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In-Vitro Fertilization: A Pandora's Box of Problems

John Roberts of CNN has broadcast a theme piece entitled “Misconceptions” which exposed the legal complications that have followed the wide spread use of in-vitro fertilization when something goes awry with the procedure. He interviewed a couple who were accidentally implanted with an embryo left at a fertility clinic by another couple. They were soon embroiled in a legal controversy within which the ‘rights of the parents’ superseded the ‘best interests of the child’. Further commentary offered by lawyers who were interviewed stated that they types of accidents were becoming sufficiently common that the American Bar Association has issued guideline by which the resolution of such legal issues should be adjudicated.

This does not come as a surprise to the Catholic Church. From the public advent of this technology with the birth of Louise Brown, the world’s first ‘test-tube human baby it has stated that such procedures, while perhaps medically safe was not deemed to be moral as it would inevitably lead to situations where children would be considered little more than chattel, owned by other individuals as has now happened. Such a situation is akin to slavery; something that has been judged as evil by all civilized people.

Fr. Michael Prieur, a professor at the University of Western Ontario as well as at St. Peter’s Seminary (where I myself studied as I prepared to undertake the task of ministering as a Roman Catholic priest) has spoken of this and other issues related to the field of assisted fertility services and it concomitant bio-ethical and philosophical consequences. In this he was following the teachings of the Church which from at least the reign of Pope Leo XIII proclaimed the rights of the individual over and against the right to conceive and bear a child. It is thus the position of the Church that the rights of ‘personhood’ must be granted to a fertilized embryo for it will inevitably develop into the sole individual who will suffer the legal, psychological, medical and ethical consequences of such ‘mistakes’ as are now evidently common in fertilization clinics.

The Catholic Church first officially addressed the question with the document Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation” which as issued by the Congregation of the Faith on Feb. 22, 1987. It further developed the teaching in 2008 with the publication of "Dignitas Personae (Human Dignity): On Certain Bioethical Questions" which addressed some of the unanticipated moral and ethical questions that had arisen in the 20 years since the procedure became readily available such as the status of the almost 500,000 frozen embryo’s that had been fertilized but stored in various medical clinics.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley OP addressed this well when he wrote in a pastoral letter to his Archdiocese, “<i>When science and technology open doors that should not be opened, a Pandora's box spews forth evils that menace humanity. We invented the atom bomb and germ warfare. These inventions are now part of human history forever. Scientists have opened another perilous door: they are manufacturing human life and using their product as an object of experimentation

Lest we find ourselves in the dystopic future of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”, societies would do well to heed the advice of the Church as it offers its wisdom to the world.

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