Medically Assisted Procreation: Second Thoughts

Not long ago, the American press reported, with a combination of shock and amusement, some fantastic developments Italian scientists had achieved in the domain of procreative medicine. Given the relative ease with which embryos can be created these days in vitro, Italian specialists in the field of MAP (medically assisted procreation) were enabling post-menopausal women to become pregnant, pregnancies to occur on a routine basis using donor sperm and ova, and grandmothers to carry in utero their own grandchildren and bring them to term. The floodgates had been lifted up, and what walked in was anything but glorious.

The reigning mentality was not unlike what we find today in France. There embryos have no inherent value or dignity unless they are part of a “projet parental,” an express plan and desire on the part of the parents to give birth to those embryos. If no such “projet” exists, then the embryos, created in the laboratory, are fair game for research purposes, including the harvesting of stem cells, which naturally destroys them. This same reasoning lies behind popular support for “IVG”—interruption volontaire de grossesse—what we call abortion on demand. (Although the French, like members of the European Union in general, place a limit to the practice at twelve weeks—and regard “partial birth abortion” as an appalling act of barbarism).

One of the most outspoken pro-life groups in France, which vehemently opposes this kind of manipulation on both scientific and theological grounds, is the Fondation Jérôme Lejeune. Lejeune was a world-renowned embryologist, who made headlines with his discovery of the cause of “Down’s Syndrome.” He showed that the disability is a result of “trisomy 21,” an anomalous condition in which there appear three rather than the normal two twenty-first chromosomes. Lejeune has been vilified by everyone from atheists to Orthodox in France because of his “intégrist” tendencies: the perception that he was an inveterate and irredeemable apologist for the Roman Magisterium, at least in matters concerning abortion and embryo manipulation.

However that may be, the Foundation that carries on his work publishes a very useful monthly newsletter that addresses, as few other organisms in Western Europe dare to do, critical issues concerning human life at all its stages of development. A recent letter gave a summary of recent Italian legislation, the Law of 19 February 2004, published in Gazetta Ufficiale, on 2/24 of this year. The legislation is titled “Rules concerning medically assisted procreation,” and it speaks directly to the anarchy that increasingly reigned in Italian medical facilities.

In reaction to growing trends, the Italian government set out guidelines for all forms of medically assisted procreation. MAP is legally available only to a couple constituted of a man and a woman, both of whom are living. (This is in response to recent pregnancies produced by insemination using the sperm of deceased males.) MAP must also be “homologous” rather than “heterologous”: that is, the gametes must be those of the parental couple, thus excluding donor ova and sperm; and the child must be brought to term by the biological mother, thus excluding recourse to a “surrogate mother.”

Furthermore, strict measures have been included to protect human embryos. They may not be created, by fertilization or cloning, for research purposes, nor may their genetic material be manipulated for eugenic purposes. “Designer babies,” consequently, are out. Whatever medical team adventures into the realm of human cloning, by the way, exposes its members to a punishment of ten to twenty years of prison time, together with a fine of 600,000 to one million euros (multiply that by about 1.25, and you see what it means in dollars).

With regard to in vitro fertilization, which has become so routine in the U.S. that hardly anyone questions the practice today, the Italian law is equally clear. In a word: no “extra embryos.” All embryos created in vitro must be implanted immediately, which limits their number to about three. By contrast, consider that in the United States today (this is a guess, but it’s too low, if anything) there are some 400,000 frozen embryos, left over as a result of IVF procedures, the vast majority of which will be used for research or simply discarded.

If human life in fact begins at fertilization, as Orthodox tradition holds, then we can only applaud the initiative of the Italian government in setting such clearly defined limits to MAP. No matter who is sitting in the White House, chances of similar legislation in this country are—given the popular mindset—simply nil. Perhaps the Italians have become more aware than we have to the dangers of promoting a “culture of death.” If so, it would be in large measure because of the relentless struggle waged by Pope John-Paul II against the abusive manipulation and destruction of human life at every stage of its existence.

If the Pope can speak out as clearly, courageously and firmly as he does, can we hope for the same from our own Orthodox bishops, theologians and medical professionals? If Italy can step back from the abyss of moral anarchy in matters of medically assisted procreation, is there any chance that we can do the same?