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.