Bad ethics or just another Vatican edict?


Ekem via Wikimedia Commons

Originally appeared in an edited form in An Focal 18/10/10

WITHOUT his work, millions of couples would face the heartbreak of childlessness. Many people would not have even been born. Louise Brown, the first test-tube baby, now a mother herself, certainly has reason to thank Professor Robert Edwards and his late colleague, Dr. Patrick Steptoe. If it weren’t for them she (and her younger sister and her own child) wouldn’t exist.

Professor Edwards was born in Manchester in 1925. A biology graduate, he began to research human reproduction while at Cambridge. By 1968, he had successfully fertilised a human egg in a laboratory setting. Together with Dr Steptoe, a gynaecologist, they set about the first attempts of in vitro fertilisation (IVF). Prof Edwards took over the fertilisation side of the process while Dr Steptoe researched ways to implant eggs in infertile women. In July 1978, they had their first major success with the birth of the first test-tube baby. Louise Brown’s parents had been trying for a baby for nine years before they decided to take a chance with this radical new method.

Four million IVF babies and 32 years later, Prof Edwards has finally been honoured with the Nobel Prize in medicine. Sadly, Dr Steptoe died in 1988 and never knew the honours his work would one day receive. The Bourn Hall clinic they founded is still a leading IVF centre in Britain.

But someone is not happy about the Nobel Prize going to a man who has created joy for millions of couples. A Vatican spokesman, Monsignor Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, called Prof Edwards’ honour “completely out of order”. Sigh. The Catholic Church are an extremely easy target for anyone whose personal morality is even vaguely left of centre, but with comments like that they bring criticism on themselves.

I won’t completely savage Monsignor Carrasco, but here’s a few points he might want to consider the next time he feels like shooting his mouth off.

I’d imagine it’s hard for a single, celibate man to empathise fully with a childless couple trying desperately to conceive, but surely he can appreciate how difficult it is for such people. I mean, babies seem like a distant nightmare for me and I can appreciate it. I know a couple who had beautiful twin boys by IVF and to see the happiness it brought them would break even the toughest of hearts. And they were lucky, after years of pain. IVF is still an expensive lottery. Prof Edwards and Dr Steptoe’s method is not foolproof, but it’s still preferable to the alternative- no chance of children whatsoever.

Of course, Pope John Paul II refused to condemn Louise Brown’s parents- love the sinner and all that. And the Church’s real objection to IVF is precisely the nature of its’ inaccuracy. Says Monsignor Carrasco, without IVF “there would be no marketplace for eggs” and in most cases these eggs “end up abandoned or dead”.

I really don’t want to start and abortion debate in the letter pages of An Focal, but these eggs are unfertilised and are not exactly sentient enough to know that they are being “abandoned”. The term in vitro fertilisation refers to fertilisation outside the body. Eggs are extracted from the female, semen from the male, neither constitutes a living creature in any sense. After all, women shed an egg every month and no-one calls that abortion.

So it takes several attempts to become pregnant through IVF. This doesn’t make it immoral. I don’t want to trivialise miscarriage but the Vatican has never, as far as I know anyway, condemned miscarriage for being a waste of good eggs. Sometimes these things happen. Sometimes couples split and don’t wish to use the unfertilised eggs. I doubt the eggs take it personally. But the Vatican is busy being stuck in the 14th century to see that the good IVF has done far outweighs the bad.

One of the best quotes I read while researching this article was from Pope John Paul I. He was concerned that IVF would turn women into “baby factories”. Anyone who knows that a “Catholic family” refers to thirteen children will recognise the irony of this. And here is the nub. IVF allows women some control over their reproductive processes, just like the Pill. Even if women are trying to have children, rather than prevent them, the fact that they-and science- are in control is anathema to Church.

The most poignant part of this is that Prof Edwards is not able to defend himself against the Vatican’s charges. He is suffering from a degenerative disease and is unaware that he has won the Nobel Prize for Medicine.

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