Natural Law & Reproductive Ethics Blog Post

This week’s readings concern the reactions of the Catholic Church and the French Government to modern reproductive technologies, such as IVF.  Interestingly, both institutions are not only critical of reproductive technologies but also presuppose an a priori natural law.  While the Catholic Church’s and the French Government’s reasoning is somewhat different, the fact that they both presuppose natural laws and are critical of modern reproductive technologies reflects that advancements in technology—especially in reproductive technologies—brings up anxieties about nature and natural law.

The central anxiety reproductive technologies evoke from the Catholic Church, as shown in Donum Vitae, is that the technologies may go against human nature.  The Church believes that “each human person…is constituted not only by his spirit but by his body as well” (Donum Vitae, 144).  Since the body and soul are inseparable from the human being, the Church reasons that any physical intervention (such as a medical procedure) will always affect the soul.  As such, the Church instructs that any medical intervention “must be given a moral evaluation in reference to the dignity of the human person, who is called to realized his vocation from God to the gift of love and the gift of life” (Donum Vitae, 145).  Because of this logic, the core principle of the Church is that medical technology must respect the dignity of the human being.

Regarding reproductive technologies, the authors of Donum Vitae outline three basic principles that are relevant to determining the morality of reproductive technologies.  The first principle is that embryos and fetuses are to be respected as human beings.  This principle reflects Church doctrine that life begins at conception.  The second principle is that human life cannot be purposely destroyed or viewed as an end.  This principle reflects a Kantian attitude towards humanity and is rooted in the teaching that human life is extraordinary due to its creation by God, in God’s image.  The third principle is that procreation ought to happen only through marriage.  This principle is derived from Church doctrine that a child has the right to be born into a marriage.  The logic the authors use to defend this principle is that married parents bring stability and growth for the child.  Using these three principles, the authors evaluate some issues stemming from modern advances in reproductive technologies

The authors spend a considerable amount of space evaluating the morality of in-vitro-fertilization (IVF).  In particular, they question the morality of heterologous IVF and homologous IVF.  The authors determine that heterologous IVF, defined as fertilization outside of marriage, goes against Church doctrine because it “violates the rights of the child; it deprives him of his filial relationship with his parental origins and can hinder the maturing of his personal identity” (Donum Vitae, 159).  In other words, heterologous IVF is prohibited because it denies the child married parents.  Unlike their judgment on heterologous IVF, the authors seem to have difficulties judging homologous IVF, defined as fertilization within marriage.  Ultimately, they rule against it because “such fertilization is neither in fact achieved nor positively willed as the expression and fruit of a specific act of the conjugal union…the generation of the human person is objectively deprived of its proper perfection: namely, that of being the result and fruit of a conjugal act” (Donum Vitae, 165).  In other words, homologous IVF is prohibited because the child was not conceived through “conjugal” relations.

From my perspective, the authors of Donum Vitae fail to provide adequate reasons for why IVF (any form) is prohibited.  I can understand the logic of how they reached their decision, but I do not view their reasons as sufficient to declare IVF prohibited.  The prohibition and reasons appear to be a reaction against change.  While it remains debatable if the authors of Donum Vitae prohibit IVF due to a fear that it will change normalcy, it is undebatable that the actions of the 1994 French National Assembly were made out of fear that IVF will disrupt the status quo.

Nan Ball, in the 2000 article “The Reemergence of Enlightenment Ideas in the 1994 French Bioethics Debates,” does an excellent job at investigating the conditions present in France’s decision to limit IVF treatment exclusively to heterosexual couples of childbearing age.  Ball argues that France’s decision reflected Enlightenment thought on nature and was made in order to maintain what was then viewed as normal.  According to Ball, the French legislature viewed “artificial insemination of homosexual or post-menopausal woman…as ‘unnatural’ because equivalent modes of procreation were not to be found in nature” (Ball, 571).  Ball explains that the “polemical groundwork” for France’s decision comes from the Enlightenment.

Ball explains that Enlightenment thinkers revitalized the importance of the family, which were later adapted to the French bioethics debate.  According to Ball, the Enlightenment caused the family to transform into “a moral and spiritual function, it formed bodies and souls” (Ball, 560).  Jean-Jacques Rousseau took the idea of the family a step further by linking “the importance of the family to the well-being of society” (Ball, 561).  Rousseau, in other words, believed that the family was connected to society and a happy family would result in a happy society.  Unsurprisingly, two-hundred years later, one of the primary reasons why the French legislators restricted IVF is that they “wanted to slow down the possible social changes signaled by unrestricted use of biomedical technology” (Ball 571).  In other words, the French legislators restricted IVF because they believed that by allowing people deemed unnatural to have children—such as homosexuals or post-menopausal women—society would collapse.

Nan’s article does a great job of showing the motives of the French legislators and explaining that it was out of fear.  I am stunned that a “western” European country had such a rigid view of normality not too long ago.  The 1994 French bioethics debate, as well as the Donum Vitae, illuminate the motives behind why certain medical practices, which are inherently benevolent, are banned.  I find it interesting and perplexing that neither case discussed the reasons why procedures like IVF were invented.  I am not surprised, however, that a reason against reproductive technologies found in both cases is an unwillingness to accept that norms may change.

Works Cited:

Ball, Nan. “The Reemergence of Enlightenment Ideas in the 1994 French Bioethics Debates.” Duke Law Journal, vol. 50, no. 2, Nov. 2000, pp. 545-587.

Donum Vitae.” In Religion and Artificial Reproduction: An Inquiry into the Vatican’s “Instruction on Respect for Human Live in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation,” edited by Thomas A. Shannon and Lisa Sowle Cahill, Crossroad, 1988, pp. 140-174.

11 Replies to “Natural Law & Reproductive Ethics Blog Post”

  1. Hi Kevin! Thanks for the blog post, I liked how you connected the idea of natural vs. unnatural between both readings. I agree with you about the reasons given in Donum Vitae for prohibition of IVF. It was unsurprising for the Catholic Church to be opposed to IVF from donors external to the marriage, but I was shocked that homologous IVF was also deemed immoral. To me, this reading was a good exercise in the malleability of interpretation. The authors said that homologous IVF was immoral because the future child “was not desired as the fruit of a conjugal act,” but I think you could also interpret the use of reproductive technology as a conjugal act within a marital union since it is not explicitly said what this “conjugal act” is. It seems to me that regardless of what opinion the Church desired to put forth they could find grounds upon which to justify that opinion.

  2. Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for the comprehensive post! You touch on many aspects of the readings and provide a good summary of the main points. I am particularly interested in thinking more about one of your sentiments in your last paragraph. You state, “The 1994 French bioethics debate, as well as the Donum Vitae, illuminate the motives behind why certain medical practices, which are inherently benevolent, are banned.” I would question whether these medical practices you are referring to, IVF treatments and other reproductive technologies, are inherently benevolent. In fact, one of the main arguments in Donum Vitae centers around the maleficent nature of these technologies towards embryos being frozen or used in research (Donum Vitae 154-1555). With respect to this, I believe that there can be no “inherent” nature of beneficence for technologies. To assume so might be do disregard aspects of cultural relativism necessary to accurate research and arguments.

    In your last paragraph, you also note your surprise to find in the readings that there was an unwillingness of societies to change in response to new reproductive technologies. While the readings do purport that institutions such as nations and the Catholic Church are staunch in their views, the fact that they are engaging in discussion about new technologies shows that they recognize changing times and are willing to consider new perspectives. A question I pose to the rest of the class is: can a technology be considered to have “inherent” properties? If so, what would such properties be?

  3. Kevin, I would like to expand on your claim that “embryos and fetuses are to be respected as human beings. This principle reflects Church doctrine that life begins at conception.”(Blog Post). I was surprised to learn that even viability does not play a roll in this belief. The authors remarks, “If the embryos are living, whether viable or not, they must be respected just like any other human person; experimentation on embryos which is not directly therapeutic is illicit.”(152). This view is consistent with the position that life begins at conception, as even though the embryo is not viable it is still ethically wrong to perform experiments on it. Thus this assertion can be used to make a moral argument that all experiments performed on live embryo’s is wrong. I see the logic in why it would be wrong to perform experiments on viable embryos. However, when the embryo is unable to survive and develop even with the assistance of medical technology, I would argue that the benefits of experimentation are justified. Since it will not live with or without assistance, I see no reason why one should squander the value of experimentation simply because of this moral argument set forth by the Catholic Church. The authors continue, “The informed consent ordinarily required for clinical experimentation on adults cannot be granted by the parents, who may not freely dispose of the physical integrity or life of the unborn child,”(152). Again I find fault in this assertion, since consent given by parents is perfectly legitimate in other areas. It is common for the burden of consent to fall on the parents of a child. Parents of teenagers are able to grant sexual consent for their children if the two parties are below the age of consent. It is also common medical practice for a form to require a parent or guardians signature to affirm their consent for a medical procedure. I see no reason why this would not extend to experimentation on a non-viable embryo considering that it cannot possibly survive with or without intervention. This should therefore be no different than performing an experiment on any other body part of a consenting adult. If my calf muscle has an equally unlikely chance of going on to live a life outside of my body, and I am able to morally allow a doctor to perform an experiment on it, why should this not be the case for a non-viable embryo?

  4. Hi Kevin,
    Great job with your post. I really liked how you tied the church’s views and the French government’s views in order to facilitate your post. I found many of your points agreeable however, I felt that the authors of Donum Vitae were not afraid of change but rather had confidence in their interpretation of the bible. Thus, I would have to acknowledge their interpretation as enough evidence to warrant the prohibition of IVF.
    On the other hand, I completely agree with your point that the French government was scared of the effects of IVF on the status quo of France. I believe that this fear is the driving force for many decisions on novel technologies and movements such as IVF or same gender marriage. This makes me wonder what the world would look like if and when we get over these fears as well as what becomes the next big movement that will induce such a fear.

  5. Great post, Kevin! I agree with a lot of your points on the Donum Vitae, especially with regards to your personal understanding of how the authors failed to provide a legitimate reason for IVF in any form to be prohibited. It was interesting to read the Donum Vitae from the perspective of a practicing Christian and potential convert to Roman Catholicism; while I naturally hope to agree with the teachings of the Church on every matter, I confess that I also have trouble understanding why IVF is prohibited.

    Like you said in your post, the logic is fairly straightforward: biologically – technically – children conceived from heterologous IVF are not the products of their married parents. My question would be whether the Church puts no emphasis or has no understanding of how the actual acts of parenthood, regardless of biology, determine parentage. It seems as if there is a hierarchy of “valid” or “good” parent-child relationships; when writing about surrogate motherhood and heterologous IVF, the authors of the Donum Vitae write of the “right of the child to be conceived, carried in the womb, brought into the world and brought up by his own parents” (160). This view undermines not only IVF but also the ways that people become parents without physically giving birth, like adoption.

    I would argue that a child has the right to be conceived, carried in the womb, brought into the world, and brought up by people that love him. A child’s “own parents” may very well be the worst thing to happen to them, and it seems to me that the Church’s rulings in the Donum Vitae disregard this.

    Another very interesting point that I wanted to highlight, one that occurred to me when you wrote “homologous IVF is prohibited because the child was not conceived through ‘conjugal’ relations”, is that the very foundation of the Catholic Church is in fact a conception not achieved by conjugal relations. Indeed, the main takeaway from Jesus’ birth is the fact that He was not conceived due to a conjugal act. The Donum Vitae writes that in homologous IVF, “the generation of the human person is objectively deprived of its proper perfection: namely, that of being the result and fruit of a conjugal act” (165). Though I fear being overly literal here, I think it is beneficial to point out that taken with the Church’s teaching of the virgin birth, this condemns Jesus’ conception as having less than “proper perfection”. Perhaps the differentiation lies in the use of the term “human person”. I would be interested to see if this discrepancy has ever been written about, either from an official Church ruling or otherwise.

  6. Hello Kevin!

    I enjoyed reading your response to this week’s readings. I appreciated your interpretation of Ball’s article and agree that it is sobering to realize that we are not so far removed from what seem to me as quite radical points of view on newer technologies that might seem to be of great use to many eager people seeking to conceive a child.

    Similar to Elisabeth, I do question whether or not IVF is entirely benevolent. As she noted, a large number of the embryos frozen are ultimately used for research. Furthermore, I believe there are still questions surrounding the future health of the children born via IVF.

  7. Hey hey Kevin,

    Really great job on the blog post this week. I felt you moved between Donum Vitae and the Ball article really well. Overall the post was very well grounded and it read as a good mix of summary, interpretation, and personal thought. But, I must ask about the “inherently benevolent” nature of these medical practices. Are we to say that the act of having offspring is, in and of itself, a positive and well-meaning thing for society and moreover does the intentionality of the procedures (at their creation) have an impact on the moral framework either reading present? There are many things which are inherently positive- such as feeding the homeless in San Francisco- that while well-meaning and have a positive outcome are outlawed due to outside qualms (in the case of this example public health, in the case of both readings the preservation of society in some form or fashion). While I do agree with you that it’s a bit trivial that a country considered “western” would be fighting the battle over the traditional family in terms of disallowing access to IVF, I think the argument has to be made in general and that the merits of IVF do not specifically lead themselves some foregone conclusive of positivity.

  8. Kevin,
    I really appreciate your response because you were able to grasp the central themes of each text and understand them vis a vis one another very well. I found your understanding to be extremely compelling until you questioned Donum Vitae’s reasons for banning IVF as insufficient. I absolutely agree with you that this is based on a resistance to change, and also found myself (surprisingly, or not) almost wholeheartedly agreeing with Donum Vitae as I was reading it. On a related but seemingly random note, I’d also like to note your shock to see a Western country adopting such a rigid approach to IVF policy within the past 30 years. Here we are in a 21st century classroom at a Western university. Evidently, our views on IVF have evolved dramatically in the past 30 years. Yet, we also live in a country founded on a religious dogma that is 2000 years old. Acknowledging your theme of resistance to change, how do we today reconcile tradition and modernity? I acknowledge that this comment is a tangent from the main purpose of these works, which you handled with precision, but I am glad to see you subtly addressing this larger philosophical question that comes from these readings. I simply accept traditional views as equally valid and as modern one, whereas most in this class likely prefer modern views to traditional ones. But enough about me… I appreciate that you empathize with these views while seeming to disagree with them. Thanks for a fantastic account of these readings as well as the thought-provoking philosophical undercurrent of your blog.

  9. I think that the points you bring up about morality in paragraph 4 are very interesting. More specifically, I found it intriguing that homologous IVF is prohibited even though it doesn’t seem to be violating any of the 3 main principles. It adheres to the 1st principle of respecting embryos and fetuses as human beings. I don’t believe that it violates the notion that human life cannot be purposely destroyed or viewed as an end. And finally, there is no argument for the violation of the third principle as homologous IVF does happen only through marriage. I think that the notion of IVF being immoral or unnatural is simply the lack of progressive and modern thinking, and not adapting to the new technological advances of our time. Not to mention, what say does anyone have regarding your baby.

  10. I liked the points that you chose to highlight in each of the readings. I also liked your interpretation of the important lines in the book of Genesis; you chose important lines that were later discussed in Donum Vitae. As you stated, Genesis 1:27 and 1:28 are critical lines, and while it is unclear what it means that “God created humankind in his image,” 1:28 demonstrates that humans are encouraged by God himself to have dominion over other living creatures. It is also important to realize that there was an order to the way that God created the world as written in the Book of Genesis. This order was clearly made distinct by the author of the Book of Genesis as many lines in the first chapter are solely devoted to this. If humans are indeed to have dominion and human life, including those of an embryo as the Catholic Church notes, why then did God create nature and even other organisms such as “sea monsters” and “wild beasts” before humans?

    I do agree with Eleni though; the word of the Catholic Church can be seen either as a simple interpretation of the Book of Genesis or as strict rules to be followed. The outlook that an individual chooses powerfully impacts his or her beliefs, morals, and values about reproductive technologies. The most important basic points outlined in Donum Vitae were that “The human being must be respected-as a person-from the very first instant of his existence” (Respect For Human Life, 147), and “Heterologous artificial fertilization is contrary to the unity of marriage, to
    the dignity of the spouses, to the vocation proper to parents, and to
    the child’s right to be conceived and brought into the world in marriage and from marriage” (Respect For Human Life, 159). You mentioned these points, which I applaud you for. These are two of the basic principles that the Catholic Church based its opinions of embryos, biomedical research, and third parties involved in reproductive technologies on.

    As for Ball’s article, I did not agree with many of his points. Donum Vitae was a more striking article for me because it clearly establishes the position of a powerful force in global opinion – the Catholic Church. I felt that Ball’s article recycled a lot of the interpretations of the Catholic Church but with less convincing evidence. While small parts of the nation (neighborhoods, cities, states, etc.) do make up the larger whole, the use of ART cannot be seen as destabilizing. The French argue also that the family unit, consisting of heterosexual parents and their children, must be kept intact at all costs, but without the authority and weight of the word of the Catholic Church, I found it to be less impactful.

  11. Hello Kevin!

    I thought your blog post did an excellent job of concisely capturing the main points of the readings, and I enjoyed the flow of the writing. Overall, I understood what you were saying and rarely had to re-read anything – props to you for clarity!

    I do have one comment of your analysis of the “Donum Vitae” homologous IVF take. While I agree with your analysis that, in the eyes of the Catholic church, a conjugal act is necessary to properly create a new life and that’s why the church generally opposes homologous IVF, I also think that it connects to the fact that conceiving a child in a traditional matter reflects God’s will. If God does not choose to pair you with a partner who you can conceive with then it is not God’s will that the joining of the two flesh spawn a child. This can be seen in “Donum Vitae” through

    “A true and proper right to a child would be contrary to the child’s dignity and nature. The child is not an object to which one has a right nor can he be considered as an object of ownership: Rather, a child is a gift, ‘the supreme gift’ and the most gratuitous gift of marriage…”

    If sterility or physical obstruction blocks conception in a marriage, then the Catholic church calls you to adopt or serve elsewhere as it is God’s will that you do not have a child.

    Lastly, I wanted to comment on your claim “…central anxiety reproductive technologies evoke from the Catholic Church, as shown in Donum Vitae, is that the technologies may go against human nature.” While I agree that conflicts with natural law are the central anxiety, I think the other minor anxiety surrounding destabilization of society is also owed a comment, especially with the pairing of the French Bioethics reading. Throughout “Donum Vitae” there is recognition of how the family unit makes up society and order. For example, “…at the same time they are constitutive elements of civil society and its order… since an uncontrolled application of such techniques could lead to unforeseeable and damaging consequences for civil society” (169).

    Overall, I thought this was a lovely blog post. Thanks you!

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