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Pope condemns IVF and all that stuff… just like that! March 22, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Frozen embryos, Religion.


With the weekend that is in it let us turn to a religious themed story. Because as fairly recently reported

Addressing a plenary session of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith this morning [at the Vatican in late January], Pope Benedict XVI asked the Congregation to focus on “the difficult and complex problems of bioethics”.

In his remarks he explained the Church’s prohibition on artificial procreation.

Do go on…

Artificial procreation, such as in vitro fertilization, he said, has given rise to “new problems,” such as “the freezing of human embryos, embryonal reduction, pre-implantation diagnosis, stem cell research and attempts at human cloning”. All these, he said, “clearly show how, with artificial insemination outside the body, the barrier protecting human dignity has been broken.”

Now here he loses me. Even if one were to agree with the debatable notion that all these other issues are ‘problematic’ in any other sense than being relatively ‘new’, and let’s be serious these technologies have been around for a while now, what precisely is the issue with freezing of human embryo’s? Simply because it involves artificial insemination outside the body (at this point, who knows what the future will bring) doesn’t really cut it as a criticism. Still, let’s consider further.

The Pope added: “When human beings in the weakest and most defenceless stage of their existence are selected, abandoned, killed or used as pure ‘biological matter’, how can it be denied that they are no longer being treated as ‘someone’ but as ‘something’, thus placing the very concept of human dignity in doubt”.

Again, cloning, embryo freezing, pre-implantation diagnosis (which incidentally is generally acknowledged to be of varying utility) don’t per se involve the destruction of embryo’s, although the latter might lead to same.

Judie Brown, President of American Life League points out in her new book – Saving Those Damned Catholics – that while it is official Church teaching, most Catholics in North America have no clue that artificial procreation is immoral. Brown commented to LifeSiteNews.com on the Holy Father’s statements, saying, “As elated as I am about Pope Benedict’s comments this morning once again repeating the Church’s condemnation of the practice of in vitro fertilization, I am saddened by the realization that the American Catholic bishops refuse to even take up an explanation of what the Church teaches let alone condemn the evil practice of in vitro fertilization.”

Hmmm… these might though be those same US Catholics who are aware of the Church teachings on contraception and tend to ignore them as well. Indeed there can’t be that many abroad who aren’t aware the that Church generally regards IVF and Assisted Reproductive Technologies with some disdain.

In his remarks the Pope stressed that the Church “cannot and should not intervene on every scientific innovation.” However, he said, “it has the task of reiterating the great values at stake, and providing the faithful, and all men and women of good will, with ethical-moral principals and guidelines for these new and important questions.”

The problem is, as I suspect he knows, that while it is generally easier by far to put in blanket prohibitions on various things, these tend to simplify enormously complex issues to absurd levels leaving vast holes through which people can drive their own moral viewpoints. Nor are these ‘new’ questions.

“The two fundamental criteria for moral discernment in this field”, he said, “are: unconditional respect for the human being as a person, from conception to natural death; and respect for the origin of the transmission of human life through the acts of the spouses”.

I don’t want this to descend into a ‘let’s take out the sharp pointy wooden pointing stick and give the Pope a few jabs with it’ sort of post. He strikes me as humane a person as one might expect to head up the Catholic Church. He is consistent with his own belief systems and that is to be applauded. One might reasonably ask, how could he say otherwise? But, it all sounds so simple, doesn’t it? A nice reductionist argument which seems to cut out everything that deviates from supposed ‘norms’. Because, and it’s odd – I’ve been wondering about this in other contexts, every supposedly cut and dried issue is open to interpretation, gray areas, uncertainty and so on. Every concept used in the above sentence of the Pope is nowhere near beyond discussion, debate and disagreement from the definition of conception, to that of ‘natural’ and ‘acts of … spouses’. His certainty is matched only by the uncertainty or active indifference of his flock. And the thing with technology is that it proliferates. Every day more and more people know someone or another, entirely ordinary people, who have had to resort to these technologies, not for pernicious or malign reasons but … and this is important… for very human reasons. And those people know other people and what a decade and a half ago was exotic is now, if not quite mainstreamed, certainly far from unusual. And just as Catholics will disagree with the pronouncements on contraception, so they too will at least dispute the approach on ART.

I also think that on a conceptual level the Church and its outriders in Pro-Life groups face a problem. Abortion appeals to the ‘yuch factor’, one of the reasons for the concentration by some campaigns on what is termed partial birth abortion, and one should never underestimate that as a dynamic within human behaviour. But IVF involves an opposite dynamic, one where life is enabled and therefore locks into a very much more contradictory narrative from the point of view of the Church. Selling that as a negative is a big sell. Which is why there seems to be such a concentration on the extremes – such as cloning, or as the news yesterday reported:

The Welsh secretary, Paul Murphy, is one of several Catholic senior government figures pressing the prime minister to allow all MPs a free vote on the human embryology and fertilisation bill later this spring. Des Browne, the defence secretary, and Ruth Kelly, the transport secretary, have indicated privately that they want to vote against the proposals and will at the very least abstain.

The cabinet revolt comes as one of Britain’s most senior Catholics accuses Brown of plotting a “monstrous” attack on human life by pressing ahead with the bill. Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the leader of the Scottish Catholic church, says the legislation would allow “grotesque” and “hideous” procedures to create hybrid embryos for experimentation – measures other European countries had outlawed. In his Easter homily in Edinburgh tomorrow, O’Brien will claim that the human fertilisation and embryology bill attacks human rights, human dignity and human life.

It is because, in part, hybrid embryo’s also have something of a ‘yuch’ factor, that we see them pushed into the centre of the debate – just as we saw recently the use of hyperbole and exaggeration in a connected debate. I can’t help but feel that by doing so they discredit their own stance, or as also reported:

Leading scientists accused the Catholic church of “scaremongering” over research which had the potential to save many lives. “This is yet another example where it is clear that the Catholic church is misrepresenting science because it doesn’t understand the basic facts,” said Dr Stephen Minger, director of the stem cell biology laboratory at King’s College London.

Benedict, and the good Cardinal no doubt see themselves as holding a line and perhaps even potentially able to push back some of what has already gone before. There is a debate to be had, but to my mind it may be more a case of regulation than prohibition. They appear optimistic that it may be otherwise.

In that I fear they are in for further disappointment.


1. Starkadder - March 22, 2008

I can see a upside to Human Cloning.

A Naomi Watts for every guy in the audience!*

*Or a Jude Law if you’re a woman.


2. WorldbyStorm - March 22, 2008

Jesus, tears of a clone…


3. Starkadder - March 22, 2008

Remember in comic-books and Saturday-morning cartoons
where the villain would use cloning to create an evil version
of the hero?

But on a serious note, I think the whole notion of IVF and
genetic engineering has an innately materialistic
(as in physicalism-made of matter & energy) undertone-they
treat the human body as material to be altered. Whereas
for the Pope all humans have an immortal soul and to interfere
with it, especially at the level of an embryo,is a grave sin.


4. WorldbyStorm - March 22, 2008

True indeed. Which is problematic as well because ethical arguments should surely be grounded not in those sort of intangibles but in the concrete?


5. smiffy - March 22, 2008

Starkadder, I think the practice of employing reproductive cloning technology to create evil versions of superheroes was roundly discredited by the lamentable Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.

More seriously, the point about the active indifference of the flock is an interesting one. I do think, however, that when it comes to issues of reproduction – both artificial contraception and artificial procreation – that Church actually displays an active indifference to its flock. Just as the teaching on contraception never wavered, even in the face of the fact that, if nothing else, access to contraception remains absolutely necessary in the liberation of women and the alleviation of poverty, there seems to be no understanding of, to sympathy for, the huge benefits artificial procreation can bring. It’s not just about stem-cell research, or the abstract concept of humans being used as ‘pure biological matter’ (not that this kind of instrumentalist position bothers them when it comes to forcing women to carry unwanted pregnancies); it’s a question of pointing to those children who are now around thanks to the help of assisted reproduction and asking the Church whether it feels that the world would be a better place if they had never been born at all.


6. Darren Reynolds - March 23, 2008

I see suffering. Parkinson’s Disease. Alzheimer’s Disease. Motor Neurone Disease. These usually affect the elderly but can affect the young too. The suffering is real and the people suffering are real. Medical researchers need available to them a full range of tools to tackle these diseases. A cluster of human embryonic cells is not a human being. It is a potential human being. In fact, it is several potential human beings, because the cells can be split apart leading to identical twins. Are we to force people to reproduce, to ensure every potential being is born? Should we intervene in the process to split embryos, so that twins are born instead of a single person? No, these ideas are ridiculous. Let the study and research continue so that the suffering of real people can be brought to an end.


7. Ciarán - March 24, 2008

This is nothing compared to the Catholic Bishops blaming the GAA for young people not going to Sunday Mass anymore. Ahem, right.


8. WorldbyStorm - March 24, 2008

I bet the GAA never saw that one coming. I think the CB’s are very wide of the mark… so to speak…


9. a very public sociologist - March 25, 2008

I think the church have really shot themselves in the foot with this one. Good!


10. Faith - April 6, 2008

starkadder wrote: “I think the whole notion of IVF and
genetic engineering has an innately materialistic
(as in physicalism-made of matter & energy) undertone-they
treat the human body as material to be altered.”

How does IVF treat the human body as “material to be altered” in any way different than any other medical treatment on the human body? And what exactly is this “innately materialistic undertone” in the context of IVF? What difference is there in an assisted conception through IVF (due to a reproductive system medical problem) and any other concpetion (done the ‘old’ fashioned way) that makes IVF “materialistic”? (and in practical terms IVF and genetic engineering really are two rather distict issues).


11. Wednesday - April 6, 2008

I have a personal interest in this now as my brother and his wife have just discovered they are pregnant thanks to IVF. It was their only hope to have children (and in fact probably my parents’ only hope to have grandchildren) and anybody who thinks they shouldn’t have been allowed that hope is cordially invited by me to go fuck themselves.


12. WorldbyStorm - April 6, 2008

I would entirely second your point Wednesday…

and Faith those are great questions, but isn’t the problem that in an argument or discussion with people who both set and prejudge the terms of same it’s impossible to have a serious communication.


13. Rosy Sini A J - February 27, 2012

Respecting the teachings of the church, as a catholic woman, who had suffered the pain of infertility for 13 years , and who look at IVF as a dream come true treatment to get a child from God, I am sad of hearing this from Holy Pope Benedict.

IVF has wiped the tears of thousand infertile couples and I believe the technology, the intelligence for this was revealed to men by His Grace only. Even through IVF, birth will not take place if God Doesn’t permit it.

At the same time I disagree on embrio freezing.


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