“Married couples may use medical means to enhance conception of their common children, but the use of semen or ova other than that of the married couple who both take responsibility for their offspring is forbidden.”
1992 OCA Synod of Bishops’ Affirmations, “On Marriage, Family, Sexuality and the Sanctity of Life”—The Procreation of Children
‘Although the desire of fertile couples to have children is seriously fading, the need of infertile couples to have children becomes psychologically and socially imperative.’
- Metropolitan Nikolaos of Mesogaia and Lavreotiki
For this reason, the Church has the responsibility of carefully and compassionately understanding the decisions that couples are faced with today. While childbearing is certainly one of the greatest gifts of life within marriage, infertility should not, and does not, degrade or harm marital relationships. It could be said, that in some cases, infertility acts as natures way of protecting couples, who would face great difficulties in raising children. For this reason, the Church urges couples to firstly discern the will of God, before persisting to overcome sterility.
Modern technology, while a blessing by God, can at times give man the opportunity of opposing His good will. Every person originates from human will; but also God’s will. Throughout our lives, we are constantly faced with decisions which enable us to either accept the Lord’s will, or insist on following our own ambitions and desires. The conception of every human being should constitute an asserted expression of God’s will, and should not exclusively be the result of man’s desire. In other words, the existence of every person should be the consequence of the free compliance of a couple’s will, with the will of God. Free will is the greatest gift of God to man; while man’s own will is his most dangerous threat.
The beginning of life is sacred; and in fact, physiologically speaking, the exact moment is unknown to man. As a holy moment, the event is a mystery; reflecting the expression of love between spouses. The sexual act is the only autonomous function of the human body; being the psychosomatic unity par excellence, requiring the participation of both male and female.
Modern technology can replace this unique and unknown moment with an accurate knowledge of the sacred beginning of life. The parents are not together, and the human being may be produced in a test tube, perhaps using the genetic material of donors, rather than the couples'.
One of modern technology’s main methods in assisting childless couples, is known as in-vitro fertilisation. This involves the fertilisation of both the egg and the sperm, in an environmentally controlled Petri dish. The resulting embryos develop to the stage just before uterine implantation. Three to five embryos are placed in the wife’s uterus, with the hope of implantation and the birth of their child. This method of course involves orgasm, and spermatozoa being obtained, out-with the couple’s sexual intercourse - which in a way, insults the sacredness of the reproductive function. However, the Orthodox Church highlights that when the aim is childbearing, it cannot be considered a sinful act of sperm loss (as long as it is not performed in ways that disgrace human dignity and worth). This certainly requires careful sensitivity, pastoral attention, and above all, understanding.
While the Orthodox Church recognises the benefits that may derive from a childless couple using a fertility clinic, reservations are kept for several reasons. The conception of man through modern techniques can be asexual, in the sense that it lacks the sacredness, safety and reassurance of sexual intercourse - with the human being manufactured artificially. The method also offers vast possibilities of preimplantation genetic processing and intervention, bearing serious consequences.
An immediate consequence of IVF is the creation of ‘surplus embryos.’ The Orthodox Church can only reject this term as She simply cannot accept that there are ‘extra’ human beings, with their fates determined by third parties. Each embryo possesses uniqueness and personhood, with the sacredness of God’s image. If the Orthodox Church is to uphold a certain ethical message or principle, it would certainly be the cherishing and preservation of life. Each and every embryo should have the same right to life - but unfortunately many of them are used for experimentation, and some even destroyed. Orthodox Christian anthropology and theology cannot possibly justify the existence of embryos that are not given the right to life; as each embryo constitutes the very image of God, and should have the chance to be in communion with Him. John Breck writes: In-vitro fertilisation cannot be considered morally acceptable if it creates extra embryos that are destroyed, or used for medical experimentation or commercial exploitation... as human life - with all the conditions of personhood - exists from conception.'
Today, the donation of sperm and egg, as well as the reproductive potential of surrogate mothers are options for infertile couples. Such methods however, may lead to confusions, and weaker or unequal relationships between parents and children. One parent may be natural, while the other may be a stepmother or stepfather. There could be brothers or sisters unknown to each other; unknown incestuous relationships, and several other practical, family issues which may unfold. Sperm and egg donations can degrade the natural concept of motherhood and fatherhood; with the requirement of a third person’s intervention in the couples’ fertility process, making it impossible for the Orthodox Church to accept such a method.
According to Roman Catholic moral theology, (based upon Natural law theory) only natural means may be used to induce pregnancy. For the Orthodox Church, these issues must of course be resolved from the Tradition and teaching of the Church, but also the particular circumstances of the couple. Each case must be taken uniquely, with pastoral care, understanding and compassion. The Orthodox Tradition affirms that sexuality is in essence good, and that within marriage, couples should live with ‘the enjoyment of the blessing of children.’ With this in mind, couples, along with their spiritual father, should come together in discerning the will of God. While this short article has outlined the Orthodox Church’s ideals (which are there to guide and to be followed when possible by the faithful) it is most important to remember that the bond between parent and child depends far less on genetic make-up, than on shared love, affection, experience and spiritual bondage. The Orthodox Church must always speak from a specific theological and anthropological perspective that recognises God to be our Creator and Lord of all life, whilst being able to work out the best, fairest, most understanding agreement and plan, for the good of the faithful couple.
- Symposium - The Greek Orthodox position on the ethics of human reproduction - Metropolitan Nikolaos of Mesogaia and Lavreotiki, 26-29.
- John Breck, The Sacred Gift of Life (New York: SVS, 1998) 176-180.
- Written for Michal Pruski's bioethics paper, regarding gamete donation.