Post-Mortem Conception and Theology of the Body

This item from yesterday’s news: the courts are considering whether infants, born to a mother after having been conceived in vitro using the banked sperm of her late husband, qualify for federal survivor’s benefits.
The news report included this: More military men are banking sperm so that, in the event of their demise on the battlefield, their widows may start or enlarge their families after they are gone.
I can’t comment on the points of law here. But the whole situation seems amiss from the get-go.
“Repugnance” doesn’t apply, as I see it. It’s kind of easy to sympathize with the underlying sentiment. And this is not like T.S. Garp’s mom. Remember her? “I didn’t want his love, I only wanted his sperm.”
But I submit we should not embrace this practice, but gently challenge it. It deliberately brings children into the world who are, at least for a time, fatherless. And it forgets that children are properly begotten, borne, and raised by the living union of man and wife, and the fruitfulness of their intimacy, their oneness. To be sure, the ravages of war do great violence to this, and we should bemoan and, as much as we can, combat that violence. Still, it seems to me that there is not so much a limit to be observed here as there is a truth to be reaffirmed and celebrated.
That truth is that the procreative and unitive aspects of our sexuality must be held together—or, maybe, reunited—within the boundaries of living, biblical, covenant, heterosexual marriage. It is part of the created order that ought to be treated as a “given” of our lives, and not violated.
More generally, I think that this case reminds us that we must articulate an overall “theology of the body,” as noted by Paige Cunningham in the current issue of Dignitas. (Ooh, I’d better renew my CBHD dues!) I, a layman, and still a learner in bioethics, am not the best person to lay out the tenets of this theology. (So, help me out in the comments.) Some seem straightforward enough: All is not one; the Creator is metaphysically distinct from the creation. We are bodies and souls in union. (Gnosticism and naturalism are both pagan at heart.) Godly sexuality is to be enjoyed. Babies come from that joy, not just from “sperm and egg.” We don’t have children so that we can, somehow, “live on” in them.
Other tenets may be easier to say, but, for me anyway, harder to grasp at a deep, intuitive, emotional level. First, as important as human flourishing is, it is subordinate to eternal joy. I’ll speak for myself: I think I lead too quickly with human flourishing in some of my bioethics arguments. Maybe “What does it mean to flourish as a human being?” is not the best question. Maybe, “What does it mean to glorify God and fully enjoy Him?” should come first, and a bit louder.
Second—and I’m trying to get at this afresh in contemplating the cross—it’s both critical and hard fully to appreciate the incarnation. For one, do we believe in the supreme human excellence of Jesus in His humanity, as, for example, Dallas Willard pressed in The Divine Conspiracy? For another, how do we get at Jesus as “altogether lovely,” “our Beloved,” as the allegorical readers of the Song of Solomon, for example, encourage?
And finally, while I’m at it: We are not our DNA. I can’t emphasize this enough. We are more our souls, or at least our ensouled bodies, than our DNA. I urge readers of this blog to eschew sloppy popular phrases that seem to identify our DNA with our identity. For example, please don’t go around saying things like, “It’s in my DNA,” unless you are talking about a specific trait that really IS. And be careful about resting too heavily on genetic endowment in discussions of human nature.

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Joseph Gibes
Joseph Gibes
8 years ago

Jon – I haven’t seen Paige’s bit yet (guess I’m overdue to renew too) but for a Theology of the Body you will get nothing better anywhere than Pope John Paul II’s talks on the subject and the subsequent books which provide commentary on it. (A highly readable and shorter, if unfortunately unfinished, abridgment of the first two cycles of talks was provided by Sam Torode in his books Body and Gift, and Purity of Heart.) John Paul’s profoundly scriptural and deeply thoughtful reflections are a desperately needed remedy to the impoverished thinking and writing on the subject of Posthumous Assisted Reproduction, most of which relies on barren conceptions of autonomy and “the parental project” as the lenses through which to evaluate the ethicality of these practices.

8 years ago

I would be loathe to condemn such a mother in this situation. I would want it to be crystal clear that such an action would be condemned from Scriptural principles. I can’t say I’m convinced of that. Additionally, it’s fairly difficult to have all of the same opportunities to conceive when you are constantly away from family in training and in deployments (multiple deployments by the few for the sake of the millions who have even forgot there’s a war going on).