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Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Theological Origami

I remember when Louise Brown - the world's first "test tube baby" was born in 1978.

Her birth offered yet another occasion of great controversy in a world that was changing so rapidly, it felt to some as to be spinning out of control.

On the one hand, the birth of Louise Brown brought great joy to many because it represented great hope and progress for women and men who had long suffered with problems of infertility.

On the other hand, this particular nativity gave birth to important ethical questions and issues of justice.

Why create new life when there were so many unwanted babies who need good adoptive homes? If only the rich can afford IVF, what does this mean for those who long for their "own" children but the costs of IVF are prohibitive? Are there no other, less expensive means to address the problem of infertility?

What about the embryos that are not used? Which, of course, gave birth to that age old question: Where does life begin? Are embryos "babies" or do oocytes merely contain the "potential" for a new life?

Those questions were resurrected the other day when British scientist Robert Edwards, a retired professor at the University of Cambridge, England, was named the Nobel winner Oct. 4 for the development of in vitro fertilization (IVF).

In a press release, the award committee said: "Approximately 4 million individuals have so far been born following IVF. Many of them are now adult and some have already become parents. A new field of medicine has emerged, with Robert Edwards leading the process all the way from the fundamental discoveries to the current, successful IVF therapy. His contributions represent a milestone in the development of modern medicine."

Msgr. Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, head of the Pontifical Academy for Life at the Vatican, said he recognized that Edwards "ushered in a new and important chapter in the field of human reproduction in which the best results are visible to everyone, beginning with Louise Brown."

However, "without Edwards there wouldn't be a market for oocytes (immature egg cells), without Edwards there wouldn't be freezers full of embryos waiting to be transferred in utero or, more likely, to be used for research or to die abandoned and forgotten by everyone," the monsignor said in a written statement released by the Vatican press office Oct. 4.

"He opened the wrong door from the moment in which he focused everything on in vitro fertilization," which also meant he implicitly permitted people to turn to donations and a buyers-and-sellers market "that involves human beings."

Umm . . . excuse me, your excellency, but oocytes are immature egg cells. They are not "human beings". This isn't rocket science. It's solid scientific fact.

Apparently, the Monsignor has information from another source, one on which he prefers to rely.

The Vatican-based International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations also expressed its dismay about the Nobel committee's announcement.

"Although IVF has brought happiness to the many couples who have conceived through this process, it has done so at an enormous cost. That cost is the undermining of the dignity of the human person," said the federation's president, Jose Simon Castellvi.

The IVF process has created and discarded millions of embryos that have been treated and used "as experimental animals destined for destruction," he said in a written declaration Oct. 5.

"This use has led to a culture where (embryos) are regarded as commodities, rather than the precious human individuals which they are," he wrote.

"Precious human individuals"?

I can only shake my head in dismay and disbelief.

What is it that could make intelligent men and women - highly educated and trained physicians - twist scientific fact into rigid religious dogma?

Here's a hint:
A 2008 document on bioethics issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith repeated earlier Vatican condemnations of in vitro fertilization because it separates procreation from the conjugal act in marriage, and because in practice unused embryos are often discarded, thus violating the principle that "the human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception."
Let's take the second part of that statement first.

As a former OB-GYN nurse, trained in a Roman Catholic Hospital Nursing School program, I learned that more than half - at least 60% - of the normally fertilized human ova simply never implant in the uterus. They are discharged as part of the normal menstrual flow, ending up on a sanitary pad or tampon and discarded into the trash or flushed down the toilet.

If you follow the logic of Pontifical Academy for Life, which bases its doctrine on the pontifications of the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations - a twisted path, to be sure - that would make God or 'Mother Nature' the Supreme Abortionist, disrespectful of the sanctity of 'human life'.

As ridiculous as that seems (and, it is), the real impulse for this idiocy can be found in the first part of the 2008 statement. The Vatican's condemnation of IVF is "because it separates procreation from the conjugal act in marriage."

Well, and there it is, then.

If it's not "man on top, in bed with a woman, with wedding ring," nothing good can come of it.

The Vatican has done what it always does with its logic about human sexuality - turned it into a theological origami which reflects their image - not God's gift - of human sexuality.

These "princes of the church" have fashioned a theology from scraps of scripture which they intend to look like the new commandment from Jesus to "love one another as I have loved you."

Instead, it looks more like an old crow, squawking on a dry and barren part of the Fields of the Lord because their ancient seeds of Dead Truth have been scattered on Institutional Rocks and not the Human Heart.

These are the same folks who have turned a blind eye to sexual predators in the ranks of the ordained, now asserting an ethical standard for today's couples who seek to affirm, honor and respect life by reproducing it - even with the help of modern medical science.

There's a term for that: hubris.

The arrogance of the Vatican's attempt to tarnish the Nobel Prize committee's selection of Dr. Edwards with their medieval understanding of human sexuality and reproductive science simply takes my breath away.

Some of my Roman Catholic friends argue that it's more than arrogance. It's a strategy, they say, to deflect attention away from their own tarnished ethical standard and their complete and utter irrelevance as a religious moral authority.

That may well be so.

I suppose I still have enough of my Roman Catholic childhood to look for the bright spot in all of this: At least the Vatican hasn't compared the evil of IVF with the evil of ordaining women who, they say, are on an equal evil par with pedophiles.

Well, at least, not yet.

So much for being "respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception." Except, of course, if you are a woman - or a small child.

I suspect someone right now, deep in the bowels of Vatican City, is fashioning a theological origami of a menstruating woman, standing behind an altar, molesting children.

I'm thinking it won't sell half as many copies as "Pope Soap On A Rope."


Bradley said...

Very well written, and your logic is impeccable. My response, as always to the RCC is that it is "intrinsically disordered".

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I wrote this mainly because there needs to be a response. There are so many people - especially young people - with no "brand loyalty" who think this is what the church is all about.

The RCC may be "intrinsically disordered" but unless we provide an intelligent response, we also lose our relevance.

whiteycat said...

Elizabeth, thank you for this intelligent response. The RCC has a unique ability to put up smokescreens. Fortunately, many of us see them for what they are.

JCF said...

I have some online friends, a lesbian couple I'll call "Ann" and "Fran".

Ann tried to get pregnant, via (after some turkey baster failures, I think) in vitro (donor sperm, her egg). Her body kept rejecting the embryos.

So they tried something different, w/ the remaining embryos: they stuck 'em in Fran!

Result: their son. :-D

Of course, this is the Vatican's nightmare.

But I say: TBTG!

it's margaret said...

Forgotten in your litany regarding IVF is the very very high cancer rates because of the drugs...

I know, because I went through IVF twice, and actually signed the papers releasing the clinic/doctors of any wrong doing and acknowledged that the cancer rate for women treated with IVF drugs is nearly 60%...

And then had to sign another paper stating that I understood IVF successful fertilization rate is only about 20% --which is on par with an average women... (so --it is really about %80 that are flushed and discarded etc....)

We went through IVF because my husband, at the age of 42 (a decade older than I) was considered too old to adopt... and I had survived four ectopic pregnancies... We were in the 80% unsuccessful with IVF. So, we were foster parents for a couple of years. We were glad and blessed to have those children in our lives.

The potential for abuse in using women's bodies as baby factories is very great --but, that is another discussion... I think Rome is totally off track with regard to IVF and a bunch of so-called celibate men should just keep their traps shut with regard to procreation.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Margaret, for that additional information. I was, of course, going for the theology but your contribution is certainly very important. Bless you and your beloved and all those whom you love and care for.

IT said...

It's worth noting that there are varieties of procedures under the umbrella "IVF" but Margaret is right about one thing: supercharging a woman's ovaries to maximize egg formation, is not without consequence. And I'm told, pretty awful PMS-from-hell.

But the unbridled lack of regulation of this procedure is a problem in the US free-for-all. there IS a certain amount of commodification and we haven't really grappled with the dark side.

You see ads in the campus paper asking for women to donate eggs for large sums of money, with very specific physical and academic qualifications. Kids who need money are tempted, without really taking on board the kind of warning Margaret got.

And then there was the infamous "octomom" in southern california who bore octuplets, deliberately, with public support.

Obviously I'm no defender of the anti-women RC hierarchy, but we are unwise to ignore the dark side of this brave new world.

MarkBrunson said...

IVF doesn't really move me one way or the other, but what does really anger me is the audacity of an RCC-associated (controlled?) group waxing offended about an insult to the dignity of the individual.

This, the RCC, is an organization that has built itself on more corpses than the Great Wall, and with nary a backward glance to any "individual" who wasn't wearing a purple, red, or white beanie!

Sorry, but I find those kind of pronouncements to be the most outrageous kind of jaded manipulation.

Mage said...

I must admit that the award doesn't diminish peoples view of IVF babies. Nevertheless, we are so grateful for having him born to enable longed-for babies to be born, I wonder what happens if he isn't born.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

You're right, Mark. Which doesn't diminish by one iota what Margaret says (I don't think you meant to do that), but it is why we need to speak out - tedious as it often is.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

IT - Of course, you're right. The exploitation of women is always a possibility - even when the impulse is based in altruism. The Vatican might have had a bit more moral authority if it had even addressed that issue.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Mage - Obviously not a concern of the Vatican, which seems obsessed with the primacy of the penis.

MarkBrunson said...

Which doesn't diminish by one iota what Margaret says (I don't think you meant to do that)

No. I'm sorry, as I have a head cold. I was trying to distance myself from appearing to make an informed statement on IVF (which I really don't know about, and, as someone with no interest in having children of my own, is not likely to become one), while expressing my outrage at what is, to my mind, an absolutely untenable justification from conservative RCC's over concerns for the "dignity of the individual." They are representing a church which, de facto and often de jure, is built on a principle of ignoring the individual for the machinery of "church."

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

No problem, Mark. Being outraged at the RC church's hypocrisy can give you a headache.

sumita sofat said...

Thumbs up to you. Well written and well described about test tube baby topic.