I was recently sitting with some longtime friends. They were from my first parish where I was a deacon. I have known them for over 40 years. As we often do when we get together, we talk about things in the Church and questions that the modern world asks. The topic of in-vitro fertilization came up ending with the question of why the Church is against it. One of my friends made an understandable comment: if a couple love one another, and this is the only way that they can have a baby, why is it morally wrong? One of my other friends mentioned the fact that often a number of embryos are formed, necessitating the selection of one of them and the destruction of the others. (One must remember that for a Catholic, the irrevocable creation of human life begins at conception—so that all the embryos have a right to life.)
The question then formed in my mind: how far can human beings go in the editing of the laws and facts of nature? If something can be done, should it be done? Mary Shelley, in her masterful novel “Frankenstein”, proposed this essential question as she gave us the story of the scientist that tried to bring life to the dead. It was a cautionary tale from the natural point of view.
But when a child is born through in-vitro fertilization, when surrogate mothers are successfully used in producing healthy babies, Shelley’s cautionary tale does not seem to hold.
The question still stands, not from the natural point of view (are we creating monsters?), but from a supernatural view (is this permissible to do?). The answer is partially solved by the evil of having to destroy multiple healthy embryos that can be clearly seen as objectionable. But what if there was only one embryo that is successfully implanted in the womb of its mother (semen and egg from the real father and mother, respectively)? The Church would still say that it is wrong to do it. Why?
We need to step back for a moment and look at how human beings have endeavored to rewrite biological truths and other natural processes for the benefit of humankind. There is the example of genetically altered foods like fruits and vegetables, and even experimentation on animals in all sorts of ways, including genetically. One must at this point make a further distinction: experimentation on animals is often painful to the creature. This is a separate moral issue that, of course, is important and needs to be debated. But the issue of experimentation or genetic manipulation that I am speaking about does not involve the issue of pain.
Because God has given to human beings the dominion (and the responsibility!) over all of creation, the Church has no problem over this genetic and biological experimentation of what is not human. But when one begins to use this same scientific freedom with the human person, then freedom becomes license; that is, an evil that no matter what good intentions there are in interfering in the being and development of a human person, it is against nature, against God’s law and therefore against God (sin). One must always guard against making a human person just another ‘thing’ that can be manipulated.
Therefore, the natural state of things, when dealing with humans, is ordained by God and must be respected and not interfered with. Therefore, because of the greatness of the human person made in the image and likeness of God, no interruption, change, addition or subtraction from natural processes is permissible even if it is theoretically possible to do. At the basis of this understanding is the teaching that the human being is not just part of creation, but is special: the overseer of creation. The human being cannot be the creator of himself or herself. Any change in God’s handiwork is considered questionable since it breaks with the Biblical narrative that defines the creation of humankind as ‘very’ good while the rest of nature was deemed just ‘good’. We are different than apes even if God chose to evolve human beings out of that particular genus of creation. Any attempt to equate the human person with other created beings flies in the face of the entire teaching of the Scriptures and, hence, of the tradition and Magisterium of the Church.
That manipulation of embryos, although done with the best intentions, is still morally evil since it interferes in God’s working with the human person, the crown jewel of creation.
The complexity of this issue becomes even more apparent as we delve into the area of the reconstruction of a person’s DNA. What if we can eliminate the gene that causes cancer? Would it be right to tamper with the building blocks of the human being? This leads us to a question which was asked at the start of the 20th century: What if we can design the “humans of the future?” One begins to see the possibilities and the moral dangers in this whole area of bio-ethics.
At this point, I must profess that I am in waters that are too deep for someone not versed in this area of moral theology. But I am glad of the Church’s caution and reliance on the Holy Spirit as a guide through this supposedly “brave new world.”