Tuesday, April 12, 2016

When Breath Becomes Air—and consequentalism runs rampant

I recently read When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. His memoir is about facing death when you’re a brilliant thirty-six year old surgeon, married, and dying from lung cancer. God and faith played a role in his life and death, and so did in vitro fertilization. And this is one of those things that makes Catholics look like jerks.

Because no one does IVF without having been through some serious heartache. Infertility is no joke. Neither is being single and craving a baby. In this case, the author and his wife, Lucy, made the decision to store his sperm so they might have a baby in spite of his medications.

This wasn’t a flippant decision, but it was still wrong. And I hate that.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “An evil action cannot be justified by reference to a good intention.” (1759)

According to Wikipedia: Consequentialism is the class of normative ethical theories holding that the consequences of one’s conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness or wrongness of that conduct.

Paul and Lucy met with a specialist, who suggested doing IVF immediately, but Paul wrote:
When I mentioned that we’d rather minimize how many embryos were created and destroyed, she looked slightly confused. Most people who came here prized expedience above all. But I was determined to avoid the situation where, after I died, Lucy had responsibility for a half dozen embryos—the last remnants of our shared genomes, my last presence on earth—stuck in a freezer somewhere, too painful to destroy, impossible to bring to full humanity: technological artifacts that no one knew how to relate to.
They eventually end up doing IVF, implanting the healthiest embryo: “The others would die. Even in having children in this new life, death played its part.” They became the parents of a baby girl, nicknamed Cady, who was just eight months old when Paul died: a new life, a continuation of their relationship, Paul living on. She has the same thick head of dark hair as her dad.

But Paul was right during that first appointment when he thought of the embryos “stuck in a freezer somewhere.” He was just wrong about bringing them to full humanity—they are fully human. They were. Maybe they were allowed to thaw and die, or were scooped into a trash can. I don’t know, but they were “fully human.”

You can look at the result and say, “This was worth it.” But like divorce, just because one party is happier afterwards doesn’t mean lives aren’t permanently altered, forever out of alignment. Some people may be happier, but many aren’t—they spend their lives searching, and trading up. New relationships result in half-siblings, adopted siblings, ex-half-siblings; things start to get really weird.

Some will say, “It’s between them and God,” but they are wrong. I’ve made peace with it is nowhere found in the Bible. This flawed thinking leads to self-gratification—usually to the detriment of others. When Paul and Lucy pursued IVF, they were choosing death for those embryos. They didn’t choose cancer for Paul, but they chose to end those lives.

According to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith:
Thus the fruit of human generation, from the first moment of its existence, that is to say from the moment the zygote has formed, demands the unconditional respect that is morally due to the human being in his bodily and spiritual totality. The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life.
Paul knew this, as a doctor and a prospective father, and was troubled by it—just not enough to say no to IVF. This is why faith—in God or in science—is never complete in the absence of authority. Our conscience is not an infallible guide. That little voice whispers about lost chances for children; it imagines a little girl comforting the grieving widow. But we ignore the math: the loss of a husband, the loss of six, seven, eight embryos, is not offset by the addition of one chosen life. The math is not pro-life. What could be more divisive than picking and choosing life among siblings?
If a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand. —Mark 3:5
There is real hostility to Church teaching in this area because who is more pro-life than the Catholic Church? The Church alone teaches that contraception is wrong, abortion is wrong, divorce is wrong. The Church alone believes children are a blessing—all of them. So how dare the Church tell us there’s a wrong way to achieve that blessing?

But it’s because of the value of life that IVF is not licit—because Paul and Lucy’s daughter is so cherished. Those embryos are a means to an end: human life. Anything else is unacceptable. We strain against hard teachings, we kick against the goads, we want consolation. Let the specialist fix this, let John Legend validate this, and let’s just focus on how good it will feel to hold a baby.

We don’t want the Church to be right where we’re wrong—we want a loophole. There’s something defeatist about it, something almost un-American in accepting difficulties—we want to evade the Cross that has been passed on to us. We are willing to kill a handful of children so we can have one. We shun selflessness and refuse to protect our children on the most basic, physical level—we have already failed at parenthood before the child is even born.

Source: Giorgio Vasari [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons