ROME, January 10, 2011 (LifeSiteNews.com) – When I first started writing about ethical issues surrounding the then very new artificial reproductive technologies (ARTs), about ten years ago, I remember receiving an email from a young man who was studying law at an American Catholic university. He told me that he and his classmates had been debating some hypothetical legal situations that could arise given that the many practices of ARTs were then, as now, largely unregulated in the U.S.

He asked why I held that these techniques necessarily led to the “commodification” of children. He said that some people in the class had been arguing that would-be parents had a right to receive any “medical treatment” available to get a child. If I was pro-life, what could be my objection to childless couples increasing their chances of having children? Don’t people have a right to be parents?


Hilary White

I asked him, “What does a person need to be a parent?”

“A child.”

“So, if a person has a right to be a parent, and he must have a child in order to fulfill that right, doesn’t that logically require that he has a right to acquire a child?”

Does this logic, the inexorable logic of all the ART industry, not necessarily lead to the conclusion that a child is reduced to a means to an end? The end being the fulfillment of the “right to be a parent”? If a child is a means to an end, does this not mean that he is no longer a person in his own right, but instead chattel? A thing that can be bought or sold or acquired by right? That can be accepted or thrown away and destroyed at whim.

What is the difference between a person and a thing?

That was ten years ago and these kinds of discussions are now even less than academic. Even without direct regulation or legislation, the facilities for artificial reproduction have been running full steam for 20 years and the bulk of the ethical issues being discussed now are about parents’ “rights.” The argument now is no longer about whether there is such a thing as a right to acquire a child, but whether the state should pay for sex selection in vitro fertilization “treatments” after the couple has already aborted unwanted twin boys.

This weekend the world was treated to the spectacle of a couple in Australia who, having already aborted twin boys because they were the wrong sex, are now petitioning the government of the state of Victoria to waive the rules on “sex-selection” to allow them to acquire a baby girl to replace one who died.

That is, they want to create an unspecified number of embryonic children in a lab, and implant only the females, destroying their other male offspring.

The couple, who have not been named in the press, already have three boys and a girl is required to fulfill their personal ideas of a “balanced family.” They say they cannot afford to keep trying for girls the regular way. Too much hit and miss by these old fashioned methods.

The local Patient Review Panel recently rejected the couple’s bid to choose the sex of their next child using IVF, so they are taking their case to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal to get permission to place an order for a baby girl to replace the one they were “tragically denied.”

They have announced that if they cannot get the baby girl they want in Australia, they will go to do it in the U.S. where there are even fewer rules.

Victoria’s Assisted Reproductive Treatment Act 2008 bans sex selection unless it is necessary to avoid the risk of transmission of a genetic abnormality or genetic disease to a child. To the “ethicists” who drafted the IVF bills around the world, this is what is usually referred to as “balance.” When Canada’s bill was being passed through Parliament and that country’s supine Senate, MPs in support of the bill stood up in the House and repeatedly used that word - “balance” - to describe what they were trying to achieve.

Sex selection is one of the few procedures available in IVF facilities about which there are still hazy and distant inklings of ethical qualms among the general public and the “experts,” so the case has made international headlines. Somewhere out there are vestigial misgivings about the direction all this is taking, although the media is careful to cloak and soothe them in ambiguous and vague language.

According to these new, “balanced,” ethics, embryos should not be experimented upon … at least, not without the consent of the “donors.” They should not be regarded as commodities … at least, not in the same sense as handbags or tennis shoes. … They should be treated with “respect,” which means that the experiments they are used in should only be only for the noblest of medical pursuits. And consent of the parents, or I should say the donors, is always required.

Expressions like “balancing a family” and completing the “family project” are commonly used in discussions, even by the media, of artificial reproductive technologies in Europe. The concept of the family as a carefully controlled biological undertaking in which precisely calculated numbers and types of children, meticulously spaced to avoid disrupting careers, is the standard template this side of the Atlantic.

My young legal student has doubtless gone on to greater things in the legal profession than theoretical discussions over the ethical problems in an obscure branch of the medical profession, but the problem that he asked about remains unanswered.  No debate was allowed to happen and it remains largely un-discussed. Even to ask the question about the legal and philosophical status of the child created in the lab is to open the door, so it is believed, to vast, cold and windswept vistas of barren and hostile ethical terrain. No one wants to go there.

All of this has reminded me of some comments by Pope Paul VI in the most hated, reviled and ignored papal document of the 20th century. In Humanae Vitae, Paul’s condemnation of artificial birth control, the pope made some predictions which have become known in certain circles as the “four prophecies.”

The introduction of artificial contraception, the pope said, would lead to a widespread “conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality.”

It would create a situation in which “the man” will lose respect for “the woman” and he would “no longer (care) for her physical and psychological equilibrium.” He will come to “the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment and no longer as his respected and beloved companion.”

It would place a “dangerous weapon ... in the hands of those public authorities who take no heed of moral exigencies.”

And most sobering in the face of the nearly unrestricted license to destroy, manipulate and experiment upon human beings through abortion and the ART industries, the pope predicted that contraception would lead man to feel that he can exercise a limitless “domination over his own body and its functions.”

Humanae Vitae was nearly universally reviled, ridiculed and rejected, even by the Catholic bishops around the world. It was called “divisive” and “controversial” and “outdated.” Public statements and full-page ads in national U.S. newspapers were taken out by clergy and religious denouncing it.

I will leave it up to the reader to judge whether it was right.