating with God’s creative power, we should give back to the Lord generously, as he has given us life in cooperation with our parents. This has been lost, but it came to my attention in reading the prayer of St. Ignatius:
    Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
    my memory, my understanding
    and my entire will,
    All I have and call my own.

    You have given all to me.
    To you, Lord, I return it.

    Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
    Give me only your love and your grace.
    That is enough for me.

    In many ways, this also resembles the Paschal Mystery. God so loved the world that he sent us his only Son.

    God so loves us that he gives us life, and his Son to redeem us. When we cooperate with the creative power of God in procreation we give back to God, to whom our children really belong and in whose image they are created.

  7. Brandon says:

    For starters, I really enjoyed reading this article. It was very well done and expressed the distortion of society with our technology of vitro fertilization. You are completely correct in saying that it is for self-fulfillment of the parents, not for the love of raising a child. You said something on the lines of that we make children products, a commodity. I instantly connected this to John F. Kavanaugh’s book, “Following Christ in a Consumer Society.” In this book, Kavanaugh discusses the Commodity Form and described it as a sort of “filter” that alters the way we experience everyday things. Later, he talks about our relationship between our families. If we are not satisfied with our family, we crave more of something to make up for the loss. I feel as though this connects perfectly to Moral Opposite Day. If a couple is not satisfied with their child, new technology allows them to change what they don’t like, or start over. Abortion is up higher than ever because, like you said, children are becoming a commodity, something you order. My question to you is this: If a baby is manufactured by humans through vitro fertilization, in what ways would the soul of that person be different from one who is formed through the love of two people, the way God intended it? Also, how do you think God views a person who aborts their child and how does the Church view those people?

    • Martha Moran says:

      Brandon –

      I’m sure you were directing your questions to Tony, but this type of discussion really strikes a note with me. My understanding is that a baby formed through in vitro fertilization is no different in dignity than one formed in the love that God intends. It makes me sad to think that anyone could consider otherwise. However a child comes into being, God creates a unique soul for that child. This is precisely why in vitro is wrong – it ultimately involves the destruction of children possessed of unique souls which have been created just for them. It’s abortion on an even larger scale to destroy the embryos not wanted or “useful” to the biological parents.

      Tony would be better to answer the question of how the Church views people who have had abortions, though I have heard that there are additional steps a person must take after being involved in an abortion – it’s something not resolved by going to confession once. As for how does God see someone who has had an abortion? I think it depends upon their reasons for doing it. Mostly I think God sees them as wounded. I know several women who have had abortions, and only one thought it was really the best option she had and would have chosen abortion over any other options. For the others, it was more a matter of feeling as though they didn’t have any other option and they would have chosen differently had they known where to go for help. I think God sees these women as wounded souls in need of help and healing, as He sees everyone who sins.

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      Great questions, Brandon. Even a baby manufactured artificially is still a human being, loved by God, and not any different spiritually from the rest of us. We aren’t punished for the sins of our parents.

      God loves everyone, even those who sin, and wants them to be healed and reconciled with him and with his Church. That goes for women who have abortions too. God wants to offer them his mercy through the Church. There’s no sin so great the Church can’t forgive it, and God’s mercy is greater than any sin, even abortion, which is very, very serious.

      I think women who have abortions suffer a lot. The Church even has special programs to help women recover from the experience of having an abortion, such as Rachel’s Vineyard. A number of women who have had abortions have become very active in the pro-life movement because they’ve realized what they had done was wrong, realized they needed healing and forgiveness, and don’t want other women to make the same mistake they did. In fact, even “Jane Roe” from the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision (whose real name is Norma McCorvey) later converted to Catholicism and became pro-life. She asked the Supreme Court to reverse it’s decision, but they wouldn’t listen to her.

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