A miraculous surgery on 'the patient within the patient'

The Church often gets a bad rap when it comes to its relationship with science — especially reproductive science. There are a lot of things that, ethically, the Church can’t support. And all of it makes sense. Embryonic stem-cell research, for one, doesn’t work because the embryos are living human beings who are destroyed for the purposes of science. Same for in vitro fertilization. The “leftover” living embryos remain on ice until they are used at will or, more likely, discarded. Also in the category of “unacceptable,” see: gene editing and human cloning. Playing God is a dangerous and scary thing, and the Church teaches us, properly, to avoid doing so.

That being said, there are times when reproductive scientific advancements can literally be lifesavers. And those, with the right approach, the Church embraces wholeheartedly.

Take, for example, a recent story in The New York Times that described in detail the incredible surgery on “the patient within the patient” — a 24-week-old baby in utero suffering from “a severe form” of spina bifida. This new experimental technique, only performed a handful of times in the country, was used to literally repair a “significant lesion” on the back of the tiny growing baby. And it was done so in an incredible way: by the doctors physically lifting the uterus — baby intact — out of the mother (but still connected to her) and performing the most delicate of surgeries on the most delicate of creatures. The temperature in the operating room was high, to allow for the comfort of baby even while the surgeons sweated profusely.

According to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s Donum Vitae, and to the teachings of Pope St. John Paul II, medical interventions are considered “licit” if they “respect the life and integrity of the embryo and do not involve disproportionate risks for it.” Instead, they should be “directed toward its healing, the improvement of its condition of health, or its individual survival.” As Pope John Paul stated in 1983, “A strictly therapeutic intervention whose explicit objective is the healing of various maladies such as those stemming from chromosomal defects will, in principle, be considered desirable, provided it is directed to the true promotion of the personal well-being of the individual without doing harm to his integrity or worsening his conditions of life. Such an intervention would indeed fall within the logic of the Christian moral tradition.”

Like what you’re reading? Subscribe now in print or digital.

There we have the beauty of the moral teaching of the Church, wrapped up in one sentence written by a saint.

As an aside, the same New York Times article notes that before the surgery, the doctors gave the baby in utero an injection of anesthesia — a detail that’s significant as Congress considers making illegal abortion after 20 weeks based on the notion that a baby that old can feel pain. Perhaps we should take the doctors’ lead?