The much discussed — and, at times, hotly debated — extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family that took place this past October in Rome rightly dedicated much of its time on how the Church might best respond to marriages and families in nontraditional arrangements.
Much of the summary document rightly focused on the pastoral needs of divorced families and those in cohabiting relationships. Lost in the conversation, however, is another population that merits attention: the children conceived via third-party reproduction arrangements, such as sperm and egg donation, or contract surrogate pregnancies.
Since the birth of the world’s first “test-tube baby” in 1978, the use of reproductive technologies has been rapidly growing. In the United States alone, more than 2,000 children are born each year from surrogacy, where a woman agrees to carry another couple’s child, and an even higher number of children born through anonymous gamete donation, where a child is born of no biological relation to one or both parents. And if this weren’t enough, scientists in the United Kingdom and United States are pushing to allow for the creation of three-parent embryos in order to create superior DNA.
The children born as a result of these arrangements are brought into the world via methods that intentionally sever them from their biological parents. Unlike adoption, which the Church accepts and promotes as it aims to provide a home for children who already lack parents, conception through assisted reproductive technology is rejected by the Church for the ill effects that it has on both the couple aiming to conceive and the children created from these techniques.
Why might the Catholic Church, known throughout the world as a robustly pro-life institution, oppose the creation of new life in these circumstances?
For starters, assisted reproductive technology allows for children to be created outside of the normal confines of sex between a husband and a wife. What is supposed to be an act of self-giving love between the two spouses is reduced to a technical procedure in the laboratory. In addition, many of the children born from anonymous sperm or egg donation grow up longing to know their biological mother or father, and this asymmetry very often leads to genealogical bewilderment that can result in family friction and undue, preventable distress. Moreover, the entire process puts a price tag on the value of human life and reduces conception to a mere contractual procedure.
In light of the recent synod — and with the growing rise of reproductive technologies spurred by infertile heterosexual couples and same-sex couples that seek to have children — it seems like a fitting time to consider how the Church might accept the children conceived through these arrangements into a place of undeniable welcome, while at the same time promoting a positive witness of family life and conception that rejects these technologies.
Dignitas Personae, (“The Dignity of a Person”), the Church’s 2008 document of instruction on bioethical questions, aims to respond to many of these concerns. In the document, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote:
“The Church recognizes the legitimacy of the desire for a child and understands the suffering of couples struggling with problems of fertility. Such a desire, however, should not override the dignity of every human life to the point of absolute supremacy. The desire for a child cannot justify the ‘production’ of offspring, just as the desire not to have a child cannot justify the abandonment or destruction of a child once he or she has been conceived” (No. 16). As this passage recognizes, the Church wants to affirm the desire for children as a good. But what about the children born through these methods the Church rejects? The same passage also offers the key to resolving this tension.
While third-party reproduction is flawed and fails to fully represent the complete good of marriage and children as the fruit of procreation, this does not diminish the dignity of the children conceived this way. In other words, it is possible to both recognize that a couple’s decision to conceive via reproductive technology is an affront to the dignity of the child to know and be known by both biological parents while not diminishing that child’s ultimate dignity and worth.
A similar parallel could be made to the way in which the Church would recognize and welcome children conceived through rape, incest or parental abandonment, while at the same time lamenting and condemning the acts against the child that risked or jeopardized his or her well-being and health.
Such a response is an exercise in solidarity — a central tenet of Catholic social teaching that holds that, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”), “To love someone is to desire that person’s good and to take effective steps to secure it. Besides the good of the individual, there is the good that is linked to living in society: the common good.”
The Church, therefore, does not simply say “no” to reproductive technology to deny or punish an infertile couple, but rather to promote the best possible conditions for a child to enter into the world. Such a stance is one that aims to minimize potential harms and maximize long-term flourishing.
Thirty-five years after the advent of these technologies, a generation of young-adult children conceived through these methods must be addressed and tended to in a special way. They fill the Church’s pews and communities, but often in silence. The task ahead is to avoid stigmatizing this population: to see them, hear their stories, recognize their needs and desires and aim to rectify this for future generations.
In recent years, there has been an outpouring of donor-conceived children who are speaking out in opposition to assisted reproductive technology. These individuals believe it’s possible to be grateful for the gift of life while at the same time questioning aspects of their conception. In other words, speaking bold truths while doing so in a spirit of generosity and compassion.
As the summary document of the synod states: “People need to be accepted in the concrete circumstances of life. We need to know how to support them in their searching and to encourage them in their hunger for God and their wish to feel fully part of the Church, also including those who have experienced failure or find themselves in a variety of situations. The Christian message always contains in itself the reality and the dynamic of mercy and truth which meet in Christ.”
Such words bring to mind similar encouragement paraphrased from the prophet Zechariah: “Speak the truth to one another; judge with honesty and complete justice in your gates” (cf. Zec 8:16).
When it comes to the population of children conceived via reproductive technology, the Church must rightly speak truth about the need for children to be born into intact biological families and offer an outright rejection of methods that do not conform to this standard. Judging well recognizes that children flourish best — emotionally, physically, spiritually — when this norm is lived up to.
Making peace, however, requires providing a place of welcome when these ideals aren’t met and a home for those to make sense of their identities. And what better home than the Church, which teaches that if one member of the body of Christ suffers, all suffer.
For it is this promise that unites all of God’s children — both in suffering and in solidarity.
Christopher White is the director of research and education at the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network.