Genetic Bastards: The Moral Status and Human Worth of Persons Born By In-Vitro Fertilization

The Vatican and the 2004 President’s Council On Bioethics establishes a second class group of persons who they deem less worthy of dignity and respect.

On September 8, 2008, the Vatican issued a new statement on bioethics entitled “Dignitas Personae on certain bioethical questions.”  The Vatican’s paper updates church doctrine regarding the ethics and morality of individuals and the duties and authority of physicians in using in-vitro fertilization (IVF).  The Vatican has always demanded absolute and unconditional recognition of the respect and dignity owed to all persons from the time of conception.  This does not apply to persons conceived by IVF, who from the time of conception are relegated to a lesser class of personhood.

The Vatican identifies people born through IVF as not entitled to the same respect and dignity as owed to persons conceived without the interference of medical technology that requires any extracorporeal processes. The premise of the church is children be conceived “by the fruit of the conjugal act specific to the love between spouses.” If not so conceived, the person “… must be given a moral evaluation in reference to the dignity of the human person.”

In 2004, the President’s Council on Bioethics expressed an analogous point of view.

  The Council states that a child’s “being” is determined by in-utero sexual conception, without which the child is without an “identity.” This, the Council argues, is because the “character and significance of human procreation … all of the child’s being and identity, it owes to a continuous developmental process that begins with the union of egg and sperm and continues through an unbroken sequence of embryonic and fetal stages and active within the womb of the mother.”  The scientific basis for the Council’s position is that:

“… through the genetic recombination produced by the lottery of sexual reproduction, genetic novelty is assured, allowing for the gradual evolutionary emergence of new biological capacities and possibilities.  Humanly speaking, because these deep biological facts are lifted into human self-consciousness, procreation commonly establishes ties of belonging, rooted in begetting ritually significant for parents, children, and the larger society.”

It is these “ties of belonging, rooted in begetting” that the Council argues, that are the genesis of human worth and a basis to gauge the dignity and human rights to be afforded to such a person. So, the child lacks (does not lose), per the Councils reasoning, from the time of conception, an identity. Genetically we could see it as an agenesis of identity and dignity – and as a result, never belonging to the human community.   The distinction, therefore, is that a child born through normal sexual in utero conception is a child that is “created” while the IVF conceived child is “made.”

The concept of personhood has been struggled with for centuries. For Plato, personhood was the essence of the soul. Later, personhood was discussed in terms of Natural Law and the reflection of a truly unique identity, divinely created individual. Thus, the question: are IVF conceived persons, in the eyes of the Vatican, divinely created? If not, we can surmise from the Vatican’s statements that the unconditional respect and dignity enjoyed by all human beings in the eyes of the Church from the time of conception are not applicable to the IVF conceived child.

Under the Doctrine of Faith, the Vatican makes clear that a physician is not permitted to participate in IVF and interfere with the natural sexual procreation:

“… all techniques for heterologous artificial fertilization as well as those techniques of homologous artificial fertilization which substitute for the conjugal act, are to be excluded.  …, the doctor is at the service of persons and the human procreation.  He does not have the authority to dispose of them or to decide their fate.”

So, in order to accommodate the Vatican’s viewpoint, physicians must cease to perform or participate in IVF, and perhaps refuse to discuss the reproductive options available with their patients.  Following this argument further, physicians of would-be parents would have a moral obligation to refrain from using IVF, both for the sake of would-be parents as well as for the overall good of the community. Should physicians shun or care for IVF conceived persons?

It is of great concern that the Council, a pseudo-governmental organization, would stratify the moral and ethical standing of citizens. The Council’s position seeks to supersede procreative liberty and medical decision making with governmental definition of the qualifications to be human. This is antithetical to principles of a democratic society and to the health, welfare and unbiased treatment of persons born with the assistance of IVF.  

It is reported that there are more than 3 million people conceived with IVF. So, what becomes of these persons without a sense of being or identity? How can one be a moral agent in a community where human origins are graded? Are they to view themselves as neutered in someway because of their noncoital beginnings? Should they be reluctant to pass on to their progeny a genetic makeup that has no true identity? Should persons conceived with IVF be seen as lacking ensoulment? The pronouncements of the Vatican and the Council target all persons born with IVF assistance as well as their progeny-forever.  

In-vitro fertilization
Artificial Reproductive Technology
Dignitas Personae On Certain Bioethical Questions
State Paternalism
Religion and medical decision making
Physicians as moral agents


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