Mark Miller, C.Ss.R., Ph.D.
In this column I would like to present a few reflections on the complement to the haresting of human ova, namely, the collection and storing of human sperm. If the ‘harvesting’ of human ova caused some concern among the public (i.e., the ad offering to pay young women at the University of Toronto several thousand dollars to donate some of their eggs), the Federal Government’s proposed ban against the sale of sperm has raised even more of a furor. People who are already involved in assisted reproduction have relied upon donated sperm to complete fertilization. Research and assisted conceptions ‘depend’ upon these donations. Indeed, sperm banks have long been established in Canada and the United States (and elsewhere) to ensure an ‘adequate’ supply of sperm for reproductive needs. Further, one hears now and then, through court cases or news items, of males ‘storing’ their sperm for various reasons—to ensure progeny should they become infertile or to provide sperm for ‘future generations’ who might better appreciate this person’s genetic qualities.
By far the majority of sperm collected, however, comes from ‘donations’ usually made for a payment of $50 or so. Predominantly young males receive the money ostensibly not for the sperm but to pay for their expenses or inconvenience. Hence, a fiction is set up that the sperm is simply being donated. The ‘donors’ assume that they are doing something good for science or medicine; and the researchers, of course, would not have a job if they did not have the sperm.
Is there anything wrong with sperm banks? After all, there are many people who are desperate to have ‘their own’ children. Why not help in any way possible?
Sperm banks raise a host of issues. To be somewhat controversial, I honestly think that they are as immoral as anything in our society, despite their neat and tidy appearance under the guidance of skilled people in white lab coats. Briefly, let me state three deeply troubling aspects of sperm banks and some of what they imply.
First, the donation of sperm is seen by many to be the same as the gift of blood. I can use my body parts to assist another. However, sperm is not simply one of my body parts. It is the genetic record of myself which is passed on to another human being. For men to ‘donate’ their sperm and then disappear strikes me as a total abandonment of one’s own future in the children produced. Indeed, I think that sperm banks are one symptom of the abandonment in modern society of male responsibility for children. To me it is highly ironic that ‘reproductive freedom,’ which is associated with women, has a hidden side called ‘male disappearance.’ The medically sanitized context of the sperm bank fits and supports this notion all too well. This is, after all, medicine, not morality.
Second, the desperation many couples feel for a child— any child (any normal, healthy child, and usually of the correct race, I suspect)—makes me suspicious about the dignity of the child. The needs of the couple dictate the creation of the child. More and more, the child is not considered as deserving its own respect for who (rather than what) he or she is. On the contrary, as a society we ‘feel sorry’ for the childless couple and claim that anything which can be done, should be done. I have no quarrel with the reality of children born by these methods (they have done nothing wrong), nor with the loving couples who accept them. I do think, though, that as a society we need to see the child as a person and a gift rather than somebody’s choice. The way many couples suddenly distance themselves from a child born with one or more handicaps is very revealing about the expectations of many ‘desperate’ couples.
And this leads me to my final point, namely, that children are being seen as products while the commercialization of reproduction is taken for granted in a society where everything has a price. I recall the comment of one nurse who quit working at an in vitro fertilization clinic because, she said, “I got tired of rich people coming in and demanding to buy a child.” Technology has played an enormous role in modern health care and is credited with often amazing curative abilities. What few people have noticed is that these same health care people have slipped into the field of reproductive technology, not because people were sick, but because a demand either was there or has been created. Under the auspices of medicine, reproductive assistance can hardly be questioned today. But as it becomes more and more a business, surely we can see how our society’s identity begins to change as human lives, or the fundamental building blocks thereof, namely sperm and ova, are commodified and traded on the open market.
I suspect that many of you reading this column will wonder, “Well, what about the couple that cannot conceive their own child? Why should they be condemned to childlessness when science might be able to help them?” The individualism of our society and the whole language of human rights makes the answer to such a question seem obvious. A look at the broader ramifications for our society, I believe, should make us step back and ask the more difficult questions in part because most ‘wants’ in our society eventually become ‘rights’ if some person or group is willing to push hard enough for them.
There are numerous alternatives to bearing and raising one’s own child. Adoption, as we all know, is very limited today. But I wonder how many couples have challenged themselves to look into their heart of hearts and find a deeper call to the larger community, to the kids who need ‘extra’ parenting, to the handicapped children who are seemingly ‘unadoptable,’ to children in the Third World who need help even though one might never meet them?
I do not deny that coming to terms with childlessness may be traumatic and troubling. What couples need to think about, however, is that there may very well be other pathways to live their lives in accountability to what God might be asking. That demands a spiritual response to God and therein may lie the basic problem with our society. If God is not in charge, and capable of leading us down pathways that we would never have chosen ourselves, then our wants take over and our fulfillment is seen only in limited terms of what we can control. Perhaps our Catholic way of seeking God’s will no longer makes sense in a society which cannot follow a spiritual journey. Be that as it may, the deeper question may be whether or not the spiritual journey makes sense to Catholics amidst the powerful and seductive voices of a society that tries to convince us that it can fulfill all our desires.