“Eight is Enough” was a popular television show, but can eight be too many when they come at one time, as they did recently to a Nigerian couple in Texas?
Professional pro-lifers have praised the courage of mothers who, faced with real threats to their health or the health of their unborn children, have rebuffed the modern medicine men offering “selective reduction.” Nevertheless, the recent and unprecedented run of multiple births may be less an occasion for pro-life euphoria than an opportunity for Christians to reflect on what they mean when they say that they respect life. Christians should have found the circus surrounding the birth of the McCaughey septuplets a little unsettling when Mr. McCaughey declared that there would be no more McCaugheys since he had had himself sterilized. (Of course, even before Mr. McCaughey’s announcement, it would have been reasonable to question the judgment, if not the motives, of a couple who already had a child, yet still sought aggressive fertility therapy.)
Respect for life means more than believing that abortion and infanticide are murder. A complete respect for life requires a reverence for the creative forces that cooperate to bring children into the world: the will of God and the conjugal love of a man and his wife that unites the couple and (at least potentially) gives rise to new life.
Artificial contraception separates these two natural qualities of the reproductive act, but so do the multitude of fertilization techniques that have become popular since Louise Brown was born two decades ago. But the tie between technological methods of preventing and creating life is not only theological. The evidence is anecdotal, but only because no one has been brave enough to document scientifically the connection between widespread, long-term use of hormonal contraceptives and the growing demand for fertility therapies. Margaret Sanger herself knew what no pusher of the Pill today will admit: Planned Parenthood once advised young women to establish their fertility before practicing contraception.
Since Pope Pius XII, the Catholic Church has argued that modern reproductive procedures are moral only if they “assist but not replace” the marital act. Many procedures fall short: When conception takes place outside the womb or sperm is collected through masturbation, “the technical means is . . . a substitute for the conjugal act” (Donum Vitae).
Other procedures may fall safely within the realm of “assistance,” but they are not without moral difficulties of their own. Drugs that cause a woman to release as many as seven or eight eggs at a time can lead to an occasion of sin if the mother’s faith is not as strong as that of Bobbie McCaughey or Nkem Chukwu. Killing a few for the sake of the rest makes all too much sense to the modern mind.
Yet even mothers who know that they should not kill their children nor attempt to thwart the will of the Creator by replacing the womb with a petri dish must resolve certain ethical questions before risking the multiple births that commonly result from the use of fertility drugs. A couple must evaluate with caution any therapy known to create circumstances that are unsafe or excessively burdensome. “Just War” theory requires, among other things, that the desired outcome of the war must be equal to the inevitable loss of life and destruction of property. Similarly, children are not a right that married couples can pursue at all costs. They are a gift—”the most gratuitous gift of marriage” (Donum Vitae)—and they, and the mysterious ways in which they are brought into the world, must be revered accordingly. God’s creation of an immortal soul is profaned when child-bearing becomes a laboratory experiment, a media event, or an entry in the Guinness Book.