Christian Marriage and the Defence of the Dignity of the Beginning of Human Life
This article comes from The Catechism of the Ukrainian Catholic Church on page 276. The Catechism of the Ukrainian Catholic Church Christ – Our Pascha is “both a profession and an explanation of our Church’s faith in the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To read the digital version of the Catechism, click here or purchase a hardcopy here.
The Problem of Artificial Fertilization
In the examples of numerous blessed marriages that were initially infertile—Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Rachel, Elkanah and Hannah, Zechariah and Elizabeth, Joachim and Anne—the Holy Scriptures and Holy Tradition teach us that the birth of a child is always a gift from God, for which one ought to pray with fervour.
Many marriages experience infertility as a drama, a challenge, a loss and insurmountable obstacle to complete self-realization. Contemporary biomedical technologies grant the infertile couple the possibility of obtaining a child via artificial fertilization. However, medical intervention is permissible only if it will facilitate the effectiveness of the sexual act to conceive children, but by no means replace it. This is because the dignity of conceiving a child necessarily requires the marital sexual act of a man and a woman as the spiritual and corporal union of persons in love. Artificial fertilization excludes the sexual act, reducing spouses to donors of biological materials and the child to a product of biomedical manipulation. The price of such conception is the destruction of so-called “surplus embryos” or the manipulation of their lives. In reality, the birth of a new person, through the cooperation of a man and a woman with the power of the Creator, ought to be the fruit and sign of the mutual self-giving of the spouses, of their love and fidelity.
Contemporary biomedical technologies of artificial fertilization involve external parties in the conception and carrying to term of a child (for example, gamete donors, doctors, or “surrogate mothers”). The interference of such external individuals in the mystery of conception of a new life is in itself a moral evil. Surrogate motherhood, in which a woman carries and gives birth to a child conceived in a test tube for clients, constitutes a real disregard for the gift of motherhood: a woman traffics her motherhood, and the child born in this way is reduced to an object of commerce. Surrogate motherhood, the conception of a child with the intention of selling it after birth, and other similar acts are grave sins against the dignity of the beginning of human life. Such actions are an affront to God and the dignity of the child as a human being, created in the image and likeness of God.
Cloning is an experimental method of asexual reproduction. Today scientists are attempting to apply it to humans as well, in order to create genetically identical persons for therapeutic or other technological uses. Advocates of cloning do not recognize the dignity of human clones as persons.
Cloning violates human dignity; it reduces a person to “biological material.” Such a method of conception detaches the sphere of childbearing (procreation) from the authentically human context of the conjugal act, and eliminates the need for a loving union of spouses who cooperate with God in receiving the gift of human life. The very idea of human cloning negates marriage and the family as such; in this way a person attempts to take the place of the Creator, deciding for himself or herself how and when to begin or end human life.
In addition, cloning can create the danger of social manipulation in the selection of “genetically superior” people; it can lead to the production of living human clones solely as material for organ transplantation. This reduces people to utilitarian objects. This is entirely impermissible from the perspective of Christian respect for the human person and esteem for human dignity.
The Sin of Abortion
Abortion is the deliberate and direct killing of a human being during the period between its conception and birth—at the very beginning of its life. Generally, abortion takes the form of an artificial termination of pregnancy. Abortion also consists of all actions involving a manipulation that leads to the destruction of human embryos obtained through the use of reproductive technologies.
The Holy Scriptures teach us that the dignity of the human person exists from conception: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you” ( Jer 1:5). The sacredness and inviolability of human life is founded on the Creator’s personal regard for every human person.
St. Basil the Great teaches:
The woman who destroys voluntarily a fetus incurs the pain of murder. There is with us no inquiring whether the fetus was formed or not. In these matters, justice is demanded not only for the child that was to be born, but also against her who has schemed against herself, since most of the time women die in these circumstances. To this is added the destruction of the fetus, just another murder, in the intention of those who dare to commit this sin.
Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky, in his pastoral letter, Thou Shalt Not Kill, emphasizes:
Cases of parents killing their own children are particularly abominable, horrible and unnatural. But perhaps even worse cases are those when the child has not yet come into the world. The very fact that the crime is committed by the child’s own father or mother and that the child cannot defend itself… all this makes abortion a most particular kind of crime.
From its very conception a human child is entrusted to a mother and father who care for and look after it. However, sometimes dramatic circumstances (rape, family pressure, and so forth), or selfish considerations can compel a woman to destroy the life she is carrying within her. These do not remove the mother’s responsibility. However, others are also responsible for the abortion; for example, the father of the child who forces the mother to have an abortion or abandons her during her pregnancy. Accomplices in the sin of abortion are also relatives, acquaintances, and friends who sometimes pressure the woman to abort using the excuse that this can help “preserve one’s good name,” etc. And finally, the ultimate fault—a great one—lies with the doctors and other medical personnel who actually perform the abortion. Also, all those who defend and advocate for abortion in society are indirectly culpable.
The Sin of Artificial Contraception
Contraception is a deliberate action by which a person ruins the fecundity of the reproductive sphere and makes the conception of new human life impossible. Contraceptive actions impact the entire human person by limiting his or her ability to accept the gift of new life. The consequences of such actions can be not only the physiological but also the spiritual, moral, and psychological inability of a married couple to give birth to children. The formation of a contraceptive mentality can also become a consequence.
No medical contraceptive methods are entirely effective in preventing conception. In families where a married couple is physiologically fertile but unable to receive new life due to contraception, “unwanted children” will be conceived and “unwanted pregnancies” will arise, leading to the birth of “unwanted children” or even abortion. Therefore, the contraceptive mentality leads inexorably to an abortion mentality. Rather than reducing the number of abortions, as its defenders contend, contraception merely stimulates disordered sexual life and actually leads to an increase in the number of abortions.
Contraception is frequently a sign of an already existing crisis in family relations and destroys the unity of Christian marriage. Typically the decision to use contraceptive methods is tied to a fear of pregnancy and a rejection of fertility. If the care of children falls entirely on only one of the spouses, then resistance to conception is usually a sort of “protest” against such solitude within marriage. Contraceptive acts are a moral evil because they eliminate the marital vocation to fatherhood and motherhood.
Contraception not only impedes the joining of male and female gametes, but also destroys the spouses’ ability to cooperate with the Creator in the acceptance and introduction of new life into the world. Such a married couple rejects God’s plan for themselves and reduces family life merely to the “private sphere,” scorning the fact that God alone is the Master of the beginning and the end of human life.
The use of contraception deforms the natural meaning of the sexual act by ruining not only its procreative but also its unitive essence. Contraception leads to irresponsible cohabitation, the aim of which is the quest for personal gratification. This does grave damage to the true foundation of marital life, self-sacrificing love, in which spouses give of themselves and accept each other in total fullness, especially their own fertility.
Hormonal contraceptive methods have a dual action: contraceptive and abortifacient, and are therefore immoral. These methods obstruct normal physiological processes in a woman’s body and render her infertile. Nevertheless, these methods do not always prevent conception of a child. Therefore, hormonal contraception is also designed to prevent the further development of the child in the mother’s womb and to bring about its death at an early stage of development. Consequently, the Church, concerned about every life of every person from the moment of his or her conception, opposes the use of contraceptive methods. The sole exception can be the use of hormonal agents with potentially contraceptive actions for medical treatment and only for a limited time, as prescribed by a doctor.
Metropolitan Andrey expresses the particular harm of contraception thus:
Similar to the killing of children, although an entirely different sort of sin, are actions by which parents limit the number of their progeny. Such instances are obviously not sins of murder, but it is difficult not to regard them as a grave offence… for although a life has not been taken away, a life has not been allowed to be! A people whose women do not wish to submit… to the responsibilities of motherhood and whose men seek sexual satisfaction without regard for the responsibilities and burdens of family life and irrespective of the goal of marriage: such a people is doomed to annihilation.
Methods of Recognizing Fertility
Responsible fatherhood and motherhood also manifests itself in natural family planning. It consists in spouses always being open to God’s calling to transmit life. In order to answer this calling, a married couple understands and recognizes the inherent nature of intimate relations, included in nature by God. The inherent nature of these relations involves the possibility of participating in the bestowal of new life. Natural planning is tied to a search for the appropriate moment to conceive new life.
The vocation to fatherhood and motherhood is not contradicted by periodic abstinence and the application of methods to regulate birth that are based on using periods of infertility of the female body. Married life remains chaste because it respects the bodily aspect of love and does not deprive it of natural fertility.
The natural regulation of conception is fundamentally different from contraceptive actions because the married couple remains open to the acceptance of new life. This method of regulation rejects any interference in the procreative sphere of a man or woman for the temporary or long-term exclusion of their ability to conceive. Natural family planning teaches the married couple to understand and respect each other’s fertility and to recognize the periods of fertility of a woman’s body.
Openness to God’s gift of life and the search for God’s will allows a married couple to accept new life with love, even when they “had not planned” to give birth. In such a family, each child given by God will be wanted and accepted with trust in God. By preserving the chastity of the sexual act in its openness to life, natural methods of family planning strengthen the unity of a marriage. Openness to acceptance of one’s own children makes a couple capable also of adopting orphaned children.
Responsible fatherhood and motherhood consists in not only accepting the gift of new life but also creating suitable conditions for a child’s full development. Christian parents ought to understand that children, given to them by the Lord, belong primarily to him. These children of God are merely entrusted to the care of their parents during their earthly life. The vocation of parenthood requires a sacrificial love for children. The good of the child is the highest aim of responsible parenthood. Therefore, parents cannot regard children as their “property” or use them solely as a means to achieve some other aim. Rather, every child has the natural right to be born and raised in a genuine family. The best means of raising a child is through the parents’ example of mature Christian behaviour, as well as through the parents’ relationship with each other, and with other members of their family and society.
Saint John Chrysostom reminds Christians that they are called to give birth to their children not only for temporal life but for eternal life as well. In addition to material and psychological needs, children also have spiritual needs. Religious and spiritual formation are an inseparable aspect of a child’s upbringing and his or her growth in God’s grace.