With Sir Robert Edwards's death we should still remember that 'playing God' brings problems
On Thursday April 11 the Telegraph published a long obituary of the late Professor Sir Robert Edwards – “Nobel Prize-winning IVF pioneer whose work attracted controversy but brought joy to millions.” Despite the widespread acceptance of his methods, the controversy has not gone away. The Catholic Church has always maintained that IVF – the in vitro fertilisation of sperm and egg to make a baby – is unethical because it undermines the dignity of the sexual act designed by God for married couples. Even typing this will raise an outcry among those who don’t think God has any place in their lives, for marriage, for sex or for babies. But it still needs to be said that there are disquieting features to the late Professor’s “pioneering” work.
Anthony Ozimic, communications manager for The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) has done a very good critique of the obituary on the SPUC blog of 15. 4. 2013. He points out that “IVF has resulted in the ending of the lives of millions of embryonic children, outnumbering over 20-fold the number of children born following IVF.” Those who don’t regard embryos as human beings can live with these figures; for those of us who see the technique as involving the wanton destruction of human life on a huge scale, they are a sobering statistic.
The Telegraph obituary states that “early attempts [by Edwards] to fertilise eggs from ovarian tissue – using his own sperm – proved fruitless…” As Ozimic makes clear, sperm used to fertilise the eggs in IVF “is almost always obtained by masturbation assisted by the provision of pornography”. This again attacks human dignity. As Ozimic puts it, “Edwards’ activity highlights the violation of marital sexuality which is part of IVF.” Not only did it involve masturbation; the doctor was “trying to conceive children both outside of wedlock and via women (using their ovarian tissue) other than his wife.” You can begin to understand why the Church has very serious reservations about IVF and why it considers it unethical.
Edwards himself comes across as hubristic, proclaiming that human beings were now in charge of conception – indeed, they had replaced God; he stated, fatuously, “The Pope looked totally stupid.” This shows up his ignorance about the Church, as well as God; as Ozimic explains, “God works through His creatures to bring about new life; this is what is meant by “procreation”. This God-given power of human beings can be used in an ethical context (marriage) or an unethical context (IVF in the laboratory…).”
From a very human perspective, Ozimic’s critique is supported by an article in the Mail Online for by Samantha Brick. Aged 42, she and her husband have now undergone two failed cycles of IVF. She describes the “physical and emotional anguish” she experienced during “this roller-coaster of treatment” which was both “expensive and invasive”. She emphasises that IVF is an industry worth £500 million, a “business, and one which has a depressingly low success rate.” There were ongoing side-effects, physical and emotional. Significantly, Brick thinks that if the “carrot” of IVF had not been dangled before her, she would have undergone the natural grieving process of not being able to conceive and then adjusted and got on with her life.
She concludes, “I believe there are some things we simply shouldn’t meddle with – and artificially creating life is one of them.” Even more controversially, she adds “Not all women are destined to become mothers.” There you have it. Are we entitled to fulfil our dreams at any cost – and here the cost is very high, both for the adults involved and for the discarded human embryos – or, instead of “playing God” in Edwards’ offensive phrasing, should we take a long, hard look about what human dignity is really about, in terms of sex, marriage, fidelity and in pondering the possibility that “not all women are destined to become mothers”?