It is as inevitable as the passing of time. Once there is a new pope, the
world begins to wonder when the Catholic Church is going to leave its
“medieval thinking” behind and join the “modern” age. It is the 21st century
after all, and the Church needs to stop being so “backward.”
I am a cradle Catholic, and, when I was young, I subconsciously believed
that the Church was “behind the times” and “out of touch.”
As I began my career and worked in cutting-edge biotech laboratories, there
was always a nagging question: How can my Church, so rooted in the past,
have something relevant to say about modern technologies like stem-cell
research, cloning and genetic engineering that are coming in the future?
Then I began researching these technologies and discovered something that
changed the way I viewed my Church and my faith. Elbow deep in the latest
biotechnology news, I discovered that the Church was far from backward, out
of touch and irrelevant.
It is the most forward-thinking institution I have ever encountered — and
more relevant today than ever.
In 1968, Humanae Vitae (On the Regulation of Birth) instructed the faithful
on the unitive and procreative aspects of the marital union. This document,
written at a time when such things as genetic engineering and cloning were
only in the realm of fiction, warned us of the dangers of separating the
procreative and the unitive, saying that to do so would lead to the
“lowering of moral standards.”
A document not simply about birth control, Humanae Vitae also admonished:
“Consequently, unless we are willing that the responsibility of procreating
life should be left to the arbitrary decision of men, we must accept that
there are certain limits, beyond which it is wrong to go, to the power of
man over his own body and its natural functions — limits, let it be said,
which no one, whether as a private individual or as a public authority, can
lawfully exceed. These limits are expressly imposed because of the reverence
due to the whole human organism and its natural functions” (21).
Ten years later, the separation of the procreative and the unitive aspects
of human sexuality were irrevocably severed with the birth of Louise Brown.
Brown was the first baby born from in vitro fertilization (IVF). Sexual
intercourse was completely removed from her conception. Artificial birth
control had given society sex without babies. IVF had given us babies
When Louise was born, I was only 5 years old. I can imagine that many
Catholics thought that IVF was simply about giving infertile couples the
chance to have a family together and that Church teaching against IVF was
“out of touch.”
I can imagine the sentiment because that is largely the sentiment that
Unfortunately, society, and many Catholics along with it, was not listening
to the wisdom of Church teaching. This teaching was not a punishment for the
infertile, but instead an affirmation of the dignity inherent in each and
every human being.
The Church finds IVF morally wrong for many reasons (see Donum Vitae),
among them that we all deserve the best possible start in life. We all
deserve to be created out of an act of love between our parents and begin
our lives in the best, most loving place on earth, our mother’s womb.
The Church warned us that severing the natural ties between sex and
procreation would turn our own offspring into objects instead of the
God-given gifts that they are. The Church told us that IVF was an ethical
nightmare. If only we as a society had listened.
Back in the 1970s, no one could imagine that IVF would become human
manufacturing on an industrial scale, complete with tracking and “quality
control.” The enormity of human lives created and lost is staggering.
Numbers recently released by the U.K.’s Human Fertilization and Embryology
Authority (HFEA), which has been keeping records on IVF since 1991, are
Of the 3 million-plus embryos created in the U.K. with IVF, more than half
— about 1.7 million — have been discarded. The numbers are likely
similar elsewhere, meaning that IVF has become a manufacturing process with
little regard for the massive loss of human life involved.
HFEA numbers also reveal that, for every live birth through IVF, as many as
30 embryos are created.
With estimates now that as many as 5 million IVF children worldwide have
been born, it may mean that as many as 150 million lives have been created
by IVF. Many of those have been lost, discarded or destroyed by research.
Some of those 150 million human lives are still on ice waiting for a chance
to finish their lives. Many will die waiting.
And it is not just the numbers. Forty years ago, no one could have
envisioned we would be reading news stories about couples shipping their
frozen embryos by FedEx to India to be carried by a surrogate, with the baby
picked up nine months later like a special-order sports car.
Or stories about young, fertile couples creating multiple offspring with
IVF and freezing them as “insurance” against future infertility. (Meanwhile,
the children wait on ice for their parents to be “ready” for a family.)
No one could have fathomed that enterprising fertility doctors would create
embryos in bulk to be sold at a “discount” to budget-conscious couples.
And no one could have imagined that abortion would become the “fail-safe”
for IVF that works too well. With IVF practitioners trying to increase
success rates, often, many more embryos are transferred than a woman can
safely carry to term. As a result, “selective reduction” was developed.
Selective reduction is a euphemism for the aborting of one or more multiple
fetuses by a lethal injection, leaving the lucky former twin or triplet
alive. Recently, a woman who used IVF to conceive twins with donor gametes
recounted her decision to kill one of her twins to The New York Times. She
articulated what the Church has always said about technologies like IVF when
“If I had conceived these twins naturally, I wouldn’t have reduced this
pregnancy, because you feel like if there’s a natural order, then you
don’t want to disturb it. But we created this child in such an artificial
manner — in a test tube, choosing an egg donor, having the embryo placed
in me — and, somehow, making a decision about how many to carry seemed to
be just another choice. The pregnancy was all so consumerish to begin with,
and this became yet another thing we could control.”
Clearly, IVF has turned procreation into a consumer-driven manufacturing
enterprise, with the millions of offspring produced treated as commodities
instead of the precious gifts they truly are.
But most people are unaware of how IVF has gone even further and catapulted
us into the science-fiction world of genetically engineered children, human
cloning and even animal-human hybrids.
Last year, scientists in Oregon announced they created embryos with three
genetic parents using a genetically manipulated egg in the IVF process. They
want permission to transfer these genetically engineered embryos to women to
create genetically modified children.
This technique, made possible by IVF, may open the door to other genetic
modifications in the next generation.
With all of those “leftover” IVF embryos in the deep freeze all over the
world, scientists began to see these little lives as treasure troves of stem
cells. In the early 2000s, the intense debates over embryonic stem cells
raged in earnest.
But researchers realized that if they could make embryos with the genetic
makeup of a patient that would be even better than getting stem cells from
destroying existing IVF embryos. Scientists began cloning human embryos in
the quest for “patient-specific” embryonic stem cells.
Not surprisingly, the eggs and expertise needed for the cloning technique
came from IVF clinics. The head of the San Diego company that claimed to be
the first to successfully clone a human embryo is also a noted IVF doctor.
Cloning scientists quickly realized that the human eggs needed in large
amounts for the inefficient cloning process were too expensive and too
difficult to get. They began to clone human embryos with cow, rabbit and
mouse eggs to see if these animal eggs could be used instead to successfully
clone human embryos for research.
In 2009, a Massachusetts company published the results of its attempt at
creating human-animal hybrid embryos — complete with pictures. These
horrific experiments, previously only performed on Dr. Moreau’s fictional
island, went largely unnoticed by the public.
This is where my epiphany occurred: As I stared at the pictures of embryos
labeled “human/bovine,” “human/mouse” and “human/rabbit,” a righteous
indignation built up inside of me. None of this would have been possible if
society had listened to the Church.
I realized with perfect clarity that only the Catholic Church understood
the far-reaching moral ramifications of separating procreation from sex.
The human/bovine embryos that no one in the 1960s could possibly have
envisioned were now a reality — the result of leaving procreation to the
“arbitrary decision of men” and ignoring the “reverence due to the whole
human organism and its natural functions.”
I shudder to think of the evils that we will encounter if people continue
to ignore the Church’s warning about same-sex “marriage” and human genetic
The Church does not need to become more “modern.” These days, “modern”
means only a short-sighted acceptance of the latest fad or technology.
The Church is already thinking well into the future, with insight farther
than any single mind can fathom. The Church, more relevant today than ever,
is not “backward.”
Instead, it is the most forward-thinking institution on earth. It is time
Rebecca Taylor is a clinical laboratory specialist in
molecular biology. She writes about bioethics on her blog
Mary Meets Dolly.