How to characterize doctrine

vials2There's an interesting story coming out of Wisconsin about a woman who was fired from her job as a Roman Catholic school teacher because she conceived her children using in vitro fertilization. The method of conception involves removing eggs from the woman's ovaries and fertilizing them with sperm. The main complication of the method is the frequency of multiple births. This is because of the practice of creating many embryos and passing several of the "best" of them into the uterus to improve the chances of implantation. Leftover embryos are frozen for future use or discarded. Millions of embryos have been discarded or frozen by couples who use in vitro fertilization.

Let's look at the way Susan Squires, a reporter for the Appleton Post-Crescent, handled explaining Roman Catholic opposition to the practice after a generous explanation of the woman's position:

The church's position is spelled out in "Donum Vitae," a 1987 church instruction on "respect for human life in its origin and the dignity of procreation." The document -- Latin for "Gift of Life" -- was written by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.

It teaches that in-vitro fertilization is immoral. By employing medical technology to commingle her eggs with her husband's sperm, Romenesko had violated two clauses in her teaching contract: to uphold the teachings of the Catholic Church, and to act and teach in accordance with Catholic doctrine and the church's moral and social teachings. . . .

Simply put, in-vitro fertilization is the process of extracting eggs from a woman's ovaries, fertilizing them with a man's sperm, choosing the most promising cell clusters and injecting several into the mother's uterus. Clinics typically freeze "extra" embryos, which the parents may use later, discard or donate.

The church, which teaches that life begins at conception, objects to the procedure on several grounds. First, destroying leftover embryos is tantamount to abortion in the eyes of the church, as is "selective reduction" -- the elimination of some implanted embryos to avert multiple pregnancies.

Secondly, it usually requires male masturbation to harvest sperm, which the church holds immoral.

Finally, according to the Donum Vitae, "The act which brings the child into existence is no longer an act by which two persons give themselves to one another, but one that entrusts the life and identity of the embryo into the power of doctors and biologists and establishes the domination of technology over the origin and destiny of the human person."

Not bad, eh? The explanation is placed midway through the story and is a rather fair explanation of the church's position on human life issues. Now let's look at the way the Associated Press handled it:

In vitro fertilization involves extracting eggs from a woman's ovaries and fertilizing them with sperm in a laboratory dish or test tube. The fertilized eggs are implanted into the woman's uterus.

Catholic teaching holds that the procedure is morally wrong because it replaces the "natural" conjugal union between husband and wife and often results in destruction of embryos.

Even though [attorney James C.] Jones said the couple used their own eggs and sperm and none of the embryos were destroyed in the process, the church forbids such donations and condemns all forms of experimentation on human embryos.

The AP characterization just seems lacking on so many levels. It's not that anything it says is wrong, just that it gives short shrift to a complex theological issue. You can almost see the wave of the hand as the reporter skirts from the news hook about the woman's firing onto descriptions of the cute twins she gave birth to last year.

test tube babyI noticed another difference between the two reports. While Squires speaks with two Catholic theologians who wonder whether the school overreacted, she shares their concerns with the principal and includes his response. Compare that approach with how the AP handled it:

The in vitro fertilization issue was first highlighted for Catholics in "Donum Vitae," a 1987 church instruction written by the cabinet of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, on "respect for human life in its origin and the dignity of procreation."

Mark Johnson, who teaches moral theology at Marquette University in Milwaukee, said the 1987 document was the first serious official church writing on the subject, and modifications could be possible.

"This is brand spanking new stuff in the life of a church that is 2,000 years old," Johnson said, noting that the Vatican now is considering allowing the use of condoms to help battle AIDS in Africa despite its longtime opposition to contraceptive devices.

The reporter then went back to more details about the woman who had been fired. We frequently think that national reporters are better at handling nuance and difficult situations, but I think the local reporter does better in this case. Squires looked at an explosive and controversial issue with a deft hand, treating all of her subjects fairly.

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