The 25th of this month of July will mark the 44th anniversary of one of the most prophetic documents in the history of the Church, Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life). Paul VI, in the face of enormous pressure from both outside and inside the Church, reiterated in this historic encyclical the constant teaching of the Church that every act of marital intercourse must remain open to the possibility of a new life from God.
In this fourth and final part of my series on “The blessing of a fruitful life,” (read parts one, two and three) I want to emphasize the importance of protecting the dignity of every child, even prior to that child’s conception. This duty resides especially with wives and husbands, and is exercised when they carefully discern, aided by the teaching of the Church, what means are ethical and which are not when seeking to welcome a child into their marriage.
Unitive and procreative
At the heart of Humanae Vitae is the teaching that the marital embrace, the act of intercourse, is given by God to the human race as a great good. This good has two natural, God-given purposes: it is procreative (baby-generating) and unitive (spouse-bonding). These two purposes, which naturally result from the marital act, can never be separated without a resulting injustice. A separation of the two, e.g. engaging in the sexual act while attempting to remove the possibility of a child’s conception through contraception, is an injustice to God and His plan for marriage, as well as an injustice to the meaning of spousal love, an injustice that harms one’s spouse.
On the other side of the coin, it is also gravely wrong to seek to conceive a child by means that are separated from the marital embrace of his or her parents, as some Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART) do. Some infertility interventions are legitimate, but those that bypass the marital embrace are gravely illicit. In vitro fertilization and artificial insemination are two such examples.
What about ‘test-tube’ babies?
Tragically, when a technologically advanced civilization accepts sexual intercourse without babies, it will also ignore the moral concerns of producing babies without intercourse. In a historical irony which I believe is no coincidence, Louise Brown, the first “test tube” baby in human history, was born on July 25, 1978 in Oldham, England, the precise 10-year anniversary of the promulgation of Humanae Vitae.
Is the Church saying that Louise Brown, or the thousands of other children produced since then by such technological interventions, are somehow less than human, lacking in human dignity? Absolutely not. On the contrary, it is precisely their innate human dignity, born of the noble fact that they bear the very image of God, which causes the Church to calmly and strongly insist, as does the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2378): “A child is not something owed to one, but is a gift. The ‘supreme gift of marriage’ is a human person. A child may not be considered a piece of property, an idea to which an alleged ‘right to a child’ would lead. In this area, only the child possesses genuine rights: the right ‘to be the fruit of the specific act of the conjugal love of his parents,’ and ‘the right to be respected as a person from the moment of his conception.’”
The suffering caused by infertility is often intense for both husband and wife. “What will you give me,” Abraham asks of God (Gen 15:2), “for I continue childless?” and Rachel exclaims to her husband Jacob (Gen 30:1), “Give me children, or I shall die!” In her recent book The Infertility Companion for Catholics, Angelique Ruhi-Lopez writes of the temptations she and her husband faced, even as devout Catholics, when their infertility became apparent (p. 24): “I often felt like treatments like insemination or ART were like a carrot being dangled in front of us while we plodded along the seemingly endless road… ‘There’s always insemination, but I assume you would choose not to do that.’ My husband and I both said no because we knew the Church was against it (and so did my doctor), but the question that came to mind was ‘why not?’”
The “why not?” question is one we must all try to answer — clergy, religious, laity, medical professionals, husbands and wives — with an answer that is informed, faithful and wrapped in true compassion, and an answer which puts no human being’s life or dignity in jeopardy.
Medical developments faithful to God’s design
What can husbands and wives struggling with infertility do, then, that does not violate the dignity of their own relationship and that of the child they hope to have? Thanks be to God, more sound medical interventions are available all the time, due not to the profit-seeking bent of the majority of “infertility specialists” but to the faithful work of excellent scientists such as Dr. Thomas Hilgers of the Pope Paul VI Institute in Omaha. Dr. Hilgers has painstakingly analyzed the root causes of infertility and developed treatments that are not only faithful to the teaching of the Church but, not coincidentally, more effective than ART in helping couples conceive.
We must be especially grateful to God also for the growing number of physicians and other medical professionals in our diocese who, like Paul VI and other heroes of the faith throughout the history, have the patience, perseverance and zeal to seek the truth, abide in the truth, and not simply follow the fashionable trends which fail to be authentic “progress” because they violate human life and dignity. In this way, they stay faithful to that foundational phrase in the Hippocratic Oath, “First, do no harm.” Locally, these physicians include OBGYNs Lori Carillo, William Chavira, Michael Czerkes and Clint Leonard as well as Dr. James Statt and Dr. Deidre Wilson. They also help bring about a renewal of the culture of life in health care, a courageous and sacrificial renewal desperately needed in our time. For an example, see this wonderful article from Lisa McDaniel, P.A.
And if all licit treatments fail?
For all of us, it is only through the acceptance of God’s Divine plan in our lives that we will find true freedom and joy. In a mysterious way this interior freedom and joy often arise from the uniting of our own sufferings with those of Our Blessed Lord.
Only in the Christian view of life can one find a tradition of fruitfulness mysteriously connected to human suffering. Couples who, despite great desire for children and seeking all licit means to overcome their infertility, still find themselves facing an empty crib and a feeling of incompleteness in their married lives, need not, indeed must not, give in to despair. God is the “Giver of good gifts” at all times; moreover, a child is not the only gift He is able to give married couples.