The current battles over the fate of thousands of babies conceived via in vitro fertilization would confound even King Solomon.
Sensational news reports surrounding the $180,000 price tag for Ukrainian black-market babies shocked the determinedly secular segments of society, and few remain unmoved by the story of the FBI’s round-up of “baby-brokers.” Beyond the initial horror of children clinically conceived and sold as a commodity, investigators discovered that these babies have dozens of full and half siblings that were sold elsewhere. This opens the possibility that, in 25 years, a young man might unknowingly marry his sister.
Added to the fate of the children is the dismal lot of the destitute women (often living in third-world countries) who offer their bodies as surrogate wombs. In India, 500 clinics service the nation’s “fertility tourism,” estimated to be a $450-million-per-year industry — and growing. Ads for medical tourism in Thailand boast, “We’ve got the affordable IVF procedures you heard about, great IVF vacations, and low-cost IVF gender selection.”
As fertility technologies increase, so do the ethical quandaries. Scanning the comments on these news articles, one is immediately struck by the revulsion many people have to these accounts of black-market infants. On the other hand, the dozens of websites soliciting surrogate mothers indicate that surrogacy is — for many of these same people — just another legitimate business arrangement.
The subject is complicated, even polarizing, because many couples (including Catholics) conceived their own children via IVF. For these parents, IVF is applauded as a means of family-building, not abuse of babies. The temptation of couples who have difficulty conceiving deserves our compassion and prayers. The echo of Hannah is heard down the centuries: “And she was in bitterness of soul, and prayed to the Lord and wept in anguish” (1 Sam 1:10-11).
Yet the lurid news accounts of black-market babies provide an opening to share the wisdom of the Church’s prohibition against IVF and teaching on the inviolate sacredness of human life. The challenge for Catholics is to effectively engage the secular argument, which is best achieved from the perspective of the common good for all of society without recourse to religious references. Wisdom need not be presented as religious or scriptural teaching, but rather as the practical consequence that proceeds from violating a basic ethic: Humans cannot be owned.
At its core, the idea behind in vitro fertilization is the assumption that there is a “right” to have a baby. But if there is such a right, then there is a corresponding obligation for society to make possible reasonable access to that right — or, at the very least, not to obstruct its pursuit. The question is, does anyone have a “right” to another being? And where in this framework is there any concern for the rights of the child?
The Church teaches that a child is a gift from God, not a right. But to secular ears, God’s law is not a legitimate basis for the discussion. One entry point might be to compare the commodification of babies with slavery. The claim that any person has a “right” to a child is akin to slave-owners’ claim to a “right” to ownership over another human being. If one is subject to the system of slavery, far better or course to be in the household of a loving master, but the premise of slavery is not justified by good conditions.
There have been bizarre wrangles among donors, surrogates, and purchasers over legal rights of ownership once a child is born — as in a celebrated Dutch case that pit a child’s “legal” parents and surrogate mother (“whose rights must be heard”) against biological parents. Consider this short list of abuses made possible by IVF and the right-to-child mindset:
- babies conceived then frozen for possible use at a later date
- babies conceived then discarded as medical waste when not implanted
- babies conceived and culled according to genetic desirability (“designer babies”)
- babies conceived so their organs can be harvested for an ill sibling
- poor women who sell their eggs or rent their bodies to gestate the IVF-conceived child
- legal battles among donors, surrogates, and buyers for the “ownership” of the child
The question posed for our secularized culture is simple: How can a human life become the object of commerce, however well-meaning some buyers may be? Secular liberalism shrinks in horror at the mention of slavery, yet it is blind to the slavery that fertility technology has made of millions of children and surrogate mothers. In an age sensitive to the rights of women, how is this treatment of poor women justified? Is the essential defenselessness of the child warrant for the usurpation of his rights?
In the 1800s, American society struggled bitterly over slavery. The task at the time, for people of faith or simply good will, was to overturn a lucrative commercial industry and a cultural pattern. Our task today is strikingly similar: Present the true image of human ownership as an egregious violation of all human rights.
Few reject the truth behind “Thou shalt not steal” simply because it is a religious proscription. All understand that stealing injures the structure of society. Those who subscribe to a strict separation of religious belief and public policy can be shown why IVF is not simply a religious concern, but that its horrific abuses threaten our regard for human life and the common good of our society — even a secularized one.