As Christmas Nears, Contemplating Miraculous Births

Miraculous biblical stories of birth fit more closely with our notions of reproductive technologies than with the Vatican's re-assertion that the only authentic context for human life is an act of reciprocal love between a man and woman in marriage.

As Catholics, like
myself, celebrate Advent and re-tell the mystery of the Christmas story, it’s
fitting to reflect on reproductive technologies. On December 8, the Vatican released Dignitas Personae: On Certain Bioethical
, a statement of the Roman Catholic Congregation for the
Doctrine of the Faith
addressing many questions reproductive technology poses. The Vatican internally
dated the document September 8, which is the Feast of the Nativity of the
Blessed Virgin. The Church has drawn our attention to two doctrines regarding
extraordinary births – Mary (Jesus’ mother), born free of original sin, and
Jesus – well, let’s just say he was a reproductive mystery. The miraculous
biblical stories of birth fit more closely with our notions of reproductive
technologies than with the Vatican’s re-assertion that the only authentic context
for human life is an act of reciprocal love between a man and woman in

An analogy of Jesus’ birth and modern IVF is not a direct corollary. Yet, it
does leave me puzzled every Christmas that a tradition that so staunchly
advocates a strict pro-heterosexual marriage, anti-abortion/reproductive
technology stance celebrates an unwed young woman becoming pregnant without
engaging in sexual intercourse. The story lacks marriage and a male/female act
of "reciprocal love" — a.k.a. penile-vaginal sexual intercourse.

I don’t raise this issue in support of open doors to all reproductive
technology or that faith in God alone cures infertility. Rather, I suggest we
reflect with greater care and more awareness on our stories of birth,
infertility, and disease. The biblical tradition and our religious heritage are
not neat and tidy. Infertility and disease affect communities. Births and how
they come about affect communities.

"Dignitas Personae" means "the dignity of a person." What Dignitas
Personae, and Donum vitae before it, have failed to articulate is how the
dignity of all lives is to be affirmed from conception to death. The
Church focuses on an embryo’s dignity to the exclusion of women’s
lives, their families, and those who live with chronic diseases. Ethical
positions on assisted reproductive technologies and embryonic research become
more complex and richer when we ask about the dignity of all persons. The
seamless ethic of life from conception to death is one we can affect positively
or negatively with responsible scientific exploration and intentional ethical
deliberation. To truly recognize the dignity of all lives – a couple struggling
with infertility, a patient with Parkinson’s disease and his family, or a
community that suffers from genetic disorders – we need to look beyond
heterosexual procreative rules to a communal understanding of reciprocal love
and justice.

Those of us in faith
communities and those of us in the sexual and reproductive health fields need
each other as we wade through discussions of Assisted Reproductive
Technologies.  Unlike the Vatican, we can choose to start with a reproductive justice lens that focuses on communities and
individuals in community.  This means we need to ask:

  • how
    ARTs affect reproductive choices and if they increase a woman’s moral
  • what
    level of safety is needed and risk permissible in use
  • whether
    choosing to have a child means a right to choose the child’s
  • whether
    ARTs exacerbate economic, racial, and abilism divides in our communities,
  • if
    a market economy serves as the best regulator for medical practices,
  • and, most
    importantly from my perspective, how faith communities can
    become better informed, publicly participatory, and effective
    counselors on issues of ARTs?

If we don’t seek
answers to these questions, we fail women, children, and men who are seeking
difficult moral answers to the use of ARTs.  All lives have dignity;
respect demands we take the entirety of the situation seriously.

The Religious
Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing, funded by the Moriah Fund,
has spent the last year working on an Open Letter to Religious Leaders on
Assisted Reproductive Technologies, which will appear on the Religious Institute website in January.  This Open Letter will be part of A
Time to Be Born: A Guidebook for Clergy and Religious Professionals on Assisted
Reproductive Technologies to be published in 2009.