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Reproductive Technologies and the One Flesh Marriage Union
Katie Breckenridge 21 March 2019
The recent debate in the United Methodist Church over the “One Church Plan,” with many of the denomination’s clergy pushing hard to prohibit ordination of practicing same-sex attracted persons and same-sex “marriages,” [i] reminds us that God’s hand still moves strongly to reaffirm His divine, natural law concerning sexual behavior and holy matrimony. Jesus Christ Himself teaches that God created man in His own image, male and female, that “a man leaves his mother and father and cleaves to his wife,” and that they “become one flesh,” two lives becoming one life sharing a harmony of purpose both human and divine. [ii]
The male and female complement in marriage reflects, uniquely and mysteriously, the image and likeness of God in Trinity, meaning that marriage shows the inner-relationship of love within the persons of the Holy Trinity. The man and wife in the domestic community reflect, then, the absolute, unfailing love with which God loves all Mankind, [iii] and all of creation. Ideally, the Christian husband loves his wife as Christ loves the Church---self-sacrificially and to the point of death---and the Christian wife commits herself to her husband, as the Church, Christ’s Bride, is committed to God in Christ, her Bridegroom. [iv] Simply put, the Christian family is an extension and a holy image of the “marriage” between God and creation, which makes children conceived through the one flesh of husband and wife one body with their household family.
From this one flesh union of male and female naturally arises God’s calling for them to be open to new life---to be, in a very serious sense, co-creators with God, to “be fruitful and multiply,” [v] as an extension of the one flesh and a continuation of God’s creation. As this desire runs so deeply within us, it should hardly surprise us that reproductive technologies have been developed that enable infertile couples to have children. The question, however, remains: how might assisted reproductive technologies interfere with, or even harm, the sacred marriage union, and diminish a couple’s ability to “love others as Christ has loved us”? Self-sacrificially, and with little or no forethought of personal benefit or reward. Let’s explore a few reproductive technologies with these thoughts in mind.
One of the most common forms of reproductive technologies is IVF, or in vitro fertilization. “IVF eliminates the marriage act as the means of achieving pregnancy instead of helping it to achieve this natural end.” [vi] The new life is not begotten through an act of love between husband and wife, but in a laboratory, where the husband and wife, or even gamete donors, are just sources for the materials. [vii] Gamete donation is morally impermissible in a Christian marriage. Why? Because it violates the extension of the one flesh union, as any child so conceived is an extension of someone outside of the holy marital union. Gamete donation also intentionally causes a child to suffer the injustice of not being raised and loved by one, or both, biological parents.
But what is IVF, exactly? It’s the process where eggs and sperm are retrieved and then mixed together in a laboratory, creating multiple human embryonic lives. [viii] Those judged most viable are then transferred into a woman’s uterus in hopes of implantation. [ix] The number of embryos transferred depends upon the woman’s age and the likelihood of success. [x] The embryos not transferred are then frozen, destroyed, used for scientific research, or, in the best yet still non-ideal scenario, put up for embryo adoption. [xi] If it’s decided for any reason that too many embryos have implanted at once, a reduction may be performed---or rather, abortions, until only the desired number remain. [xii] We, as Christians, know that each embryo is a unique human being created at a specific time, to specific parents, in a specific place, never to be created again, and with his or her own unique genetic inheritance. Is it, then, truly “loving others as Christ has loved you” to play the reproductive gaming wheel of chance that the IVF process clearly is? IVF intentionally brings human life into existence with the full knowledge that not all of the lives are going to make it, if any. Even if only one embryo is created and transferred, trial and error with that one, full person, is still occurring. According to Archpriest Pavel Gumerov, “The idea of IVF is absolutely godless by its nature. A person thus takes the liberty of acting as God the Creator and interfering in the processes inside a mother’s organism that should always remain a mystery.” [xiii]
Some argue that embryos are lost naturally all of the time, so what’s the difference with IVF? The difference is that IVF assembles human lives in a lab with the foreknowledge that some, if not all, of these lives will be sacrificed to the unnatural IVF process; either directly, by destruction, or to the limbo of the freezer. Just because lives are lost naturally doesn't mean that we can create lives to be lost ourselves, on purpose. While embryos conceived within the natural process of pregnancy remain within the mystery of a woman’s body and under the gaze of the loving God, none of the lives lost during all of the rounds of IVF are "natural" occurrences, but are forced by hands. When we pursue these deathly routes, we are delving into the mysterious, miraculous realm of life where only God, who says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” has any claim to tread.
From IVF evolved the notion and process of surrogate motherhood, which involves a woman outside of the marriage union carrying a baby for a couple, and then relinquishing the child to the “intended parents” upon birth. There are two types of surrogacy: gestational and traditional. In gestational surrogacy, the woman carries an embryo that is not genetically related to her. This embryo might have been formed from the gametes of the “intended parents,” or from gamete donors. In traditional surrogacy, the substitute mother carries either an embryo that is made with her own egg, or she is artificially inseminated by sperm from the “intended father,” or a donor. [xiv] Surrogacy essentially reduces the holy conjugal union to a manufacturing process that diminishes children to mere products. Yet we, like Christ, are beings who are "begotten, not made," and children are meant to share in the equal and unconfused dignity of their two---and only two---biological parents. [xv] Surrogacy, however, interjects a third person into the marriage union to assist in the very intimate aspect of child-bearing that is rightly reserved for husband and wife. Surrogacy, while seeming well-intended, actually presents to the world not an image of God’s love for creation, but a distressing distortion of this image. Surrogacy also intentionally separates pregnancy from motherhood and suggests to the world that pregnancy need not be considered in any significant way a mark of motherhood, that there is no meaning worth considering to the prenatal bond which occurs between mother and child, and that pregnancy is nothing more than incubation. Pregnancy, however, establishes the initial nurturing role of motherhood, and there is a “profound emotional and spiritual intimacy that is established between mother and child already during the pregnancy.” [xvi] Surrogacy hopes in vain to deny this, and even despite the fact that it has been scientifically demonstrated that, “The connection between biological mother and child is primal, mystical, mysterious, and everlasting,” [xvii] and because of this, babies born of surrogacy can suffer severe attachment issues, [xviii] or a “primal wound.” [xix] Surrogacy, then, intentionally severs an existing bond that an infant has with the only woman it knows as its mother, and unnecessarily, intentionally risks trauma inflicted upon the child.
Surrogacy, which treats human conception as a business transaction, allows a woman to use one of the most intimate realities of her body, her miraculous ability to be a co-creator with God in making new human beings, for our own personal gain. This intimate reality should be reserved for the surrogate’s own one flesh union with her husband, and intentionally allowing a woman to violate her one flesh union, and allowing your own union to be violated in such a manner, of course, shares nothing with self-sacrificial, Christ-like love. But even when no money is exchanged, there is undeniably an exchange of a human being taking place which is based on a predetermined arrangement from before conception, and a contract. [xx] Babies are not commodities; they are miraculous beings made in the image of God, worthy of dignity. Ideally, children deserve to not intentionally be birthed into a situation in which the woman they know as mother in the cores of their beings has been obliged, legally, to neither bond with them nor feel any lasting maternal, loving instincts towards them.
It is of course crucial to remember that the children already conceived through IVF and surrogacy are worthy of the same dignity as every other person created in God’s image. There are numerous ways in which conception, as do many other circumstances and conditions, occur outside of the ideals of God’s just ordering of creation, but God is the ultimate giver of life and therefore everyone’s existence is important and precious. God can turn any human decision in the direction of ultimate Good, but that hardly allows us to make the tragic error of believing that when we make distorted and disfiguring decisions, as we all often do, that these are decisions God has ordained.
But what about Christians faced with the heartbreak of infertility? Without dismissing the pain of this profound tragedy, God’s love can transfigure infertility into a wonderful opportunity, albeit one heavy with pain and challenges, to “take up your cross” and follow Christ. [xxi] If surgeries and treatments for natural conception are not fruitful, turn the unfortunate circumstances towards the struggle of becoming like Christ, and trust and pray to God to reveal alternatives that are an opportunity to show the unselfish love of Christ, such as adoption, fostering, or other callings which will utilize your maternal/paternal instincts. With adoption and fostering, husbands and wives are given the opportunity to have a child’s life entrusted to them when they may not have anyone else to love them like they will, and the opportunity to show Christ’s love by helping to heal any past trauma. We, as Christians, should turn to Christ at all costs, and not to that which is self-serving at the expense of human life and the holy dignity of the marriage union.
[iii] Catechism of the Catholic Church, .
[iv] Orthodox Church in America, Encyclical Letter of the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America on Marriage.
[v] Genesis 1:28
[xv] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Begotten Not Made: A Catholic View Of Reproductive Technology
[xix] Verrier, Position Statement.
[xxi] Matthew 16: 24-26
Katie Breckenridge, Operations Manager for 'Them Before US'