When Republican presidential candidate John McCain chose Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate in late August, Palin’s family was thrust into the national spotlight. Several pro-life issues were thrust into the spotlight as well when Americans learned that Palin’s 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, is pregnant, and that her 5-month-old son, Trig, has Down syndrome.
This provides a teachable moment for the Catholic Church, noted Jann Armantrout, life-issues coordinator for the Diocese of Rochester. While most Catholics know that the church considers abortion not only to be wrong but also intrinsically evil, she said they may not realize that the church has strong positions on such other reproduction-related issues as in-vitro fertilization and prenatal testing.
According to a Sept. 8 article in The New York Times, prenatal testing alerted Palin and her husband, Todd, to the fact that their son likely would be born with Down syndrome. More than 90 percent of Americans who receive diagnoses of Down syndrome through prenatal testing choose to abort their babies, according to a 1999 study by the Psychology and Genetics Research Group.
The Palins, however, reportedly refused to see their son’s condition as a burden. Instead, they felt "privileged that God would entrust us with this gift and allow us unspeakable joy as he entered our lives," according to a statement from the Palin family reported in the Catholic Anchor, newspaper of the Anchorage Archdiocese.
The Catholic Church doesn’t object to prenatal testing as long as it is not invasive or harmful to the child, and as long as it is not used as a precursor to or justification for an abortion, Armantrout said. In fact, prenatal testing can prove beneficial by helping parents and doctors to prepare for potential health problems. Doctors armed with a prenatal diagnosis of spina bifida, for example, can plan a cesarean-section delivery to ensure that the infant’s condition isn’t worsened during a natural delivery, she said.
"The healing ministry of Jesus applies to every person, born and unborn, and the church always seeks to carry that out. Prenatal testing can be very helpful in protecting the life of a child before birth," Armantrout said. "People need to take into consideration for what purpose they are testing, if there is a less invasive way of testing, and what they will do with the information they receive from this testing."
Yet the church doesn’t support all forms of reproductive technology, Armantrout warned. The church disapproves of in-vitro fertilization, for example, because it separates conception from the conjugal act of marriage, she said.
During in-vitro fertilization, eggs are procured from a woman, sperm are procured from a man, and the two are placed together in a petri dish, where fertilization may occur. Fertilized eggs are then surgically placed into the woman’s uterus. This means the resulting child is not a product of "a fruit of the conjugal act specific to the love between spouses," explains an April 2007 article in Ethics & Medics, a journal of the National Catholic Bioethics Center on Health Care and the Life Sciences.
"The church teaches that the unitive and procreative aspects of the marital act must be preserved, and therefore interventions like in-vitro fertilization are not considered licit," Armantrout said.
Catholic couples experiencing fertility problems should know that many advances in reproductive technology have taken place during the past few decades that the church is not opposed to, she noted. For example, the church takes no issue with the fertility drug Clomid, which increases a couple’s chances of conception without interfering with the marital act and its relation to conception, she said.
The church also supports the practice of natural family planning, which involves being aware of the phases of a woman’s cycle and has earned high success rates for achieving conception, she added. Many parishes can provide information about this and other acceptable methods of increasing a couple’s odds of conceiving.
"What’s most important to remember is the church’s teaching is based on seeing children as a gift from God, not something to be achieved or manufactured," Armantrout said. "It’s participating in creation with God."
EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information about church positions on reproductive technology, contact your parish or Jann Armantrout at 585-328-3228, ext. 1304, or firstname.lastname@example.org.