Advances in reproductive technology have proven to be a blessing to many a couple suffering with infertility. Thanks to these advances, couples, who in the past would have been unable to have children, now happily bounce them on their knees. However, as thrilling as these new technologies can be, their application can be fraught with moral hazard. Ethical lapses can be avoided by thinking clearly about the principles that ought to inform our decision making in this area.
Principles of Human Dignity
Let's begin by reflecting on the right to life. The first principle that ought to guide our thinking is that all human beings have a God given right to life. Our founding fathers recognized this principle and emblazoned it in the Declaration of Independence. The right to life was deemed "inalienable" because it was "endowed" by the Creator.
The next principle we should consider is that human life should be protected from conception to natural death. Human life exists from the time it is conceived until it is extinguished. If the "right to life" is to have any meaning, therefore, it must be protected from its beginning until its natural end.
Additionally, humanity is a function of our essential nature (i.e., that we are the offspring of human beings) and is unaffected by age, size, location, state of health or circumstances of conception.
Finally, we should understand that human beings have dignity, worth, and value because we have been created in God's image (Gen. 1:27-28), and a great price has been paid for our redemption (John 3:16; 1 Peter 1:18-19).
Applying the Principles
A close examination of these principles reveals they are often violated by various applications of reproductive technologies. Consider the following:
"Embryo Creation." In order to enhance the potential for conception, numerous embryos are often created in the laboratory with a view toward making multiple attempts at implantation. Initial attempts at implantation often fail, so "extra" embryos are created for use in future attempts. These "extras" are typically frozen and thawed for future use. If not used, they remain frozen indefinitely or are discarded and destroyed. But can such a procedure be ethically justified? Is there really such a thing as an "excess" human being? Can human beings be fairly regarded as a mere "surplus?" Aren't basic principles of human dignity offended by such concepts?
The fact that embryos are small and not fully developed doesn't affect their worth. Size doesn't determine significance. We cannot credibly maintain that those who are fat are worth more than those who are thin, or that the tall are worth more than the short. Nor is an infant less precious than a full grown adult.
Likewise, age should not enter into the equation. We don't maintain that the old are worth more than the young. And who would seriously consider freezing their three year old child and placing them in suspended animation with a view toward thawing them at a future date?
Location outside the mother's womb shouldn't enter in to one's consideration about how to treat such embryos either. Location may affect the value of real estate, but it doesn't affect the value of human beings. We don't maintain that human beings who live in penthouse apartments have more inherent worth, value, or dignity than those who live in the ghetto.
"Embryo screening" is a practice by which parents are encouraged to "eliminate" embryos who might have undesirable genetic characteristics, such as the trait for early-onset Alzheimer's. Through a process called "pre-implantation genetic diagnosis" (PGD), embryos who are deemed at risk for carrying undesirable genetic traits are "weeded out." Aside from the fact that PGD poses a high risk that healthy embryos will be discarded, the practice embraces the notion that those who don't measure up to someone else's subjective standard of perfection do not have lives worthy of living. The immorality of such a practice for older children is manifestly apparent. We cannot justify the elimination of a two year old because it is discovered that they have a genetic trait that may cause problems for them in the future. The practice of weeding out two day old embryos is no more defensible.
"Selective reduction" is a course of action that is often recommended when more embryos than expected successfully implant in their mother's womb, e.g., five instead of two. Selective reduction is a euphemism for "abortion." Fertility experts often advise their clients to eliminate some of the babies they are carrying to avoid the stress of multiple births and to increase the likelihood that they will give birth to fewer, but healthier, children. Such a course puts the mother on the path of killing some of her children in utero to benefit the remaining ones. This "Sophie's Choice" recommendation clearly violates the ethical principles outlined above.
Couples who wish to avail themselves of reproductive technologies will do well to educate themselves about all that the technologies entail. They will do even better to evaluate those technologies in the light of ethical principles that should inform their decision making before embarking on their use.