Life after death in our brave new world

Published in the Opinion Page of the Chicago Tribune on May 1, 1999
It was bound to happen sooner or later. Doctors have been squirreling away sperm from dead men for some time, but no surviving relatives had ever been interested in putting these frozen cells to use. At least not until July of last year when the young, childless widow of a thirty-something California man changed that. With the aid of a sophisticated in vitro fertilization technique, she conceived and -- just last month -- delivered a healthy, fatherless infant girl she named Brandalyn. Her husband, Brandalyn’s father, had died suddenly 15 months before conception, and his sperm was retrieved about 30 hours after his death, in a hospital morgue.

Now, another woman in London is waiting her turn to conceive a child from her deceased spouse, after waging a highly publicized court battle to allow doctors to harvest her husband’s sperm cells while he was on life support, comatose and dying. The ensuing hullabaloo among doctors on both sides of the Atlantic has focused on whether a woman’s “right to reproductive freedom” outweighs a man’s right to consent to or decline sperm donation; whether the man’s consent could be implied or should be explicit; whether a child should be “made” without a father in her future. While these issues are passionately debated, they miss the point. There’s more at stake here than legalistic arguments about who’s got a right to what. The real issue is deeper, broader and much more important.

A cynic, it is said, knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. We live in a cynical age, where human sexuality is perceived as “breeding” and, to some in the medical field, nothing more than animal husbandry. Ad campaigns, offering big bucks for the sperm and eggs of bright, good-looking men and women, have hit major college campuses across the country. A supply of “buff” gametes bought and sold to gratify someone’s desire for “superior” children, or worse still, some scientists demand for research material.

But that’s not all. Because the techniques for storage of sperm and eggs have, until recently, been unreliable for preserving the viability of these cells, in vitro fertilization is usually performed first. Then hardier embryos, rather than separate sex cells, are packaged and dipped in liquid nitrogen. By conservative estimates, there are now over 100,000 embryos stowed away in cold storage across the country, waiting for someone to decide what to do with them. They are the silent prisoners of an aging, de-humanized “high technology” bent on methodically undermining the value of human life.

Human beings are not called to breed, but to parent: to give life through love. By “love” we should understand neither mushy sentimentalism nor physical gratification, but the selfless gift of one person to another. Love has many forms: it is the sacrifice of parents on behalf of their children; the dedication of a good professional to his or her work as a service to others; the devotion of friends. In each case, one person makes a free and responsible effort to serve another, often at the expense of personal comfort or pleasure. The most sublime form of human love is the love between a husband and wife.

In marriage, a man and woman promise to give all of themselves to one another -- their bodies, hearts, talents, material possessions and personal ambitions -- as a mutual gift. Sex means giving physical expression to the complete, mutual gift of two persons in a stable, life-long relationship. And it is no coincidence that the physical actions which serve to forge the deepest possible bond between two persons are the same actions by which new human life is generated. This dual meaning of human sexuality – sex for bonding and for babies – reflects the physical and spiritual dimensions of the human person. The generation of new human life is the spiritual translation of the physical action, the deepest fulfillment of the sexual union. It makes perfect sense that a human being should begin life bound together by the love of a man and woman, not thawed out by the dull proficiency of a lab technician.

Human sexuality is about babies and about bonding. They are like two sides of the same coin. Each and every sexual act must respect these two inseparable aspects if sex is to retain its true meaning, and lead to the health and happiness of the persons involved. To separate these two meanings of the sexual act is to adulterate, to cheapen human sexuality. Techniques of assisted reproduction introduce a “third party” into the most sublime, intimate events of human existence. They violently separate babies and bonding, and in the process sever the deep, natural link that needs to exist between love-making and life-giving.

Developed countries, with the US in the vanguard, have rushed to embrace sperm and egg donation -- from the living, the dying or the dead --, embryo cold-storage, and a host of other in vitro reproductive technologies as an acceptable, if not entirely palatable, part of mainstream medical care. Why should we be surprised if the cells which serve as the biological substrate of human life are handled as a commodity to be bought and sold to the highest bidder? Sex is for sale, and a test tube has now become the cold, hard cradle we offer to welcome new human life into our brave new world.

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