Cherishing Life, the Bishops’ 2004 document on the moral and spiritual well-being of the human person in society, offers clear definitions of subjects concerned with the dignity of life from conception to natural death.
One in six couples experience difficulties conceiving a child at some time in their lives. Since 1978, a technique was developed to address this problem. In vitro fertilisation (IVF) brings the sperm and egg together in the laboratory and the newly conceived human embryo is then transferred into the mother. This has enabled many couples to become parents.
Sadly, the technique of IVF also has its darker side. Procreation does not come about as a result of the physical union of the couple in sexual intercourse, but re production occurs in the laboratory. The use of fertility drugs and collection of eggs from the woman can have complications. There are often multiple pregnancies, which carry health risks. While healthy and happy children are born, other human embryos are deliberately discarded because they have been judged ‘unfit’ or ‘surplus to requirements’. The ability to screen embryos for genetic characteristics before transferring the ones who are thought desirable has far-reaching consequences. In the future it may be possible for embryos to be selected for sex, physical appearance and other characteristics. Instead of being regarded as a gift, a child would then be treated as a commodity, the product of parental choice. When children are conceived by a process of production, however sincere the motivation, some form of quality control is very likely to result.
The use of donated human gametes in IVF adds further moral complications. If a man donates sperm he becomes an absent bloodfather, unacknowledged and perhaps unknown to his child. Present practice involves the falsifying of birth certificates to hide the existence of the known biological father, and the children of donor parents currently have no legal right to search for these parents. The reality of sperm-donor fathers, egg-donor mothers and surrogate mothers threatens to confuse and undermine our sense of biological parenthood and to deprive children of their sense of identity and of their right to know their mothers and fathers. Adoption is not without its problems, but it is the response to a situation that has not been brought about deliberately. The children of donor parents have been deliberately conceived to be estranged from their biological parents. Most chilling of all are the possibilities of cloning a child to be the genetic copy of an existing person, or of conceiving a child whose mother would be a foetus who had been aborted.
The heartache of infertile couples should not be ignored. Infertility is a genuine medical problem and treatment and prevention of the causes of infertility is a proper aim of medicine. Infertility frustrates a good and natural human desire – to conceive, bear and rear a child with the person you love, and to whom you are publicly committed. Advances in Natural Family Planning provide some hope in this area, as better knowledge of the cycle of fertility can also be used to increase considerably the likelihood of conception. Further research should not concentrate on techniques that take procreation into the laboratory or that seek ever more control on what sort of child is allowed to be born, but should look into the root causes of infertility and address these directly.
Despite advances in medicine, some couples will remain unable to have children. This is something they must ultimately find a way to accept, with the help of God, as they discover what positive destiny God has in store for them. The love and support which a couple can provide for one another should not be inward looking but can help them to sustain the lives of others in their local community, in their church and in the wider world.
Some couples who are childless, and some who already have a family, decide to adopt or foster children. Parents who adopt show true generosity of spirit. However, adoption poses its own problems, especially during adolescence when every young person tends to become more self-conscious and concerned about his or her roots and identity. This process needs to be respected and all adopted children should have the right, if they wish to know, to information concerning their blood relatives. Hopefully, they will come to appreciate that the decision to make a child available for adoption is often a harrowing one and should not be taken to imply a lack of love on the part of their natural (birth) parents. Many such children come through the transition to adulthood very well with good relationships with their families, while for others the pain remains. In cases where things do not seem to have worked out, we should not believe that love was wasted. It may not be possible for us to appreciate the good that has been done. Couples or individuals who adopt deserve appreciation for giving a secure home and a family to children who might otherwise have little hope.