Thursday, April 2, 2009

Why 'Embryo Rescue' is not Ethically Acceptable

This past weekend I attended the Annual Bioethics conference at Notre Dame University. This was a superb conference. I had the opportunity to meet Catholic physicians and ethicists who are struggling to live their faith in a world where the Culture of Death plots to coerce medical personnel to act against conscience and directly cooperate in intrinsically evil acts. Also present at this conference were non-Catholic physicians and academics who also are struggling to be faithful to their Christian witness in our modern.

One of these was Lutheran scholar Gilbert Meilaender, Richard & Phyllis Duesenberg Professor of Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University. In a session discussing the recent directive from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Dignitatis Personae, Dr. Meilaender noted that the document made the following statements with regard to the possibility of embryo rescue for those excess embryos created during the process of In Vitro Fertilization:

12. With regard to the treatment of infertility, new medical techniques must respect three fundamental goods: a) the right to life and to physical integrity of every human being from conception to natural death; b) the unity of marriage, which means reciprocal respect for the right within marriage to become a father or mother only together with the other spouse;19 c) the specifically human values of sexuality which require “that the procreation of a human person be brought about as the fruit of the conjugal act specific to the love between spouses”.20 Techniques which assist procreation “are not to be rejected on the grounds that they are artificial. As such, they bear witness to the possibilities of the art of medicine. But they must be given a moral evaluation in reference to the dignity of the human person, who is called to realize his vocation from God to the gift of love and the gift of life”.21 In light of this principle, all techniques of heterologous artificial fertilization,22 as well as those techniques of homologous artificial fertilization 23 which substitute for the conjugal act, are to be excluded. On the other hand, techniques which act as an aid to the conjugal act and its fertility are permitted...

19. With regard to the large number of frozen embryos already in existence the question becomes: what to do with them? Some of those who pose this question do not grasp its ethical nature, motivated as they are by laws in some countries that require cryopreservation centers to empty their storage tanks periodically. Others, however, are aware that a grave injustice has been perpetrated and wonder how best to respond to the duty of resolving it...

The proposal that these embryos could be put at the disposal of infertile couples as a treatment for infertility is not ethically acceptable for the same reasons which make artificial heterologous procreation illicit as well as any form of surrogate motherhood...

19 Cf. CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH, Instruction Donum Vitae, II, A, 1: AAS 80 (1988), 87.

20 CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH, Instruction Donum vitae, II, B, 4: AAS 80 (1988), 92.

21 CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH, Instruction Donum vitae, Introduction, 3: AAS 80 (1988), 75.

22 The term heterologous artificial fertilization or procreation refers to “techniques used to obtain a humanconception artificially by the use of gametes coming from at least one donor other than the spouses who are joined in marriage” (Instruction Donum Vitae, II: AAS 80 [1988], 86).

23 The term homologous artificial fertilization or procreation refers to “the technique used to obtain a humanconception using the gametes of the two spouses joined in
marriage” (Instruction Donum Vitae, II: AAS 80 [1988], 86).

Dr. Meilaender noted that Dignitatis Personae (DP) merely affirms that the rescue of embryos is not ethically acceptable without giving an extended argument to justify this assertion. He mentioned the important distinction that KirkegÄrd made between a genius and an apostle: the former argues to make a rational case while the latter proclaims the word. In essence, Dr. Meilaender was acknowledging the difference between the merely human wisdom of the scholar and the prompting of the Holy Spirit such as we have in the Catholic Church's Magisterium.

But as a Lutheran, Dr. Meilaender really wanted more than someone who "taught as one that had authority, and not as the scribes" (Matthew 7:29, Mark 1:22). It seems that he was not satisfied with the explanation from paragraph 12 of this same document. It was not enough to convince him that embryo rescue was morally reprehensible.

Dr. Meilaender is not alone. In fact several moralists - Catholic and Non-Catholic - have wrestled with this question over the last decade . In all honesty before DP was published, I also had struggled with this question.

But based on my Catholic faith I was able to understand the issues involved and discern the rationale behind the prohibition of embryo rescue in a way that a non-Catholic really is not equipped to do.

It is one of the sad legacies of the so-called "reformation" that the sacramentality of Christian marriage was abandoned and replaced with a secular contractual theory in which divorce and remarriage were permitted. This was true in every branch of the so-called "reformation" even though divorce and remarriage had been directly forbidden in the Bible by Jesus and St. Paul and likewise forbidden universally in Christian Tradition .

Luther himself was notorious for his opinion that the sexual urge was "just an itch to scratch" and that "There is no need to burn with passion while willing maidens abound." He along with his cronies Melanchthon, OEclampadius, and Bugenhagen wrote papers justifying polygamy at the request of Philip of Hesse. Ulrich Zwingli was known for having affairs with women in his congregation and for frequenting prostitutes. Calvin was a staunch supporter of a bourgeois view of marriage as a human institution devised by God. Even so, he had no interest in marriage until put under pressure by his Protestant peers to marry as a sign of his break with "Romanism." Henry VIII was the most flagrant abuser of marriage among the scions of the so-called "reformation" marrying six women in his lifetime and taking many mistresses.

Despite all of this, the conventional wisdom is that the so-called "reformation" attempted to reform Christan marriage and return it to a central place among the Christian faithful. But this was not the case. Marriage was secularized and human sexuality de-sacralized. Despite Protestant protests to the contrary, the so-called "reformation" took a very mercenary and utilitarian view of sex and marriage. It likewise denigrated any form of consecrated celibacy or continence as unhealthy despite the teachings of Jesus (Matthew 19:12) and St. Paul (1Corinthians 7) to the contrary.

In historic Catholic Christianity, marriage has always been seen as a sacrament. As such, the Church has seen marriage as not merely a human institution but a divine one that like the sacraments of Baptism, Eucharist, Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick. Marriage is a source of divine grace through Christ. In short, a sacramental marriage contributes to your salvation as means of grace.

To find the source of this teaching we need to go to the early chapters of Genesis . In Genesis 2:18, God sees that Adam is lonely in Eden. Out of love for the man, God created a woman Eve to be his helpmate. In this sense woman was the love of God for Man made flesh.

Marriage in Eden was God's divine gift. It was only after God had made them "male and female" (Gen 1:27) that he found the world to be not just "good" (Gen 1: 4, 10,12,18,21), but "very good" (Gen 1:31). Woman was the crown jewel of creation and marriage was the feast celebrated on the first Sabbath. That is why the Sabbath day was to be kept holy. On that day was celebrated the love of God for Man. That is why Jesus taught us that "The Sabbath was made for Man, not Man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27).

When the Devil tempted Eve to commit the original sin (Gen 3), he used her to get to her husband. From that point onward men and women were estranged. Immediately, our First Parents realized they were naked and were ashamed to be seen by each other. Adam blamed Eve for his sin (Gen 3:12). As part of her punishment, God made bearing children more painful and he said that woman would still desire her husband who would "lord it over" her (Gen 3:16).

Never again would man and woman see each other as helpmates. Never again would they treat each other with mutual respect. Man would physically intimidate women and treat them like chattel. A man's wife would be numbered among his slaves and his property (Exodus 20:17). The good gift of God's love made flesh was reduced to another commodity to be used, abused, and discarded at will. God's one concession to women in the law of Moses was that the men in his covenant would be obliged to give his wife a bill proving that she was divorced and thus free of him and free to marry again if anyone would have her.

Among the rabbis, women were looked upon as second class citizens. Rabbi Hillel taught that a man could divorce his wife for virtually any reason, even for merely burning his dinner.

But God reserved one promise for woman. He would put enmity between the Devil and the woman. Through her, god would bring about the destruction of all the Devil's plan for humanity. She would crush the serpent's head (Gen 3:15).

And so a virginal maiden named Mary (more correctly Miriam) was approached by an Archangel Luke 1:26-38) just as Eve had been approached by a fallen angel (Genesis 3). Through Mary's submission to the word of God, she bore Christ, our Savior, who was the fruit of her womb and whose flesh and blood would nourish us in the Eucharist. The process by which humanity fell was reversed.

During his ministry, Jesus revealed that the compromised form of marriage which God had permitted under Moses' "because of the hardness of your hearts" would no longer apply (Matthew 19:8). Marriage was returned by Jesus to what it was "in the beginning" (Matthew 19:4). Jesus as the New Adam was returning marriage to its Edenic Purity.

This fact is often overlooked by those who prefer either a hammartiocentric or a creation-centered scheme. The restoration of marriage by Jesus actually heals the rift caused by Original Sin between man and woman and by doing so, restores the symbolism of the human gender relationship as the sign of God's love for man made flesh. I have come to believe that this is the far more important in the economy of salvation than most theologians have recognized. Thankfully, the Church has always taught that marriage is a sacrament and fruitful reflection on this will allow us to discern the full significance of marriage.

But even more importantly, the stories from the Old Testament where "Yahweh is the husband of his people" (Hosea 2:16, Isaiah 54:5, Jeremiah 3:20) were now referred to Christ and the ultimate culmination of the work of Christ was seen as the wedding of Christ to his Church (Ephesians 5:31-32; Revelation 19:9, 21:9) . So marriage is the ultimate biblical metaphor for salvation, and not the forensic and transformation models that have predominated in modern theologies.

So to recap, marriage was a Divine institution that symbolized God's gracious loving care for man and was intended as a mutual bond between spouses of deep theological significance. As Jesus restored the nuptial bond from Eden, His Church has recognized it as a sacred rite in which the spouses are the ministers -- if you will, the priests -- who administer the grace-giving sacrament to each other and share it with other family members, especially their children. The pinnacle of marriage is the marital act itself. In light of the sacramental meaning of marriage, this is properly understood as a priestly act.

It is well known that Temples in the ancient world were seen as representing the human body. In fact, Jesus used a pun concerning his own body while ostensibly talking about the Temple in Jerusalem (John 2: 19-22).

St. Paul himself (1Corinthians 6:15-20) in discussing Christian sexual mores makes the point that are our bodies are members of Christ and temples of the Holy Spirit and that it is therefore unseemly -- in fact sacrilegious -- to fornicate with them. We give ourselves exclusively to our spouses and to no other.

The Christian husband is like the High Priest who alone is allowed to enter the Holy of Holies of his wife's body. In the Temple of Jerusalem, anyone other than the High Priest who tried to enter the Holy of Holies was to be put to death. Even the High Priest was only permitted to enter it on Yom Kippur under threat of death.

Seen in this way we can understand why the Blessed Virgin had to remain Perpetually Virgin. As it says in Ezekiel:

Eze 44:1 Then he brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary, which faces east; and it was shut.
Eze 44:2 And he said to me, "This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it; for the LORD, the God of Israel, has entered by it; therefore it shall remain shut.
Eze 44:3 Only the prince may sit in it to eat bread before the LORD; he shall enter by way of the vestibule of the gate, and shall go out by the same way."

The Sanctuary of Mary's Body was consecrated to God and to his Christ. It could not be entered by any other man without sacrilege.

Once we realize this, we have the reason why 'embryo rescue' is not ethically acceptable. No one but the husband is permitted to enter the sanctuary of his wife's body. And no one other than the child who is the product of their marital act has any right to be there.

Those women who have a desire to offer their womb to rescue an embryo --even if that embryo is their own child by their husband -- are flying in the very face of God because they are allowing a non-marital act by a third party to violate the sanctity of the marital act.

In order for an embryo that is outside of a womb to be rescued -- even the womb of its rightful mother -- several morally abominable acts must have taken place:

-Collection of sperm
-Harvesting of ova
-Extra-Corporial Fetilization
-Extra-Corporial Embryo development
-Embryo Freezing
-Embryo Defrosting
-Embryo implantation

Those are seven potentially mortal sins.

In order to "rescue" one of these embryos, a volunteer surrogate mother would need to be willfully complicit in 2 seriously disordered acts that are potentially mortal sins.

Human genitalia, human gametes and the marital act which unites them are all sacred are not open to mundane secular use. While the desire to rescue an embryo appears laudable, it is an act of willful human interference in the sacred order established by God. to cooperate in this would be a sacrilege and is therefore not not morally permissible.

The horror of this whole problem is that it places us in a moral conundrum where there is no clear morally acceptable solution. To rescue the embryo is just as evil as to let them die. At this time the Church has not discerned what can be done, if anything ,to put an end to this moral dilemma.

Once again we see that when man tries to create a good for himself that ignores, defies or tries to supersede the good that God has made, it takes us into moral ruin.

I hope this brief article helps to explain why the Catholic Church takes the stand that she has on this issue.

Arthur C. Sippo MD, MPH


Ben said...

Thanks, Art – that does indeed help explain the Catholic view to this Protestant. However, please don’t believe that just because I'm not a Catholic I in any way regard my marriage as a "secular contract"! I have every reason (too long to go into here) to believe it's acceptable to God, despite my lovely wife having been previously married. Nor am I under any illusions as to the validity of Henry VIII's multiple marriages. I would however say you do Luther a disservice by lumping the two together – Luther for all his faults was reacting to what he perceived as problems, whereas Henry just wanted the power of the church without that inconvenient Pope thing.

Art Sippo: said...

Ben! Good to hear from you. I was just thinking about you. I hope all is well in Merrie Olde!

Anglicanism has always tried to make a via media between the extremes of continental Protestantism and Catholicism and in the BCP it still talks of marriage as a minor sacrament. And until recently (as you know) it was not possible to be married in an Anglican Church if one of the partners had previously been divorced. There were no tribunals such as we have had in Catholicism. CS Lewis ran into this problem himself and used what some have called the "internal forum" to justify his marriage to the divorcee Joy Davidson.

But Luther went way beyond merely reacting to problems. When it came to marriage, he not only advocated divorce with remarriage in contradiction tothe clear teachingof our Lord and St. Paul, but POLYGAMY! Read up on the case of Philip of Hesse (also called Philip the Magnanimous).

While Luther maintained some of the semblance of sacramental practice, he denied that anything but baptism and Eucharist were TRUE sacraments. For this reason he denigrated marraige from a sacred mystery to a mere religious celebration.

And in hte Calvinisitic world (which Anglicanism follws in many ways) there is a strong anti-sacramental bias. The Calvinist camp sees marirage as instituted by God but only as a natural ordinance. It does not have the sacramental and therefore sacerdotal character that it has in historic Christianity and in the Bible.

The lack of a clear sacramental notion of marriage and the general desacralization of the world are major errors of the so-called "reformation". It makes for a kind of Christian practice that makes compromises with the merely secular and natural that divide the loyalties of the Protestant between God and the world. This was a common thread in all forms of Protestantism and it si somthing that the Catholic Church cannot and will not make compromises.

Always good to hear from you, Ben. Keep in touch. Give my regards to eveyone there!


Revenue Sharing Done Right! said...


Here is another point of view...


Unknown said...

Dr. Sippo, when I read your analogy between the high priest and the Holy of Holies and husband and wife in a sacramental marriage, my heart stopped—never have I been stunned by such truth. You, good and kind sir, have enriched my notions on sacramental marriage (and on my marriage too!). Thank you so much for sharing this insight. May God be glorified because of you and your work. God bless you and your family, doctor. Blessed Christmas and a Holy New Year!