Maltese Catholic bishops urge ethical alternatives in IVF debate

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Archbishop Paul Cremona.

Infertility must be addressed without violations of the natural law, Catholic bishops in Malta said in a letter as the country considered a proposal to regulate, rather than ban, in vitro fertilization.

“We appeal to men of science to carry on with their research, leading them to seek solutions which are ethically and  morally good, in order that these married couples may fulfill their genuine and valid desire to become parents,” Archbishop Paul Cremona of Malta and Bishop Mario Grech of Gozo wrote.

They stressed the Church's compassion for childless couples, while reminding Maltese citizens of the Church's “right and duty to proclaim its moral judgment upon research and upon technical methods used for human reproduction,” which are morally unacceptable if they separate procreation from sex.

Archbishop Cremona and Bishop Grech issued their pastoral letter just before the July 27 release of proposed legislation that would set guidelines for in vitro fertilization. Public consultation on the bill will take place until Sept. 14.

Though condemned by the Church as immoral in all circumstances, in vitro fertilization has never been formally regulated in the small, heavily Catholic island country.

The draft bill contains some provisions meant to protect embryos and ensure family integrity. It would ban the willful destruction or freezing of embryos, and restrict use of the artificial fertilization process to opposite-sex couples who are married or “in a stable relationship.”

Women would be allowed to use only their own eggs for the fertilization and impregnation process. Surrogacy is forbidden by the bill, as are experimentation on embryos, sex-selective fertilization, and genetic modification.

But the Maltese bishops reminded Catholics, and others of good will, that the moral problems with artificial reproduction go beyond the potential harm to human embryonic lives.

While insisting on the dignity of each human life from conception to natural death, the Church also opposes other violations against the sanctity of life, besides those involving death or freezing. Human dignity, they noted, is also violated by the very nature of artificial reproduction.

“The conception of a human person should be the outcome of the mutual self-giving love of the married couple,” Archbishop Cremona and Bishop Grech affirmed. “This gift is realized through their sexual intimacy, an action through which the man and the woman become 'one body.'”

“Therefore, bearing in mind this value, the conception of new life cannot be treated solely as a biological act. Neither can it be a technical process which produces embryos as if they were objects.”

Their pastoral letter cited Pope Paul VI's encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” which not only condemned contraception, but also articulated the general principle that couples may not break the “inseparable connection” that exists “between the unitive significance and the procreative significance” of sex.

This same principle was cited in “Donum Vitae,” a 1986 instruction by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in which the future Pope Benedict XVI explained the Church's reasons for rejecting in vitro fertilization as well as artificial insemination.

In their pastoral letter, the Maltese bishops acknowledged that some 750 women have become pregnant through in vitro fertilization over the last 22 years while the process was unregulated.

They stressed the need for legal guidelines, but said it would be “morally wrong” for the civil law to neglect the principles of the natural law confirmed in Church teaching: “the life and physical integrity of every person,” “the unitive aspect of marriage,” and “the value of human sexuality in marriage.”

While the Church does not accept in vitro fertilization or other forms of reproduction outside normal sexual activity, the Maltese bishops expressed support for legitimate “technical methods which, without replacing the conjugal act, assist the couple’s fertility processes.”

The bishops also affirmed the innate dignity of children born through in vitro fertilization, who are “still children of God, even if the methods through which they were conceived go against Church teachings and against human dignity.”

“The Church urges the parents of these children to trust in God’s mercy and to seek the road to self-reconciliation, in line with their call and mission as parents.”

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