Mark Miller, C.Ss.R., Ph.D.
In the spring of 1996 the then-federal minister of health Diane Marleau followed up on a recommendation of the 1994 Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technology by proposing legislation that would outlaw seven possible or current practices using modern technology to assist in human reproduction. The recommendation which raised the most controversy was the proposal to ban the sale of human ova and human sperm.
The significance of the selling of human ova came to the attention of the Canadian public in the fall of 1995 when an ad was spotted in the University of Toronto student paper seeking women who would donate their eggs thereby receiving a payment of between two and three thousand dollars. Those familiar with the procedures for the ‘retrieval’ of eggs recognized that any such donor would have to go through a hefty hormone treatment followed by surgery to remove the eggs. The risks of side effects from the high dosages of hormones or the surgery, though small, were nonetheless very real. However, it was the high remuneration which caught the attention of the media—several thousand dollars is a very significant sum for a university student.
In the world of reproductive technology finding ova, or obtaining fertilized ova, has become a priority because the demand for what are strangely called ‘surrogate babies’ is increasing monthly. Women and couples are asking for, and receiving, pre-embryos (fertilized eggs) either to gestate in their wombs as their ‘own’ children or to gestate for others (hence, the mother is called a ‘surrogate mother’). ‘Leftover’ ova or pre-embryos from in vitro fertilization have often been used in the United States (not always with the original couple’s permission) to assist other people in bearing a child. And as the ‘market’ for children increases, the demand for more human ova has led to such ‘harvesting’ techniques and market strategies as the one mentioned above concerning university students.
In Canada at the present time, clinics which specialize in assisting conception through such technologies as in vitro fertilization have operated by a policy which does not allow any transfer of fertilized ova to couples who, for whatever reason, cannot conceive a child of their own. The great hue and cry over the 3,700 pre-embryos in Great Britain which had to be destroyed according to a British law which does not allow cryopreservation beyond five years (except when requested and paid for by the parents) will likely spark a change in the Canadian practice. Thus, a whole new field will probably open up, the transfer of pre-embryos to infertile couples and, likely, a new ‘market’ for such transactions. Such a ‘market’ may or may not eventually involve payments to donating couples. However, there will likely not be any shortage of simple donors based upon ‘excess’ pre-embryos created and frozen as a result of the in vitro procedures.
Were such activities 100 years in the future, we as a society might have time to think over the moral consequences of pursuing such reproductive assistance. In reality, however, these activities are already taking place. And our society is in danger of being directed by what can be accomplished technologically rather than by what ought to be done. What ‘ought to be done,’ on the other hand, depends greatly upon what we mean by assisting human reproduction.
Enormous questions are raised by the above issues of creating, freezing and storing, and implanting fertilized ova. Can human eggs simply be transposed from one body to another without question? Does biological parenthood have any meaning today? Is there any place for a ‘market system’ in the ‘creation and production’ of children? Are there social factors which need to be considered before moral questions can be answered (for example, some researchers estimate that as many as one quarter of all married couples are infertile)? And, to stir the pot, is there any difference between adopting a baby and ‘adopting’ a sperm and ovum to produce a baby? Some of these questions I will deal with over the next few months.
Today, let us examination one far-reaching issue: What is parenthood? Our society is currently in the position of permitting a child to be born with a parental relationship to five adults! An egg or ovum can be donated from one woman (the biological mother) and a sperm from one man (the biological father). The fertilized ovum or pre-embryo can then be implanted in another woman’s womb (the gestational or surrogate mother) and the subsequently born child given to a third woman and a second man to be raised (the social parents). To be sure, our traditional notions of parenthood are being stretched rather broadly!
While many issues are raised by this reality, perhaps we would do well to reflect upon the wisdom of the Church’s teaching on parental life in contrast to our society’s approach.
Briefly, the Catholic Church argues that children deserve their parents. That may sound trivial, but when was the last time you heard that phrase in the secular arguments around new reproductive technology? Most of the arguments in our society focus on the ‘right’ of parents (or a woman) to have a child. Hence, the technology is geared towards fulfilling that ‘right.’ Any biological connection is rapidly taking second place to the parenting ‘right.’ The Church, on the other hand, while respecting adoption where natural parents cannot raise a child, argues that as human beings and as societies we need to show more respect for the child. The context within which a child ought to be born is marriage (in the best sense of a stable, loving union). The child deserves (has a ‘right’?) to its parents not just in the biological production of the child, but in a twenty-year commitment to that child of love and formation. Sexual relations are understood within such a vision; and the procreative purpose of sexual intimacy both receives and gives meaning to sexuality within this context.
Not surprisingly, under Canadian law (which is currently being tested by the case in Ottawa where a woman allegedly tried herself to shoot the child in her womb), a fetus is not a human being and therefore has no rights. Hence, any ‘rights’ belonging to the fetus can be summarily dismissed in the face of ‘real rights’ on the part of ‘real adults’ who want a chld. (That all of us began as pre-embryos and fetuses is completely lost in our society. Thus, if a mother harms the fetus in her womb by drugs or alcohol, ‘nobody’ exists to make a claim against such treatment!) The ‘need’ for abortion (we cannot kill a child that has ‘rights’), it seems to me, becomes a far-reaching attitude in our society which then pre- determines much of our manner of approaching the technologies to assist reproduction. More (much more!) over the next few months.