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The moral and civil law on IVF

Debate on reproductive technologies has been going on in this country for the past 20 years or so. As a member of the National Bioethics Consultative Committee since its inception in the early 1990s, the issue of assisted procreation has featured many times on the agenda of our discussions. Various reports, ethical guidelines and two draft legislations on reproductive technologies were submitted to the Ministry of Health. Finally, it seems that this long-awaited legislation to regulate assisted procreation will find its place on the parliamentary agenda. Whether or not it would be approved by a parliamentary majority is another matter!

Though this country is one of the few EU members where assisted procreation is still unregulated, infertility clinics here have been offering the service of IVF to infertile couples for more than two decades. Malta’s first so-called “test-tube baby” was born at a private clinic on December 15, 1991, 13 years after the birth of Louise Brown, the culmination of years of pioneering research by Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe.

Beyond doubt, IVF offers high hopes and expectations to many infertile couples. However, this reproductive biotechnology is fraught with many moral, ethical, social, psychological and emotional issues that cannot be ignored by civil society. The multifaceted issues of IVF cannot be reduced to the overriding importance of a desire for a child or for one’s genetic child or for a certain type of child. Too often, such reductionism characterises public exchange in these matters.

The fact that many countries set up ethical commissions to advice governments on the regulation of IVF indicates that this reproductive technology is not morally-neutral, nor is it a matter of personal choice or preferences. Ethical principles and values cannot give way to the logic of subjective desire, which is so profuse in people’s mentality on assisted procreation.

The issues recently raised by Bishop Mario Grech should not be taken lightly. Unfortunately, his prudent reflections on IVF were distorted by the media, which quoted some of his statements out of context to create controversy rather than to foster genuine public debate.

His clear statements on the culture of death promoted by the willful and intentional destruction of vulnerable and innocent supernumerary human embryos, the emotion and psychological stress induced on the couples, the risks to women’s health, the financial pressures, the lack of appropriate support, counselling service and companionship to infertile couples and the sense of guilt that haunts couples who have undergone IVF treatment that involved the destruction of spare human embryos cannot be ignored by civil society.

The negative attitude to these ideas articulated by some sectors of the local media is a disservice to a healthy, transparent and open dialogue among all stakeholders who in a democratic society have an equal right to participate in the public arena.

The Catholic Church has the right and the duty to contribute to the welfare of the society by promoting those moral values, which impinge on human flourishing.

The values at stake with reproductive technologies are the dignity and integrity of the human person, the meaning of the family and the meaning of marriage and sexuality.

The Church, as an important stakeholder in society, cannot remain indifferent to what affects human flourishing.

Will reproductive technologies respect or violate the dignity and integrity of human beings from conception? Will they, at some point, tend to weaken the family as a basic social unity by affecting its biological rootage? Will they tend to dissolve or weaken the sense of individual self-identity by obscuring or dispersing its source? Will they support and strengthen the integrity of our sexuality or tend to displace or mechanise it? Will freezing, experimentation, genetic selection and discarding of human embryos dissipate or enhance our respect for vulnerable human beings?

These questions are widely recognised as proper concerns not only of a specifically religious belief but also of every member of civil society who seeks to serve the community.

The Catholic Church’s moral perspective on IVF is based on the respect of three fundamental goods that are considered as essential for human flourishing.

First, the right to life and to physical integrity of every human being must be respected from conception to natural death. Thus, the human embryo demands unconditional respect that is morally due to every human being. Anything that harms or threatens to harm the dignity of the human being is not to be considered lawful simply because it alleviates the condition of infertility. Accordingly, the freezing of human embryos, the deliberate destruction of supernumerary human embryos, the genetic selection of human embryos by preimplantation diagnosis, manipulation or experimentation on human embryos are morally unacceptable.

Secondly, the institution of marriage and the family must be safeguarded. Any fertility treatment with third party involvement is contrary to the unity of marriage and conjugal fidelity. Every child has the right to be conceived and to be born within marriage and from marriage.

Thirdly, the inseparable connection between the two meanings of the conjugal act, namely the unitive and the procreative meaning, is to be respected. This means that techniques must assist rather than replace the natural conjugal act.

Way back in 1987, the Catholic Church, in its Instruction Donum Vitae (The Gift of Life), distinguished morality from public policy. Though the Catholic Church finds moral objection to IVF treatment, the document on bioethics maintains that a legislation permitting reproductive technologies can be tolerated for the sake of public order and in order to avoid a greater evil, namely the unregulated practice of assisted procreation.

However, Donum Vitae insists that parliamentarians and legislators should keep in mind two fundamental rights that cannot be traded off: every human being’s right to life and the physical integrity from the moment of conception and the rights of the family and marriage as an institution and the child’s right to be conceived, brought into the world and brought up by his/her parents.

This was confirmed by Pope Benedict XVI, then cardinal-prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, in one of his dialogues with the Italian philosopher and politician Marcello Pera.

Let us hope that, when the draft Bill is presented for discussion in Parliament, Catholic politicians will enlighten their conscience by the Church’s teachings in the interest of the common good!

Prof. Fr Agius is Dean of the Faculty of Theology at the University of Malta and member of the European Group of Ethics in Science and New Technologies (European Commission)

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