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Bioethics in the High School

Bioethics in the High School


Some time ago, I was invited to our local Catholic High School, to give the students a chance to ask questions about why the Catholic Church is opposed to in vitro fertilization techniques. It was a challenge, but I enjoyed it, and I was impressed with students’s sincerity as they were trying to understand this. Below is a handout that I had prepared for the students prior to visiting them, and I thought I should share it with you on my blog page. It is my attempt to put Catholic bioethics teaching in simple language.


Human Rights and IVF

Let me ask you this: Does every human being have rights, just because they are a human being, or do they have rights only because we have decided to give them rights? Or in other words: If you say that you have rights, do you have them just because you are who you are, or because your friends have decided to give you rights? If it’s the latter, then your friends could also take them away! So if you think that everybody has rights, no matter what, and that this includes at the very least the right not to be killed, then these rights must come simply from being human, and nothing else.

So if the clone or embryo is human, and if it is not part of something else but has its own beginning, present, and future, then it is a human being and must have rights. You can’t use it, no matter how tempting. It’s not yours to own, it owns itself. It’s already a person, just by virtue of being a new human life that has begun.

A human being is you and me. It’s us. It’s not just any other “it.” A human being has rights from the beginning, the moment it is there, the moment it is no longer not there. When a new human life begins, a new human being begins. It’s your brother or sister, no matter how tiny, and nobody is allowed to use it or violate it.

Human Dignity and IVF

This may be a little embarrassing, but think about it: Would you not prefer if your life began just because your mom and dad were having a wonderful weekend together, really enjoyed their time together in a beautiful hotel by the beach, deeply in love with each other, and a few weeks later, your mom discovered that she was pregnant and was completely surprised but overjoyed? Or maybe your mom discovered that she was pregnant and was angry that she had to interrupt her career, and maybe she felt that your dad is not the kind of person who should be a father, but nevertheless, she knew right away what she had been given and she was going to make sure that the child was OK?

Can you or anybody ever decide that they ought to have a child, and that they will now do whatever they need to do in order to make it happen? What gives anybody the right to have a child? A child is a responsibility, a gift, and also a burden. It has rights, and it is not owned by anybody. Nobody gets to use it, nobody gets to take it, and nobody gets to make it. Human persons are a gift from God, a sign of God’s acting in the world, and they are not just one of the things that we happen to make for ourselves.

It simply violates the dignity of the human person when we make the conception of a human person into a science project. We have to accept limits if we want to live life well. One of these may be that we do not have children, even though we want them, and even though we might be good parents. If something cannot be done ethically, then it is best not to do it at all.

Use of clones and IVF embryos that are already there.

We don’t kill someone just because he is going to die anyways. We all die eventually, but we don’t kill someone just because someone else would be better off because of it. We don’t kill old people so that we can harvest their organs to transplant them to young people. Just because someone is going to die does not mean that this someone can be used, as if this someone was just a thing.

300 years ago, Jonathan Swift wrote a satire, with the title “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public.” You can look it up on Wikipedia: Swift suggests that the impoverished Irish might ease their economic troubles by selling their children as food for rich gentlemen and ladies. It’s a satire, meant to shock and bring people to their senses.

We mustn’t fall into the trap of thinking of human beings and the beginning of life as just another thing happening in nature, for us to use like everything else. We are persons, and we are special—each and every one of us, no matter how small or large, or young or old. The only one who could say that he owns us is God, but he has given each of us freedom to live our lives to the best of our abilities. We mustn’t take this away, not from anybody, not for any reason.