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The development of new reproductive technologies Essay

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Explain some of the religious and moral issues relevant to the development of new reproductive technologies. [35]

The development of new reproductive technologies have revolutionised the way society views infertility. However, many object to methods such as IVF, cloning, ICSI and PGD for moral and religious reasons. In examining these issues, a good place to start is IVF.

IVF – in vitro fertilisation – is one of the most commonly used reproductive technologies. This method bypasses the need for intercourse to conceive; embryos are instead created in a lab and implanted into a mother. It can either use gametes from two parents, or in the case of a homosexual couple some of the material will be donated. From a human-rights perspective everyone has the right to a family life, which some interpret to mean a right to IVF. However, even from a purely secular point of view there are moral problems with IVF. For example, the new ICSI method bypasses many of the body’s natural defences for weeding out unfit sperm and therefore the child is at a higher risk of genetic abnormalities. Additionally, some feminists view reproductive technology with suspicion. Feminists refer to a `pro-natalist’ ideology prevalent in Western society, whereby women are encouraged to believe that their fulfilment and happiness depends upon their being able to bear children. They fear women may be coerced into IVF.

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The main issue that Christians would have with IVF is that many embryos are created and then destroyed. More embryos are produced in order to increase the chances of successful implantation, but in the UK you cannot use more than two embryos per IVF cycle. This creates spare embryos that are discarded, experimented upon or frozen for later use. The majority of Christians believe that life and personhood are intertwined, and both begin at conception. Christians believe in the sanctity of life, meaning that all human life is created in God’s image and has intrinsic worth. The most important verse they turn to is part of the Decalogue: “do not kill.” Moreover, Psalm 139 says, “you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Therefore the discarding of spare embryos is murder of an innocent life.

As with any issue, denominational opinions differ. The Roman Catholic Church defends traditional family structures and view IVF as unnatural. They published a document in 1987called Respect for Human Life in its Origin and the Dignity of Procreation. This emphasised the principles concerning the sanctity of life laid down much earlier in the Papal Encyclical, Humanae Vitae of 1968. In summary it claimed that children were a gift from God and not a commodity, and the proper place for children is within marriage. The church has expressed fears that IVF trivialises intercourse.

Protestant churches tend to take a more lenient view. For example, the Free Presbyterian Church accepts IVF provided that the couple are married, spare embryos are not created and no donors are used. Both the Methodist Church and the Church of England are quite positive about all forms of IVF and even permit research on spare embryos up to 14 days old because it can be of great help to doctors researching genetic diseases, although embryos should not be created solely for this purpose.

Other more drastic forms of reproductive technology pose a bigger problem for the churches. The successful cloning of Dolly the Sheep opened up a debate on the potential of human cloning and saviour siblings. Reproductive cloning would devalue individuality and result in negative psychological effects in the cloned person. Cloned animals tend to have a shorter lifespan and there is a genuine fear that a sub-class of humans could be produced in order for their organs to be harvested.

This commodification of life sounds like science fiction, but according to Paul Ramsey it is a real threat. Cloning also removes the need for a male. In the case of Dolly, she had three ‘mothers’: one provided the egg, another the DNA and a third carried the cloned embryo to term. The embryo was given an electric shock in order to begin the division process. For Christians this disrupts God’s design for reproduction and parenthood. The only form of cloning that some churches would permit is therapeutic cloning, when a person’s stem cells can be used to produce organs that are an exact match. Mary Seller, a member of the Church of England’s Board of Social Responsibility, states, “Cloning, like all science, must be used responsibly. Cloning humans is not desirable.”

Furthermore, another key form of reproductive technology is PGD – pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. This process can eliminate genetic diseases by selection (negative therapy) and can also alter the genes to ‘improve’ an embryo (positive therapy). It can be used to prevent suffering for both the child and parents. Moral objects are raised because, just like IVF, negative therapy involves fertilising several embryos with the intent of destroying those with the disease. This is dehumanising to disabled people, because it suggests that society would be better off without them. Positive therapy takes it to another level, and could result in a class of humans that are genetically modified for maximum health, intelligence and appearance. This destroys individualism and Christians refer to it as, “playing God.” According to the Free Presbyterian Church, “remember that each time cells are harvested for the treatment of someone who is sick, a new and sacred life is callously ended.”

Moving on, reproductive technology can be evaluated according to traditional ethical principles. Starting with Utilitarianism, Patrick Steptoe is quoted as stating that “It is a fact that there is a biological desire to reproduce.” If this is the case, then the maximum amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people will be achieved if they are able to reproduce, even if they need IVF or other interventions. Since successful IVF treatment will bring an enormous amount of happiness utilitarians are in agreement with such treatments. In the case of an infertile couple the utilitarian will look at the options available and strive towards to goal of conception. Likewise, if PGD and cloning can help alleviate human suffering it will be supported by utilitarians.

Situation ethics bases the morality of an action on the circumstances that surround it. The only underlying principle is that we should always choose the most loving course of action, and there is no absolute morality. Whether an infertile couple should have access to IVF is based entirely on their individual situation. Natural law, on the other hand, is not so accepting. It is similar to the view the Roman Catholic Church takes. IVF and other technologies are unnatural and therefore immoral. Some criticise this theory because they claim that it is no more unnatural then the countless other forms of human intervention such as when we have an operation.

Ultimately, reproductive technology causes us to rethink our views on family, marriage, sex and what makes a mother. Regardless of their views, Christians should be compassionate towards those suffering from the effects of infertility. You cannot understand their situation unless you have experienced it personally.

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