I realize I write about euthanasia a lot, so this may give the impression I was motivated to study bioethics because of controversial issues. But talking about death all the time is a bit of a downer, and I was actually drawn to bioethics through a love of science fiction.
I get excited when I have a chance to think about all the new places the human race is headed, and I love talking about new technologies. So you can imagine my excitement when I started reading about womb transplants. They’re new; they’re unsettling; but are they moral?
Although it may sound like something from a cheap science fiction novel, in 2014 the first successful human pregnancy following a womb transplant was completed. In this surgery, a woman who was unable to have children was given another woman’s uterus to bring a child to term.
The church has not yet provided a definitive teaching on whether this type of surgery is ethical, but that sure hasn’t stopped arm-chair philosophers like myself from chiming in on the ethicality of it all, and, since this is the summer edition of the Prairie Messenger, I thought I would share my musings with the world.
In general the Catholic Church considers organ donation to be a gift of love. However, there are still some ground rules regarding such procedures. For example, all transplants must be free from coercion and decisions about who should receive an organ should not be based on how much they can pay for it.
These rules are meant to ensure that every human life is treated with dignity and that the human body does not become a commodity to be bought and sold. (If you don’t believe me, you should watch the episode of the X-Files where people were forced to sell their organs on the black market, Hell Money.)
There are other concerns as well, some of which address the burdens of organ transplants. Transplants are very expensive: from the surgery itself to the drugs needed to ensure the recipient does not reject the organ, these procedures are physically, financially and emotionally burdensome. In the case of a kidney transplant, these costs are worth it because the transplant will save a life. However, rather than saving an already existing life, a womb transplant allows person to give life to a new baby. Does this justify the costs of the procedure?
That’s a challenging question to answer, but I think it is worth noting that the possibility of womb transplants could offer many people false hope for a very high price, as not every transplant will lead to a successful pregnancy.
In addition to the costs of womb transplants, the biggest ethical challenge that faces Catholic couples who may consider this procedure concerns the very beginning of their child’s life. At present, every woman who has carried a child to term using a womb transplant has relied on in vitro fertilization (IVF) to conceive her child.
This is problematic for two reasons: first, because it separates the beginning of life from the sexual union of a husband and wife; second, and perhaps easier to understand, because it turns children into a commodity to be purchased and created at the whim of the adults involved. (Anyone who wants to learn more about this should watch the 1997 film Gattaca).
A lot of people are surprised when they learn that the church supports very few reproductive technologies. Initially it can be confusing trying to figure out which technologies the church accepts and which it does not. The church’s teaching in this area of ethics stems from a fundamental belief that our lives are a gift. Similarly, our children are a gift and as such must be received, not taken. This does not diminished the inherent dignity of people who have been conceived using IVF, but it does acknowledge that every human being has the right to be created in the loving physical union of his or her parents. (For more on this, consider the 2014 film The Giver.)
Couples considering new technologies need to ask themselves: Is this technology opening us to receive life? Or is it a means for us to take a life? When the church talks about baby-making, it uses the word “procreation” rather than “reproduction.” We are doing more than just creating duplicates of ourselves. We are participating in the act of creation with our God.
An increasing number of couples are struggling with infertility today, and womb transplants could potentially offer hope to those who have had to accept this cross. As with any tool, there are positive and negative ways that reproductive technologies can be applied. May our scientific community keep the fundamental dignity of all human beings at the centre of their efforts. (And may you all enjoy your summer science-fiction viewing list.)
Deutscher holds an MA in Public Ethics from St. Paul University in Ottawa. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan.