Human train wreck, or pro-life emblem? The convoluted story of Nadya Suleman, the 33-year-old unmarried mother who recently gave birth to octuplets in California, is a mixed bag of messages.
Good thing that we as Catholics have a multimillennia tradition on human dignity and family to help sort it out. Because judging by some of the news stories and Internet discussions we've seen, most Americans are flummoxed.
At one extreme of the spectrum are reports like those from the hospital where Suleman was recovering that strangers were leaving messages with the switchboard that they hoped the babies would not survive infancy. How could any sane person actually desire a baby's death?
At the other end were those who tried to paint Suleman, who already has six children under 7, as some sort of a pro-life supermom. Please.
True, her love of children is commendable, as is her refusal of her doctor's suggestion to "selectively reduce" the number of babies in her uterus. And it may well be that many of her critics have an anti-life attitude that would like to see an end to any big families.
But given the circumstances -- not least of which include no husband and no income -- it seems clear that her desire for children was amplified to a grotesque perversion of what is otherwise natural and healthy.
What we found most encouraging about the story was it shocked fertility doctors around the country into reflecting on their own ethical responsibilities -- something that many doctors in recent years explicitly have excluded from consideration. We may not endorse their conclusions on this recent case, but we welcome the healthy reminder to doctors that ethics matters.
What is unfortunate, though, is that the extremeness of this case is unlikely to make any seriously rethink the ethics of in vitro fertilization, which is how Suleman had all 14 of her children.
The Church teaches that in vitro fertilization -- which produces what used to be called test-tube babies -- is wrong and an injustice to the child because it separates conception from the conjugal act. Infertility is a great suffering to many couples who desire children, but obtaining them through techniques that don't respect the dignity of the human person is no solution.
Ethics becomes even more important today because of our society's stunning technological advances. These advances have benefited all of us, but the Church plays a crucial role in reminding society that being able to do something doesn't mean that we should do something. Technology must always respect human dignity and serve truly human development, not the other way around.
The great risk stories like Suleman's hold is that they steadily shift society's boundary of what is shocking to even greater extremes. In the past year, we've also seen a "man" get pregnant twice, and we have popular reality television shows like "Jon and Kate Plus 8" (about a family with sextuplets conceived through artificial insemination) making such events imaginable and even "normal."
All of these issues impact Catholics, many of whom avail themselves of these same technological procedures. There is a pressing need for a greater understanding on the part of Catholics of what the Church teaches in these frontier areas of technology, sexuality and morality.
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