This is the first week of 2-part series on the sacredness of the human life. This week, we encounter life at its earliest stage, conception.
By: Sr. Clare Hunter, Director of the Respect Life Office
It was supposed to be a vocation talk to eighth graders, but as I explained my role as the Director of the Respect Life Office for the Diocese of Arlington, I touched on the miracle and sacredness of human life. Innocently enough, I made the statement, “We come from the cells of our moms and dads,” and was caught flat-footed when a student responded, “Sometimes.” Something like the following conversation ensued:
Me: Actually, all of the time. That is how a baby is made.
Eighth grader: Sometimes it is by a doctor.
Me: (silence, with a quizzical look)
Eighth grader: You know, in a laboratory.
Me: Even there, you still need the cells from the egg of a woman, a mom, and sperm from a man, a dad. That’s the only way a human being can be made.
Eighth grader: Oh. They make a lot of embryos, right?
Me: Yes, usually.
Eighth grader: What do they do with the ones the parents don’t want?
On my end, panic, a racing heart and sweating began. As I looked around the room, I could see some students had no idea what we were talking about, but worse, I knew the chances were very high that there could be students in the room who were conceived in a laboratory; furthermore, why was this student asking that question? I knew I had to be very sensitive in my answer. Yet, I also needed to speak the truth. I made it clear that all human life comes from an egg and sperm, and I explained the fertilization process of in vitro fertilization (IVF). I did not tell them that the sperm was obtained by the man masturbating — a serious sin against the Sixth Commandment — nor did I tell them about the painful manipulation of the ovary that allows for hyperovulation, which will harvest 15 to 20 eggs. Many knew about the “dish” that is used to mix the eggs and sperm that create embryos. The word embryo was defined and I asked all former embryos to raise their hands. All hands went up.
Then, I delicately explained that unused embryos were frozen, used for experimentation or discarded. Someone asked if it hurt to be frozen. I said that I did not know and that this was a very difficult and sensitive topic. Men and women use this procedure — IVF — because they want a child, which is a very good desire given to us by God. We know this just by the fact that all male and female bodies are designed to be parents. I mentioned that there are organs, hormones and body parts that only make sense and function when the man and woman come together, for the conception, gestation, birthing and feeding of a baby. Without having to name all of the body parts, they got that point. But, we know that some people, like me, don’t become physical parents, whether they make that decision as a sacrifice, or due to infertility.
So, what happens when something isn’t working in the body of a man or woman and they still want to have a baby? My mind was racing ahead to figure out how far to take this. First, I got angry. Why was I having this conversation? How did our society get to the point where I have to say things like “babies in a dish” and “frozen embryos” to talk about the gift of human life? There was so much I wanted to say, starting with the fact that our society is victim to the lie that our bodies are something that we own. With the idea of ownership, comes the idea that bodies could then be bought, sold or used. We’ve made babies a right and commodities, not gifts and signs of the union of body and soul of a husband and wife. In some cases, eggs and sperm are bought, wombs are “rented” and multiple pregnancies reduced. My brain was working overtime trying to figure out how to communicate to them that the desire to have a child is good, right and true, but that we cannot do “evil” things that are morally wrong, like masturbate, harm ovaries by forcing abnormal ovulation, and destroy or experiment on human life in order to have a baby. I wanted to go into a long defense of the teachings of the Catholic Church, and tell them that in vitro fertilization, surrogacy, abortion, cloning and embryonic experimentation are grave sins, not because the Church wants to ruin our lives, but like a protective and loving mother, desires us to do what is good for us and others. So, what did I say?
Honestly, it was not smooth, and I started by saying that they might not understand everything I am about to say, and that there are many adults, even parents, who do not understand. First of all, human life is a gift and it is a great suffering for couples who desire but cannot have a biological child, and we need to pray for them. Sometimes there can be things done medically that can help them to have a child, or there is the gift of adoption. The Catholic Church, teaches us from the Bible, the Word of God, that there are things we should not do in order to have a baby, and one of those things is when we use medical, or unnatural, ways of using or destroying human bodies, or actions that are not good for our soul. But, the most important thing to remember is that those babies are always sacred and children of God. I then asked if we could go on with another topic. All agreed and I talked about my call to religious life. I still pray for those students, and wonder to myself what the topic of discussion around their dinner table was that night. I even expected emails or phone calls from parents. None were received.
I do know that the cross of infertility is very painful, and that many are not given proper spiritual or medical advice on the topic. Below are resources to assist those who are seeking guidance from the Church:
- Reproductive Technology, from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
- Begotten Not Made: A Catholic View of Reproductive Technology by Dr. John Haas
- Facing Infertility: A Catholic Approach, by Jean Dimech-Juchniewicz
- Papal encyclical: The Gift of Life/ Donum Vitae, by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI