Catholic Bishops hold fast in rejecting fertility technology

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By Tim Townsend
Saturday, February 20, 2010

"Be fruitful and multiply," God instructed Adam and Eve, and men and women have heeded those words ever since. But over the years, God's creatures have become sophisticated enough to rewrite the rules of being fruitful, and most of the new rules don't sit well with leaders of the Roman Catholic Church.

There is "great confusion among lay Catholics regarding the church's teaching on human reproductive technologies," Philadelphia's Cardinal Justin Rigali said at the meeting of U.S. bishops in Baltimore in November. "There is a need to help Catholics understand specific differences between the Catholic understanding and a secular understanding of human life."

The bishops are sympathetic. When Rigali was archbishop of St. Louis, he celebrated a Mass for infertile couples, and the current St. Louis archbishop, Robert Carlson, did the same recently. But many Catholic couples suffering through the heartache of infertility think that the church contributes to their pain by erecting roadblocks to medically assisted pregnancy.

At the meeting in Baltimore, the bishops approved a document on reproductive medical advances, "Life-giving Love in an Age of Technology." The document says: "The church has compassion for couples suffering from infertility and wants to be of real help to them. At the same time, some 'reproductive technologies' are not morally legitimate ways to solve those problems."

Church teaching says technology used to facilitate or support marital conjugation and conception is fine, but any other technology is not. Church teaching allows tests and treatment for low sperm count or problems with ovulation. But artificial insemination, even using the husband's sperm, is prohibited.

"Children have a right to be conceived by the act that expresses and embodies their parents' self-giving love," the U.S. bishops say. "Morally responsible medicine can assist this act but should never substitute for it."

According to a 2002 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 7.4 percent of married women of childbearing age were infertile. About 1 percent had tried artificial insemination as a means of becoming pregnant; about four times as many had tried ovulation drugs. According to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, 85 to 90 percent of infertility cases are treated with drug therapy or surgical procedures; less than 3 percent required assisted reproductive technologies.

The Catholic Church has developed a women's health monitoring system, called NaPro (for Natural Procreative Technology) that tries to detect and treat underlying medical causes of infertility; NaPro technicians claim up to an 80 percent success rate, depending on the cause of infertility.

American Catholics have a reputation for ignoring their church on bedroom matters. Only 4 percent of married Catholic couples use natural family planning, according to the bishops' own research. It follows that relatively few desperate Catholic couples will choose church teaching over a chance at pregnancy and children.

"American Catholics are no more going to listen to this than they listen to the church about birth control," said Glenn McGee, a scholar at the Center for Practical Bioethics in Kansas City, Mo.

Catholic bioethicists say the point of the church's position is to protect the dignity of children by honoring the church's conception of natural law. "If a couple decides they have the right to a child, the child has become a commodity," said Marie Hilliard, director of bioethics and public policy at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia.

McGee said Pope Benedict XVI began "to play hardball" with American Catholics who flout church teaching on assisted reproductive technology by issuing a 2008 document called "Dignitas Personae" (or the Dignity of the Person), which reaffirmed church teaching on procreation.

McGee said Benedict wants to convey a warning to American Catholics that "we are not going to sit by anymore and not hold individual Catholics accountable for their use of . . . reproductive technology." He called it "bringing the hammer down" on wayward U.S. Catholics.

E. Christian Brugger, a moral theologian with a specialization in bioethics at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, said that was not the intent of the Vatican or the U.S. bishops.

The bishops "are not trying to impose Vatican restrictions," he said. But "you have many Catholics who hold this view and believe the church is betraying them."

Infertile Catholics are in "a quandary," Brugger said. "They don't have a frame of reference by which to find intelligible the church's teaching [because] so much of the surrounding culture opposes what the church says."

-- St. Louis Post-Dispatch


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