Few subjects are more emotional than procreation. The need to have a child is not just a personal desire, it’s often a primal instinct—the desire to see something of yourself left on the planet, carrying on your work and your legacy long after you’re gone.
That is why baby-making—or the inability to make a baby—is such a fraught phenomenon, made, as many things are, more fraught by the cultural and political climate. As celebrities and political commentators embrace surrogacy as a natural, logical, and inconsequential development in baby-making, global leaders—notably, and recently Pope Francis—have stepped in to remind a world so used to immediate gratification that scientific developments, however personally fulfilling, can have reverberating ethical, moral, and cultural consequences.
In his New Year’s address to members of the Vatican’s diplomatic corps, Pope Francis attacked surrogacy directly, calling it an “exploitative” and “deplorable practice” that “represents a grave violation of the dignity of the woman and the child.” He added: “The path to peace calls for respect for life, for every human life, starting with the life of the unborn child in the mother’s womb, which cannot be suppressed or turned into an object of trafficking.”
One of the primary drivers of surrogacy, infertility, is a gut-wrenching journey that challenges families, couples, and, humans, in ways many marriage and family life foibles rarely do.
Back in 2012, I found out I couldn’t have kids. Although everything seemed correct and in working order, month after month, no pink lines came up on those Amazon pregnancy tests I’d bought by the gross. It would take six long years, and two miscarriages, to discover that I had such severe endometriosis that my ovaries had fused together; instead of turning out eggs for babies, I was randomly gifting my abdominal organs with ovum.
It would be another year until I was pregnant with twins. By the time my daughter was born, we’d been trying to have kids for eight years—longer than most people’s starter careers.
My experience was emotional and lived in the public eye: A desire for community in such a lonely endeavor as infertility led me to write, speak, and post on the topic almost endlessly, which may be why my opposition to surrogacy—an admittedly countercultural position—was shocking to many, including in my own circle of friends.
But here’s the thing: I’m Catholic. And not just a little Catholic. Hardcore Catholic. And my commitment to my faith comes before any ideological leaning or cultural force, even when those cultural forces ultimately help my friends and fellow infertiles obtain the joy I’ve been given in children.
In my years of infertility, all artificial methods of fertility treatment were off the table. No IVF, no IUI. In some cases, testing had to be done in a wildly specific manner to conform with religious practices. As friends I’d begun my infertility journey with became pregnant, typically turning to IUI and IVF despite their own Catholic beliefs, I became despondent, questioning everything I believed about God and the “blessing” of progeny. Catholics are not anti-science, I understood, so how could we be so opposed to this science?
The answer is simple: As with artificial conception, artificial fertility treatments undercut the dignity of human life and contradict the natural order. Both have implications for how we regard human life writ large. There is nothing particularly natural about IVF or surrogacy, and a consistent ethic on the dignity of human life requires opposition to these artificial means of reproduction (or reproductive prevention).
For Catholics—and many other Christians—sex is more than pleasure. It’s an act of intimacy that is unitive, procreative, and, beyond that, mystical. At the risk of sounding too much like St. John Paul II, sexuality is not just a physical construct, it is a spiritual one. And the act of making babies is the only opportunity humans have to participate, with God, in divine creation—bringing forth life, designed by God, known by God, translated, with purpose, into human form.
I hesitate to use the Monty Python interpretation that “every sperm is sacred,” but okay, it’s close—though it’s not about the babies. It’s about the process. Any act that separates procreation from that unitive and collaborative becomes problematic.
The Catholic Church has spoken forcefully on the evils attendant to IVF and surrogacy, most notably in then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s (the late Pope Benedict XVI) treatises on the subject, Donum Vitae and Dignitas Personae, which refers to life as both natural and supernatural, the result of conjugal love, in addition to the scientific process. Humans are due respect from the very moment we come into existence—the very moment of conception, at which point we are due the inviolable right to life.
But with IVF and surrogacy, life is created, often, just to be destroyed. Eggs and sperm are harvested, embryos are created, analyzed, and then selected for desirable characteristics, including gender.
This can effectively amount to eugenics. In the case of surrogacy, those embryos are planted in a foreign womb. Embryos that go unused are put on ice for an open-ended amount of time, leaving them fragile and prone to death upon thawing. Worse, many, if not most of those created embryos are destroyed—the ethical equivalent of abortion. Life is manufactured—and discarded—at will.
The result is a commodification of the reproductive process and, in surrogacy, the commodification of the female body. Designed to grow her own children, her uterus is now rental space for others.
St. Joseph’s University’s Catholic Institute of Clinical Bioethics says it most concisely: Surrogacy “represents an objective failure to meet the obligations of maternal love, of conjugal fidelity and of responsible motherhood.” Additionally, the use of a non-material womb “offends the dignity and the right of the child to be conceived, carried in the womb, brought into the world and brought up by his own parents; it sets up, to the detriment of families, a division between the physical, psychological and moral elements which constitute those families.”
There is simply no justification for violating that right, and the respect due to all human life, by the processes and manipulations of IVF and surrogacy.
And that’s ultimately both IVF and surrogacy are: processes. The world views the end result, babies, as an unequivocal good—and, truthfully, babies are good. Great, even. I have three of them and I cannot begin to express the gift with which I’ve been entrusted. But because babies are good does not mean the process that brings them into existence is, by definition, always moral and ethically good.
The ends do not justify the means, especially when those means contradict the dignity of human life.
Naturally, some push back on this position with pointed questions.
For one, do Catholics not benefit from other medical processes that some would say are unnatural interventions? And the answer is yes. We have little opposition to organ donation done ethically, and I have received a blood transfusion. But organs and blood are part of an organism, however vital—not an entirely new organism in and of themselves. Inserting a new heart, lung, or kidney is not an “unnatural” procedure because it allows for an existing human to continue to live.
Most medical procedures, outside of reproductive technology, are not proscribed because, quite frankly, no new, distinct humans are involved in those processes.
And what other options do infertile parents have in light of our current adoption system, with more prospective parents than potential adoptees in the system and government policies that render it a difficult, lengthy, expensive, and often heartbreaking process?
The foster system, meanwhile, has thousands of children in need, but it is designed to reunite those children with their parents, not necessarily to facilitate their adoption.
But those realities don’t necessitate the encouragement of IVF and surrogacy. Rather, they indicate the adoption process must be improved, opened, and made more accessible and affordable.
Infertility is no easy thing. I know, I endured it. And I endured it as a faithful Catholic with a faithful Catholic doctor. I wish I could say that I endured it all with a cheerful heart but, quite frankly, I was often the furthest thing from cheerful, and non-IVF fertility treatments—often known in the Catholic world as “NaPro,” or “natural reproductive measures”—are no less involved or invasive. There are still hundreds of needles, dozens of ultrasounds, and years of crushing disappointment that cut me to the core.
I understand the despair of not being able to have children. And I understand the joy that children are. But we cannot allow either of those deep feelings to create a blindness to the dangers artificial conception and surrogacy pose to our own universal humanity and our own universal human dignity. These processes impact the value of human life, and if we do not understand that, carefully and thoroughly, we could introduce that commodification into other aspects of human life.
Our own deep need to have children—innate as it is—is not worth us sacrificing our own humanity.
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Dispatch debate series. On January 16, Elizabeth Nolan Brown made the case for surrogacy.