It’s never too early. Christmas isn’t too far from being just around the corner. Birthdays come at anytime. Our minds always need to be churning. What to get that special someone? What would the kids want? We can surprise them, which is fun if it weren’t so difficult. Or we can just ask. And if we do, we can expect to hear, “I want a gift card.”
In 1994, Blockbuster Entertainment replaced the gift certificate with the electronic gift card – the first of its kind. Since then, gift cards have exploded in popularity. By 2006, they were the most wanted gift by women, the third most wanted by men. That year, about $80 billion was spent on the cards. In 2012, about 50% of U.S. consumers had purchased one during the holiday season. It’s easy to understand their popularity. Merchants get a ready supply of cash, sometimes without giving anything in return; many gift cards go unused. Givers don’t need to wrack their brains about a gift. Recipients avoid getting socks three years in a row. And best of all, there are no return counters.
Of course, sooner or later we all get things that must go back. But not all gifts can be returned, even if we stand in line for hours. Sherri Shepherd of television’s The View was unable to conceive a baby. She and husband Lamar Sally turned to technology. They donated her egg and his sperm for placement in a surrogate mother though in vitro fertilization. When it failed, the couple placed Lamar’s sperm and another woman’s egg into another surrogate. The procedure is working, but now their marriage has failed. Lamar filed for divorce and is seeking child support. Sherri recently announced that she wants no part of the baby she once wanted. “It’s not my child. I’m not paying child support.” Whether she pays child support will be left to a judge. But Sherri is right about one thing: biologically speaking, it’s not her child.
Shepherd’s case highlights man’s struggle to control technology. It’s amazing how far science has come. The ovum – a woman’s egg – was not discovered until 1827. Today, scientists have gone well beyond studying it. They have learned to fertilize an ovum outside a woman’s body by injecting a man’s sperm into it in order to produce a human life. In 1978, Louise Brown became the first test tube baby born via the process of in vitro fertilization. Since then, over five million babies have been born through IVF. From a purely scientific perspective, it does work.
But IVF is very controversial. The process is difficult, expensive, dangerous, and often unsuccessful. For two weeks, a woman is shot up with drugs to control and then to stimulate egg production. Other drugs are given to stimulate the eggs to mature. The eggs are harvested with a needle guided by ultrasound; the woman needs sedation and pain medication. A man’s sperm is harvested by masturbation or by cutting into a testicle. The eggs are fertilized, and 1-3 eggs are inserted into the woman via a tube. One IVF cycle costs $10-15,000. Five percent result in ectopic pregnancies, which can cause death. IVF can also cause severe ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, which can cause a life-threatening fluid build-up around the heart as well as liver failure, stroke, and heart damage. IVF might create health risks for the child. Success rates for IVF vary with age and fertility, with an average 35% pregnancy rate and 28% delivery rate.
The greater problems are the moral ones – and they abound. In IVF, a doctor often implants multiple fertilized eggs in a woman. It leads to “selective reduction,” a procedure by which the supposedly weakest growing embryos are removed so that only one baby will be born. Selective reduction is abortion, the killing of human beings. Multiple fertilizations create an addition problem: what to do with the unused eggs? One approach is to freeze them. Data suggests that there are more than 600,000 frozen embryos – each a human being. Couples agonize about their inability to raise them. Another method is to discard them. In the UK alone an estimated 1.7 million embryos have been tossed away.
Surrogacy adds to the problems. The surrogate mother may or may not supply the egg. The couple wanting a child may only be designing the child. Sperm and eggs can be purchased on the open market – at a hefty price. Five people may claim a parental right: the sperm and egg donors, the surrogate, and the couple raising the child. The process confuses IVF children about their identity. And parents can find themselves stuck in the chaos of Sherri Shepherd’s situation. Or something even worse.
In the midst of the chaos, we need to find order in God’s moral law. IVF is morally wrong because it takes God out of the process. In the sexual act, husband and wife unite in an act of self-giving and in cooperation with God’s plan for children. Yet the couple cannot will a child to life; they are only participants in God’s design. Children are a gift of God, not the automatic result of a marital act, and this gives them a profound dignity. IVF wrongly strips a child and the marital act of dignity. It treats a child not as a gift but as a commodity to be ordered by a couple and manipulated by doctors and technologists into existence. IVF is already leading to the downward slope of designer babies and human cloning. Certainly we must love any baby created by any means. But a moral society may not approve IVF.
For infertile couples, this can be a big pill to swallow. Yet sound moral decision-making demands that the end, however compelling and good, may never justify immoral means. This does not require that technology be placed off limits. Technology that works through the marital act and gives it full respect remains available. So does adoption. Couples wanting children need our support. And they need a gentle reminder. When we ask God for anything, He answers, “Yes,” “Not yet,” or “I have a better plan for you.” He loves us in ways technology can’t.
A child is God’s gift. May we bring each child into the world God’s way.
Paul V. Esposito is a Catholic lawyer who writes on a variety of pro-life topics. He and his wife Kathy live in Elmhurst, Illinois and have six children.