In Praise of Human Diversity

The Nobel committee has awarded this year’s prize in physiology or medicine to Dr. Robert Edwards, a pioneer of in vitro fertilization. Given how long ago this achievement took place, this decision is surely meant to be read partially as a political statement – an implicit rebuke of the right-wing churches that want to deny people the right to exercise control over their own bodies.

And right on cue, the Roman Catholic church stepped in to once again remind us of its existence:

The Vatican-based International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations also expressed its dismay about the Nobel committee’s announcement.

Jose Simon Castellvi, the federation’s president, said: “Although IVF has brought happiness to the many couples who have conceived through this process, it has done so at an enormous cost. That cost is the undermining of the dignity of the human person.”

A 2008 document on bioethics issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith repeated earlier Vatican condemnations of in vitro fertilisation because it separates procreation from the conjugal act in marriage…

Whatever else you can say about them, at least the Catholic hierarchy realizes the implications of their own beliefs. A normal IVF cycle involves the fertilization of multiple eggs, of which only one is usually implanted and the rest discarded – so if a fertilized egg is a person possessing a soul, then fertility clinics would be engaging in destruction of human life akin to abortion. So it makes sense, given their starting premises, that they’d be opposed to that as well. On the other hand, you have to admit that their opposition seems much more perfunctory, compared to the time, energy and effort they spend trying to stop abortion. When was the last time you heard of someone being denied communion for having a test-tube baby, or pro-lifers picketing a fertility clinic?

But regardless, their position is still a ridiculous and irrational superstition. A fertilized egg is not a person, just as an acorn is not an oak tree. Personhood requires sentience, consciousness, thoughts, feelings, and the zygote has none of these. It’s a seed from which those qualities may someday develop, but only if a long and complicated chain of developmental events occurs successfully. If that chain of events doesn’t occur, the zygote has no more chance of becoming a human being than a swab of cheek cells.

In truth, I find the Catholic church’s ranting against IVF more than a little sad and comical. They really haven’t advanced at all since the Dark Ages, and their attempts to interpret the world of the 21st century through the lens of a medieval worldview are pitiably ridiculous. Even after everything we’ve learned about how the mind arises from the brain, and how an intricate genetic program choreographs the development of a ball of cells into a thinking, feeling human being, the Catholic theologians continue to insist that personhood exists solely in virtue of possessing an undetectable supernatural appendage called a soul. This idea is of the same vintage as the belief that the solar system is a set of nested crystalline spheres, and bears just as much correspondence to reality.

But there is one thing about this that’s truly offensive, and that’s the belief – not unique to Catholics, but found among the hierarchs of most religions – that there is only one acceptable way to live, and that they alone are the authorities who know what it is. If anything at all disrespects “the dignity of the human person”, it’s telling people how they must lead their lives – only one kind of birth, one kind of love, one kind of marriage, one kind of death that’s allowable, and that they’re sinful and disordered if they don’t conform.

The true nature of human beings is diversity – diversity in who we love, in how we pledge our commitment, in how we organize our families, in how we react to the slings and arrows of fate – and there is more than one way to lead a healthy, happy, ethical life. As long as religious fundamentalists deny this and try to force all human beings onto the one narrow path they deem permissible, they will deserve only scorn and condemnation.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Sarah Braasch

    OMG. Could the Catholic Church just wither up and die already?

    I know I probably shouldn’t refer to another thread on this thread, but after just having had a lengthy argument about how I shouldn’t be trying to destroy Roman Catholicism (by exercising my right to peaceful self-expression in the public marketplace of ideas), because that would be akin to me physically attacking Catholics who wouldn’t be able to continue leading fulfilling lives without their Catholic community (an argument that was had with atheists, no less), I just have to say: Really? Seriously? Is it worth it? This is what you can’t live without? This is what we have to save? No matter how much pain and misery and death and destruction and disease and ignorance this institution perpetrates against the world’s people?

  • Chad

    Well put. Thank goodness for IVF: infertility can seem a horrible curse to those who long to conceive and cannot. Thank goodness also for the human desire to explore and question as exemplified by scientific research, against what I consider the baser human desires to control and see life as a series of false dichotomies, as exemplified by the RCC. Human dignity is far too great a thing for them to delimit and confer at will.

  • Nathaniel

    The Catholic Church should cease its existence, and let us enjoy the beautiful architecture of its buildings in peace.

  • Jon Jermey

    I gather that we are on the brink of being able to convert any cell in the human body into a viable embryo. If this comes about then Catholic doctrine will somehow have to accommodate the notion that trimming one’s nails, lancing a boil, menstruating, spitting or cutting oneself shaving involves the destruction of thousands or millions of potential human beings, and assuming these all possess souls or potential souls — why shouldn’t they? — from that day on all of us will be mass murderers on a far greater scale than Hitler or Stalin.

    I can hardly wait…

  • Tom

    If I’m reading their quote correctly, the catholic church apparently considers natural conception to be an inherent part of human dignity.

    I don’t know about you, but “dignified” isn’t exactly a word I’d use to describe two people screwing.

    It’s also not a word I’d use to describe disingenuous, bigoted, neurotic, repressed weirdos who have a noticeable propensity toward buggering altar boys.

    If anything, you’d expect a prudish organisation obsessed with “sin,” and whose approach to sexuality resembles nothing so much as the confused revulsion of a child, like just about every major authoritarian religion, to positively rejoice that someone found a way to reproduce under sterile, medical conditions without getting all sweaty and carnal.

  • Katie M

    @Nathaniel-I support turning their buildings into museums, so future generations will be able to see that the beauty of the architecture in no way corresponded to any moral beauty.

  • SuperHappyJen

    This reminds me of a Jesus and Mo comic:

  • Grimalkin

    And don’t forget, IVF is wrong because it “doesn’t address the underlying causes of infertility” – causes which are never never named, btw.

  • Joffan

    Grimalkin – Yes, I noticed that vague formulation too, but I couldn’t be bothered to trawl through their pronouncements to find out if they ever got specific.

  • Ergo Ratio

    Not to mention diversity of what individuals consider dignified!

  • Anna

    It just doesn’t make sense. An infertile couple has these eggs and countless spermatozoa that don’t amount to anything, though the couple tries to do what the Church wants and create life. So they do what they can to create a life out of what would otherwise not be producing anything. How can this be a bad thing?

  • kurmujjin

    We can’t help being human. And things that frustrate us tend to bring on comments that are caustic. Caustic comments sometimes do the opposite of what we desire.

    However, I think comments like #4 that Jon Jermey made above should be pursued and extolled. Looks to me to be a pretty effective argument.

    One other issue with IVF is that the decision to terminate the unwanted embryos needs to be made as early as possible to avoid getting into the grey area of viability outside the uterus.

  • Rollingforest

    I’m glad that Ebonmuse agrees with me about consciousness being the marker of personhood. That makes discussions about abortion, stem cell research ect so much easier.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Tom @ #5 would win this thread with that insight imo, except that so much of many religions, and not just Catholicism, is based on the principle of controlling sex, and ones feelings about sex, in order to impose guilt and extract expiation.

    Were they to endorse laboratory reproduction, they would lose a very big lever of power.

  • Charles

    Excellent post.

    Comment #4 by: Jon Jermey reminded me of something I read recently about blastocysts::

    Perhaps you think that the crucial difference between a fly and a human blastocyst is to be found in the latter’s potential to become a fully developed human being. But almost every cell in your body is a potential human being, given our recent advances in genetic engineering. Every time you scratch your nose, you have committed a Holocaust of potential human beings.”
    — Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation)

  • Wednesday

    I’m not sure why they’re saying the cost of IVF is an undermining of human dignity. Since IVF leads to the deaths of many embryos*, which they believe are ensouled, shouldn’t they be saying that the cost of IVF is in human souls? Especially since embryos that fail to implant aren’t baptized and don’t get the full Heaven package.

    I had previously respected the Church’s stance against IVF because it seemed consistent with their arguments against abortion, but apparently not. Bah.

    *Procreative sex does too, mind you, but IIRC the embryo fatality rate of IVF is higher.

  • Steve Bowen

    Procreative sex does too, mind you, but IIRC the embryo fatality rate of IVF is higher.

    I’m not sure this is true, but in any event the fatality rate in infertile couples will be higher than the general population by definition.

  • the chaplain

    That cost is the undermining of the dignity of the human person

    IVF undermines human dignity… Could someone from the Vatican please explain to me how deliberately, systematically, as a matter of policy, covering up the crimes of priests who raped children enhanced the human dignity of those children?

    The Catholic church wouldn’t know human dignity if it sneaked up behind them and fucked them in the ass.

  • Paul Sunstone

    Humans are a diverse species. There is no such thing as a single, ideal human foot size, nor such thing as a single, ideal human nose shape, let alone something as complex as a single, ideal human lifestyle.

  • Sea-Saw

    Let me see if I have this straight. If you become pregant, you can’t have an abortion because God wants you to be pregnant. If you can’t become pregnant, you can’t use IVF because God doesn’t want you to be pregnant. If you are molested by a priest, you should just shut up because God wants you to be molested. Wow. God sure is awesome, huh?

  • Modusoperandi

    kurmujjin “One other issue with IVF is that the decision to terminate the unwanted embryos needs to be made as early as possible to avoid getting into the grey area of viability outside the uterus.”
    Used or unused, they get to 3-5 days (with the extras getting frozen), far less than the 21 weeks for reasonable viability.
    As an aside, if your Pregnologist is taking five months to implant your prospective Junior, you’ve picked the wrong Pregnologist.

    the chaplain “IVF undermines human dignity… Could someone from the Vatican please explain to me how deliberately, systematically, as a matter of policy, covering up the crimes of priests who raped children enhanced the human dignity of those children?”
    Because the kids would feel bad if the Church got in trouble. Duh. Also, [insert some apologist crap about "God not putting more weight on your shoulders than you can handle"], [insert some apologist crap about "This life, with all of its trials, is just a blip compared to the eternity of bliss, blah blah bla] and [insert some apologist crap about how it's the fault of "the gays"/moral relativism/etc].

  • the chaplain

    If you can say all that in properly accented Italian (Latin might be good, too), you should apply for the Vatican’s media relations position.

  • Modusoperandi

    the chaplain, I tried, but it all came out as “Whatcha gonna do, ah?” Plus, my conscience was nagging me terribly.

  • Explorer

    Given that conception is not the point at which a person becomes a person, I’m curious as to where you (all) think the line is?

    I’m not entirely convinced that “consciousness” is a good measure, simply because it’s difficult to define, let alone measure given our current science, if at all.

    Are there other factors that affect the onset of personhood? Does whether the mother (or father, or anyone else for that matter) wants the (potential) child make a difference?

    What say you, rational beings?

  • Thumpalumpacus

    I’m not so sure consciousness is hard to define.

    Any further discussion leads into the thicket of abortion debate, which can be found here, here, or here, among other places.

  • kurmujjin


    Consciousness not so hard to define. But being able to determine that consciousness is present, measuring it is a whole ‘nuther story. In the case of an embryo, it has no way to express consciousness or awareness. And how would you differentiate human embryonic consciousness from a that of a similarly developed animal (similar with respect to stage or percentage of full development)?

    Infantile awareness is a whole lot different than child or adult awareness, too.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I completely agree with you, kurmujjin.

    And, anyway, this whole idea that we need to find that elusive point of consciousness or point of viability outside of the uterus is a fallacious and specious game, devised by the anti-abortion crowd, which we should refuse to play.

    The way I handle it is by calling their bluff — ok, fine then, then I’m sure you won’t mind if we induce labor once we’ve reached the point of viability or consciousness, if the woman decides she doesn’t want to carry to term, and, if the state has such a compelling interest in seeing this life come to fruition, the state can take custody.

    Oh, what was that? You really just want to force women to be baby incubators, because God said so? That’s what I thought.

  • kurmujjin

    The way I handle it is by calling their bluff — ok, fine then, then I’m sure you won’t mind if we induce labor once we’ve reached the point of viability or consciousness, if the woman decides she doesn’t want to carry to term, and, if the state has such a compelling interest in seeing this life come to fruition, the state can take custody.

    If “sacred” is too strong a word for some, then certainly “special” is pretty easy for most to agree upon. Use whichever word you prefer: Life is _______.

    When I put my cat down a couple weeks ago, I wondered if I was shortening her life prematurely. Was I a good judge of life quality? There were no audible signs of physical suffering, but there were plenty of indications that things were getting pretty difficult for her.

    It’s a slippery slope we get to when we have to make these kinds of decisions. For this reason, I like to stay as far away from the edge as I can ethically justify.

    I think Sarah’s text, quoted above is actually a pretty good suggestion.

    You have to also consider the other side of the coin. Is probability in favor of a life of quality or suffering when inducing labor?

    These are hardly trivial questions for anyone.

  • Zietlos

    Sufferring, of course Kurmujin. That is the lot of most in life, induced labour or not. :)

    Consciousness, though… Well, there’s a few idiots at my university who I’d argue have not yet reached that state, so it isn’t really a good measure. :)

    So, we are at an impasse: A goldfish not being fed, letting it starve to death, well, to me, that’s horrible. Don’t buy a fish if you won’t take care of it, but some people will just buy more feeders because they are cheaper than the feed. Many of these people religious. If you adopted children and starved them to death, though, I think we all agree this is a much more offensive offense, even if, again, it can be cheaper to do so than feed them. Clearly, we cannot use animal equivalents in our rationale for human lives. Sorry to hear about your cat, though.

  • Explorer

    While I’m largely in agreement with Ebon’s creed, one thing I don’t agree with is that morality is objective. A “moral” code can be objectively wrong, only insofar as it is internally inconsistent. Ebon’s choice of the utilitarian greatest happiness for the greatest number, based on Rawlsian ignorance is, IMO, a good one, when it comes to our dealings with other people – arising as it does from enlightened self interest.

    The relevance of this to the current topic is that it matters who and/or what we count amongst “the greatest number” as to what is moral, amoral or immoral in this context. Are fetuses people, who should be counted, or not?

    Should other life forms be counted toward the calculation of greatest happiness (or least suffering)? If so, which ones? What weight should the happiness and suffering of other creatures be given with respect to the happiness and suffering of human beings? Are fetuses among those creatures who should be accorded non-human critter weight in the calculation?

    If pre-conscious fetuses have no claim to happiness or against suffering, what other principles apply? Do the parents have a property right in the fetus, for example? In cases of donor IVF and surrogacy, which of the various parties to the transaction have what rights?

    I don’t believe any of these questions are by any means unanswerable, but I suspect that there are any number of internally consistent moral codes that would both agree on the easy stuff (no murder, no theft, etc.) but disagree on some of the above.

  • Explorer

    I guess this also leads to questions around whether it is moral to become pregnant in the first place. After all, life is a curse, according to some. Does our moral responsibility to our (potential) children start with not inflicting consciousness and the potential for suffering in the first place, or does it start only once they exist as conscious beings?

    I know one or two people who would probably choose to have never been born, if they could (and not the ones with what look like the most difficult and challenging lives, from the outside).

    What about our responsibility to other already living people – is it immoral to breed because our children might cause suffering to them?

  • Sarah Braasch

    I think, if given a credible choice, I would choose to never have been born.

    I won’t take my own life, because I wouldn’t inflict that kind of pain on my living siblings, especially after having survived our youngest brother’s suicide, but I don’t think suicide is an immoral act.

    I figure, as long as I’m here, I might as well try to do a little good in the world. And, now, I want to do lots of wonderful things in Jacob’s honor. I want to leave a legacy for both of us.

    But, I won’t have children, because I, personally, think it’s immoral to bring children into this world.

    But, these are my personal moral choices. I have no right to impose my personal morality upon others.

  • kurmujjin

    To me, this is a very amazing phenomenon. I feel, often, that a good many atheists are more morally compelled than theists. Go figure.

    A long time ago, I lived near Seattle. The best reasons for living there were June, July and August. The other nine months were dismal and dreary, full of clouds and drizzle. But the three months of the summer made the rest seem worth tolerating. And in reality, the other nine months weren’t that bad, but couldn’t compare with the summer.

    Life seems like that to me. I don’t want to trivialize life’s pain. I will offer this: could it be that if you viewing life as mostly travail and suffering, are you doing enough of that which you love, that which makes you happy to be alive? Can you have more of that? It might make a difference.

    Are you being too hard on yourself? Are your expectations reasonable? At least one major religion has taught that a principal cause of suffering is unreasonable expectation coupled with over-attachment to specific outcomes. I don’t mean to preach. Just offering a viewpoint. If it isn’t helpful, please forgive me and ignore.