Three Christian Views on Assisted Conception and Marriage - The Roman Catholic Church, Church of England and Presbyterian Church of Scotland

- Agneta Sutton, Fil.kand., MSc (Econ), MPhil

Managing Research Fellow, The Centre for Bioethics and Public Policy, 58 Hanover Gardens, London SE11 5TN, UK.

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 6 (1996), 105-107.

The question of what matters most in the relationship between husband and wife and in the relationship between parents and children is answered differently by different Christian Churches. This paper explores the fundamental differences in this regard between the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England and the Presbyterian Church of Scotland and shows that these differences relate to the three churches' approach to the two ends of marriage, namely the procreation of children and the establishment of a deep and mutual spousal relationship.

1. Christian Views Of Marriage

The understanding of children as gifts is central to the Judeo-Christian tradition and its belief about the family. Also fundamental to this tradition is the belief that the union of man and woman in marriage is a divinely willed institution intended for a two-fold purpose: namely, the procreation of children and the establishment of a deep and mutual relationship between the spouses. The first end may be called the procreative one and the second the unitive.

On this view, as expressed in the book of Genesis (Gen. 4.1), husband and wife--as co-creators of God--receive children through their sexual union. The child is the fruit of a relationship, which is both biological and spiritual; it is the fruit of the two ends of marriage jointly.

Today, in their discussions about the ends of marriage, different Churches express different views about how the two ends of marriage ought to be held together.

According to the Catholic Church, the unitive (or spiritual) and the procreative (or biological) aspects of marriage ought never to be sundered (Donum Vitae, 1987, II,1). Every time man and woman 'unite in one flesh', their union ought to be open to new life; and all forms of assisted conception by-passing conception by normal intercourse are prohibited.

Other churches take issue with this view, seeing it as attributing too much importance to individual acts and to the biological aspects of family relationships at the expense of their social, mental and spiritual aspects. Although, Protestant Churches also hold that one of the ends of marriage is procreation, they do not necessarily require that every sexual act be kept open to procreation; instead they may argue that both the unitive and procreative ends of marriage should be realized within the relationship seen a long-term project. Hence, most Protestant Churches would allow contraception; and they would not object as strongly to extra-corporeal conception as the Catholic Church. Different opinions are voiced by different Protestant Churches on the question of whether genetic parenthood may intentionally be separated from social parenthood through gametal or embryo donation.

A comparison between different approaches reveals different perceptions of what matters most in the relationship between husband and wife and in the relationship between parents and children. This study, which is part of a larger project aiming to compare the attitudes and understandings of a number of religions as well as national legalization, is restricted to the three main Churches in Britain, namely the Church of England, Catholic Church and Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Nevertheless, it shows how pluralist even Christian thinking is in regard to the procreation and the spousal relationship.

2. The Catholic Church

The most complete expression of the Catholic Church's perception of the family is probably to be found in Pope John Paul's Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, published in 1981. But the clearest statement on the new techniques of assisted conception and embryo research is to found in "Donum Vitae", issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1987.

Familiaris Consortio states that marriage is the only true foundation of the family. It emphasizes that children need security and that, as precious gifts to be cherished, they have a right to a stable home--a view that is echoed in the more recent document Donum Vitae.

In Familiaris Consortio, Pope John Paul II also explains the notion of the inseparability of the unitive and the procreative aspects of love in marriage. Citing Pope Paul VI's Encyclical Letter Humanae Vitae, of 1968, he says that: the teaching of the Church is founded upon the separable connection, willed by God and unable to be broken by man on his own initiative, between the two meanings of the conjugal act, namely the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning.

To show the full implications of this statement, it may be supplemented with the following quotation from "Donum Vitae":

"the moral relevance of the link between the meanings of the conjugal act and between the goods of marriage, as well as the unity of the human being and the dignity of his origin, demand that the procreation of a human person be brought about as the fruit of the conjugal act specific to the love between spouses" (Donum Vitae, II, 4).

On this view, all forms of contraception-- except 'natural family planning', involving abstinence from sexual intercourse during the woman's fertile days--are ruled out. Prohibited too are all forms of assisted conception involving gametal donation and/or treatment establishing a pregnancy by by-passing sexual intercourse.

Gametal donation, replacing one of the spouses with a donor, is seen as a form of spousal infidelity. It is also regarded as a violation of the rights of the child, because it "deprives him of his filial relationship with his parental origins and can hinder the maturing of his personal identity" (Donum Vitae II, 2). Warning that the rupture between genetic motherhood and gestational motherhood, or between biological fatherhood and social fatherhood, through egg or sperm donation, may have adverse effects, the document states that such a rupture may not only damage personal relationships within the family but may also have social repercussions: "what threatens the unity and stability of the family is a source of dissension, disorder and injustice in the whole of social life" (Donum Vitae, II, 2).

And surrogacy is described as a failure to meet the obligations of maternal love and as a detriment to families. For it sets up "a division between the physical, psychological and moral elements which constitute those families" (Donum Vitae, II, 3).

Donum Vitae condemns extra-corporeal conception and other forms of assisted conception by-passing intercourse by saying that they separate the corporeal and spiritual aspects of human love and violate the child's right to be conceived as the fruit of an act that represents at the same time a both spiritual and bodily union. To conceive a child by by-passing intercourse is equivalent to reducing it to a product of scientific technology" (Donum Vitae, II, 4). And "no one", it is argued, "may subject the coming of a child into the world to conditions of technical efficiency which are to be evaluated according to standards of control and domination" (Ibid.).

Assisted conception by-passing intercourse, entrusting the embryo to the power of doctors and biologists, creates, it is argued, a relationship of domination that is "contrary to the dignity and equality that must be common to parents and children" (Donum Vitae, II, 5).

Equally uncompromising is the Catholic Church's stand on abortion. In The Declaration on Procured Abortion, published by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1974, it is emphasised that the Catholic Church regards human life as inviolable from the time of conception. It is pointed out that the Catholic Church always took this view, even if, because of different opinions about the timing of animation, the Church did not always regard the early fetus or embryo as a person.

Arguing that human life is continuous from the time of conception, the more recent document Donum Vitae declares that: "the human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; therefore, from the same moment, his rights as a person must be recognised, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life" (Donum Vitae, I, 1). It follows, on this view, that all destructive embryo research is ruled out (Donum Vitae, I, 3, 4).

3. The Church Of England

In 1965, during the early stages of the parliamentary process which resulted in the 1967 Abortion Act, the Board of Social Responsibility of the Church of England (BSR) issued a report entitled Abortion: an Ethical Discussion. This document rejects the "absolutist position" of the Catholic Church. Basing its argument on a historical survey of the Christian understanding of animation, the Board arrives at the conclusion that in certain circumstances abortion can be justified for the sake of the woman.

Thus, by reference to the long tradition of the belief in delayed animation, the Board describes the fetus as "potential human life" only and argues that there are times when the interest of the mother and her family take priority over the rights of the fetus (BSR, 1965, 61). Among the conditions said to justify an abortion are the adverse effects on the mother and her family of a continued pregnancy and the "risk of a defective or deformed child" (BSR 1965, 36-45, 61). In short, the document endorses abortion both for social and for eugenic reasons.

Anglican statements on assisted conception are similarly non-absolutist. In response to the Warnock Report of 1984, it brought out two documents, one in 1984 and one in 1985. Both documents bear witness to a wide diversity of opinion within the Church of England.

The issues that are most controversial are embryo research and gametal donation. Both documents affirm the sanctity of human life, while questioning the view that early embryonic life is personal (BSR 1984. 8; BSR 1985, Paras. 133-139). The 1985 document states that the committee preparing the document could reach no agreement on embryo research (Ibid.). Both documents reflect a general agreement to the effect that procreation ought to take place within marriage.

The Anglican Church allows contraception. It is, therefore, argued in the 1985 document that it would be illogical not to allow artificial insemination by husband (AIH). Contraception interferes with the course of nature by separating procreation from the act of intercourse. In either case 'sex' is separated from procreation. Hence, "approval of AIH would seem to follow naturally from the Church of England's stance on contraception" (BSR 1985, para. 117).

The same argument is said to apply to "in vitro" fertilization (IVF) within marriage (using the gametes of the couple). Thus, were it not for the fact that the procedure is bound up with embryo research and embryo wastage, there would be no moral problem from the Anglican majority point of view. However, some of the members of the committee preparing the 1985 document said that IVF entailed an unacceptable form of treatment of nascent human life (BSR 1985, para. 118).

Referring to different traditions, the document states that there are different opinions within the Anglican camp about gametal donation. "There are those who think that the genetic origins of a child are fundamentally important and those who think that what is more important is the loving nurture of the child in a stable relationship" (BSR 1985, para.108). Some think that "if donation takes place within a stable marital relationship, it still has the status of a good", while others hold that it threatens marriage, as understood by Christians, and that it should be strongly discouraged" (Ibid.).

Some argue that in gametal donation, such as artificial insemination by donor (AID), where one of the spouses is replaced by another person for the purpose of procreation, is a threat to the family. For even if such procedures do not constitute adultery and infidelity in the sense of sexual intercourse with a person who is not one's spouse, they introduce a third party into the intimacy of procreation and family life (BSR 1985, para. 109). Another argument against donation is that, since the anonymity of the donor is protected under British law, the practice involves intentionally placing children in a situation where they will be deprived of knowledge concerning their true genetic origins (BSR 1985, para. 108).

The 1985 document makes it clear that there is no overall consensus as to whether egg donation is, in principle, the same as AID or not. The reasons for not considering egg donation on a par with AID would be that it separates gestational motherhood from genetic motherhood and is a more technical procedure than AID and, in addition, exposes the donor to a risk (BSR 1985, para. 123).

There is unanimous agreement to the effect that surrogacy arrangements are unacceptable. It is explained that those who accept egg donation do so because they consider the gestational role of motherhood more important that genetic motherhood and, hence, that they cannot accept surrogacy which entails a denial of the importance of the gestational relationship. In addition it is argued that "while there is nothing wrong with adoption, there is something undesirable about creating children specifically for the purpose of adoption" (BSR 1985, para. 111).

The Board also points to the psychological complications that might arise from surrogacy arrangements due to the bonding between the surrogate mother and the child during pregnancy". It also says that the idea of surrogacy contracts entail legal complications and that it is an indignity for a woman to be paid for womb-letting services (BSR 1985, para. 126).

4. The Church Of Scotland

The Presbyterian Church of Scotland, like the Church of England, houses a variety of opinions. Nevertheless, it can be said that the statements by the Board of Social Responsibility of the Church of Scotland has over the years expressed a more conservative attitude than the Church of England towards abortion and the parent-child relationship.

In a 1985 comment by its General Assembly , the Church of Scotland reaffirmed the belief in the inviolability of the fetus, which it had expressed in its 1966 response to the abortion debate in the mid-1960s when abortion was legalized in Britain (Church of Scotland 1985). The Board argued that the inviolability of the fetus is absolute except when the mother's life is threatened and after all other alternatives have been exhausted. However, in a subsequent deliverance, in 1986, it adopted a less restrictive stand and argued that abortion is also permissible when there is a serious risk to the mother's physical or mental health (Church of Scotland 1986).

Given its rather conservative stand, it is not surprising that the Board of Social Responsibility should have begun its comment on the "Warnock Report" by objecting to the fact that the Report totally side-stepped the question of when human life begins and, thereby, the question of the status of the human embryo (Church of Scotland 1985, 150-151).

Like the Catholic Church, the Church of Scotland argues that the embryo has a right to be treated as a human being from the moment of conception (Ibid.). It rejects all forms of embryo research, the creation of embryos for research purposes as well as the sale of embryos (Church of Scotland 1985, 154).

The Board also rejects AID and other forms of gametal donation, as well as embryo donation and surrogacy. This is on the ground that these practices are contrary to the Christian concept of marriage (Church of Scotland 1985, 152-153). It does, however, accept artificial insemination by husband and also--though more cautiously--IVF within marriage. It argues that assisted conception using gametes provided by the couple respects the Christian requirement that the man and the wife should treat each other as irreplaceable in procreation--but that this is not true in the case of gametal donation (Ibid.). It is said that gametal donation introduces a third party into the process of procreation. The reason the Board is hesitant about IVF is that it tends to involve embryo wastage, which raises the question "concerning deliberate creation of life without hope of its potential being realized (Ibid.).

It is particularly noteworthy that the Board recommends that embryos which have been stored for future use, but which will not be used by the parent couple, should be destroyed. The Board does not want these embryos to be used for research. And it does not want them to be adopted by other couples. This is for the same reason as it objects to gametal donation (Church of Scotland 1985, 153-154).

5. Summary

The most significant differences between the three Churches in the area of procreation concern their approach to the two ends of marriage. These differences reveal very different perceptions of what is important in human actions and human relationships. In some respects the Church of Scotland adopts a position somewhere between the very conservative Catholic approach and some of the more liberal voices in the Anglican camp. Like the Catholic Church, it stresses the importance of genetic ties between parents and children, but it does not express the same absolutist views on contraception and extra-corporeal conception.

While all three Churches recognize both the unitive and the procreative ends of marriage, the 1985 Church of England document discussed above explicitly argues against the Catholic view of the inseparability of the unitive and the procreative ends of marriage on each and every occasion of intercourse or each and every time a child is begotten.

On the view expressed by the Church of England in the 1985 document, the Catholic view is too act oriented and too biological. Instead of focusing on the individual sexual act and insisting that it should always be open to its procreative potential, the Anglicans argues that what matters is that both ends of marriage be realized within the relationship, seen as a whole, over time. They hold that it is justifiable to separate the unitive and procreative aspects of sexual intercourse, both on individual occasions and for longer periods in order to promote the long-term good of the unitive relationship between husband and wife.

Hence, on the Anglican understanding, contraception seen as justified when a couple regard this as in their best interest. What matters is what happens in and to the relationship over time and not what happens at the time of the individual act of intercourse.

Likewise, according to this Anglican account, there is nothing intrinsically wrong in separating the unitive and procreative ends of marriage by means of techniques of assisted conception which by-pass sexual intercourse, even if many Anglicans object to such techniques insofar as they involve embryo wastage.

Indeed, techniques of assisted conception are welcomed inasmuch as their aim is to realize the procreative end of marriage. In so doing they might promote the full realization of both ends of marriage, when otherwise one of these aspects may remain unfulfilled to the detriment of the other. For the fulfillment of the procreative end might strengthen the unitive aspect of marriage.

What these differences between the Churches bring to the fore, then, is that the Catholic Church is concerned with the intrinsic good of the individual action and sees human relationships as constituted by such acts. Each act of intercourse or procreation is seen as reflecting an attitude to the relationship; and for this reason each act must be at once spiritual and physical. Seeing the human being as body and spirit at once, the Catholic Church rejects a dualistic understanding both of the individual person and of personal relationships as reflected in human action. In this sense the Catholic Church advocates a holistic understanding of the person.

The Church of England, on the other hand, takes a global view of human relationships and looks to the good of the long-term relationship of the married couple. In addition, it gives the social aspects of the parent-child relationship priority over the biological aspects.


Board for Social Responsibility [of the Church of England], The Church of England Assembly (1965): Abortion: An Ethical Discussion, Oxford.
Board for Social Responsibility [Church of England] (1984): Human Fertilization and Embryology: the Response of the Board of Social Responsibility of the General Synod of the Church of England to the DHSS Report of the Committee of Inquiry, London.
Board for Social Responsibility [Church of England] (1985): Personal Origins: the Report of a Working Party on Human Fertilisation and Embryology of the Board for Social Responsibility, London.
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1987): Donum Vitae.
General Assembly of the Church of Scotland (1985): Deliverance of the General Assembly by the Church of Scotland on the Report of the Board of Social Responsibility', in Church of Scotland Board of Social Responsibility (1987): Abortion in Debate, Edinburgh.
General Assembly of the Church of Scotland (1986): Deliverance of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland on the Report of the Board of Social Responsibility', in Church of Scotland Board of Social Responsibility (1987): Abortion in Debate, Edinburgh.
John Paul II, Pope (1981), Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio.
Paul VI, Pope (1968): Encyclical letter Humanae Vitae.
Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1974): Declaration on Procured Abortion.

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