JULY 6, 2008, Vol 58, No 14

THE BRITISH PARLIAMENT’S decision on May 19 to allow laboratories in Britain to create a new kind of embryo, part human and part animal, was hailed as a victory for science over religious (and specifically Catholic) doctrine.
In reality, it was the victory of a newly fashionable secularist dogma – the notion that scientific inquiry should be unconstrained – over the far more reasonable idea that tampering with human life for medical purposes requires a compelling ethical justification. The Parliament, in other words, has declared science in Britain to be an ethics-free zone.

This was made clear during a panel discussion held on the eve of the vote on the Human Fertilization
and Embryology Bill. The case in favour was put by a professor of genetics at Newcastle University, John Burn, a pioneer of stem cell research in the same institute that in the mid-1990s brought Dolly, the cloned sheep, into the world. Instead of a passionate defence of how vital embryonic stem cells are to future cures of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, Professor Burn candidly admitted that most of the funding and resourcing at his Center for Life went into ethically incontrovertible adult stem cells, where all the therapeutic advances have so far been made.

Embryonic research, he said, was a small sideline, involving just five percent of its research grants and only two scientists. But he believed that embryonic stem cell research (legal in Britain since the original H.F.E. Act of 1990) should continue, because it could yet yield results; and because there was a shortage of human eggs available for cloning, he wanted to be able to take a cow’s egg and fuse it with human cells. The future of embryonic research, in other words, requires hybrids (half-animal, half-human) as well as cybrids (99 percent human, 1 percent animal). Embryonic research was justified because it gave scientists more information about the behaviour of early stem cell development, not because it was expected to lead to cures. Professor Burn had no ethical problem with embryonic research and did not see why the Catholic Church – which, he claimed, had bizarre theories about 14-day-old embryos having souls – should be allowed to stop him.

Unlike the British prime minister, Gordon Brown, who has adopted the hype of the medical research lobby that embryo experiments are vital to achieving "breakthroughs" using stem cell research, Professor Burn stuck to facts. But what was missing from his justification was any moral calculation; there was no weighing up of the benefits of the ends against the ethical quandaries of the means. Having opened the door, he just wanted to open it farther, and he failed to see why anyone should block it with dogma.

Although the British press tried to raise it, Galileo’s ghost was nowhere to be seen in this debate.
In their mostly gentle statements (with the exception of Cardinal Keith O’Brien of Edinburgh, who could not resistsome Frankenstein metaphors), Catholic bishops have been careful to point out the benefits of stem cell research while reminding people that "scientific pragmatism is always counterbalanced with ethical considerations", as the Archbishop of Birmingham, Vincent Nichols, put it. The ethical duty that society owes to human life requires a stringent scrutiny of claims of possible benefits, he said. "If not, then early human life will become unprotected ‘fair game’ for any use at all."

The church, in other words, was proposing a reasoned examination of the ethics weighed against the
anticipated benefits – while the medical research lobby has been resorting to an entirely unreasonable claim to be free of any such examination.

The government went further, claiming that the prospect of cures made the research an "inherently moral endeavour". By focusing a skeptical public on the prospect of freedom from crippling diseases and by conflating the achievements in adult stem cell research with embryonic research, there was no need to deal with the ethical reservations. Prime Minister Gordon Brown claimed quite untruthfully that scientists "are close to the breakthroughs that will allow embryonic stem cells to be used to treat a much wider range of conditions", before adding, wildly, that medical researchers "argue that the safest way to maintain progress is to make use of animal eggs from which the animal genetic material is almost entirely removed".

Yet the progress of adult stem cell research in no way depends on or has even benefited from embryonic stem cell research. As a number of leading stem cell scientists wrote in a letter to The Times of London, "such proposals are highly speculative in comparison to established sources of human stem cells and we remain unaware of any cogent
evidence suggesting any might yield significant therapeutic dividend". Ethical considerations aside, it would be far too dangerous: they are prone to forming tumours. Some months ago the highly regarded New England Journal of Medicine regretted that "the technical difficulties and ethical complexities" of using cloned human embryonic stem cells "were always likely to render it impractical". As the neuroscientist Professor Neil Scolding wrote recently, "Few serious embryonic stem-cell scientists will speak in support of cybrid embryos specifically on the basis of their intrinsic potential for therapeutic research."

The idea that there is no need to weigh ethical reservations about the use of human life against the anticipated benefits of research makes Britain’s neighbours nervous. In Germany, where creating chimeras (human-animal
hybrids) is against the law, the German Medical Association said it showed that the British were "developing a completely different relationship to growing life". Germany’s 20th-century experience of the commodification of human beings has sensitized its culture to the need for placing moral fences around scientific research. But in Britain, members of Parliament who had the same sensitivity were drowned out by the panegyrics to scientific freedom and
the scornful dismissal of "religious" reservations. As Professor Burn told the panel, under the microscope 14-day-old human embryos "look just like semolina".

Austen Ivereigh, former adviser to Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, is a writer and journalist based in London. - , America - Jesuit Magazine

JOHN AND JOANN, like many young couples, wanted "to get to know each other for the first two years before planning for children". On her first visit to her gynaecologist, Joann learned that she was "sub-fertile" and had been scheduled to undergo a procedure to help her. But before she could go through it, she got pregnant.

The couple shared that their second child had been conceived while the two of them were staying in England for their studies, and the third and fourth children had come along while Joann was building up a career in law after having switched from being a school teacher. Their fifth and sixth child had come at the time of the financial crisis in the late 1990s when money was tight.

"We lived one day at a time," recalled John. He explained that in raising a family, a good approach is to "have one more child, then adjust the lifestyle and finances to accommodate the new addition". This practice that has served the Ooi family well over the past 20 years places greater importance on the child than on lifestyle and finances, and is truly a attitude that values children.

The couple shared that while they did practise NFP, they did not follow the guideline strictly. "Breaking the NFP rules was letting God have his way," said John. "One of the Christian virtues is to have faith in God and to be generous to the children that God gives us."

Indeed this seems to be a fundamental difference between contraception and NFP, even if both appear to achieve the same results in delaying a pregnancy.

To be sure, John and Joann had many a disagreement when raising a family in the Catholic way that is faithful to the message of "Humanae Vitae". John shared that the passage which he had the most trouble with, was:

"… responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time." – "Humanae Vitae", . 10

John shared that the particular order of the words helped him to
realize that responsible parenthood
meant making the first choice (generously decide to have more children), and to take the second choice only if there is a grave reason not to have more children.

"We’re glad that God has given us six children. Maybe not when the babies were coming," Joann shared frankly. "A lot of my friends and clients who are elderly with their children all grown up say that we are doing the right thing because looking back, they all wish they had a large family." - By Daniel Tay


SYBIL ANTHONY, AN NFP instructor since the 1980s, had always wanted to have a child of her
own. But since she was diagnosed
with end-stage renal failure soon after her wedding in 1988, it was impossible for her to get pregnant without it being a threat to her life.

Inspired by the message of
"Humanae Vitae" that contraception has no part in a Catholic marriage, Sybil and her husband Luke used Natural Family Planning (NFP) to delay pregnancy until a time was possible for her to bear children.

Teaching NFP at Blessed Sacrament Church and Church of the Risen Christ was tough for Sybil as she had to undergo dialysis three times a week, but serving God was her joy. What was too painful for her to bear was the medical advice that she could not have children.

Sybil was warned by her renal
doctor that if she were to conceive,
she would have to undergo daily dialysis and even then, it was not guaranteed that she would be able to bring her baby to term.

Fearing that such a pregnancy would also overwork her kidney, Sybil’s doctor wanted to put her on
the Pill, but Luke and Sybil told
the doctor that they were Catholics
and were practising NFP. The doctor was skeptical of the method,
but said that it was their choice.

In 1990, Sybil underwent a
kidney transplant and nine months
later, she asked her doctor if she could have a child. The doctor told her that it was doubtful, as the medication she was taking to prevent organ rejection also reduced her chances of getting pregnant. However, by using NFP, Luke and Sybil were able to conceive since they knew exactly when her fertile days were.

Five weeks later, Sybil was back in the hospital where she learnt that if she continued with the pregnancy, she would risk losing her transplanted kidney. The specialist tending to her then scheduled her immediately for an abortion, but Sybil refused to consent to the operation.

Knowing the risks that she was
taking, and the fact that she would
have to be hospitalized during most of her pregnancy, Sybil was determined that her child should be given the chance to live.

Seven months after conception,
Sybil faced another dilemma. Her renal doctor wanted to have the
baby delivered prematurely, as there
was a danger that the baby could kick inside the womb and injure the transplanted kidney. Sybil’s gynaecologist, however, was of the
opinion that the longer the baby stayed in the womb, the better the baby’s chances of survival.

That night, Sybil prayed for God to make the decision for her, and in the middle of the night, she felt a kick and her water bag burst. She soon realized that God did indeed intervene, and they had a healthy baby girl, although the baby did need incubation for her first few weeks.

Luke and Sybil believe that with
NFP, "we help couples to be open
to life and at the same time respect
human life and procreation". "We have seen couples avoid intercourse completely fearing pregnancy. That is sad, because NFP is available to all couples, and fertility awareness formed [through practice of] NFP have
resulted in couples communicating
more about their bodies and sexuality, which in turn improves communication skills throughout the entire marriage," they said.

Luke and Sybil also believe that the scheduled periods of abstinence required by couples delaying pregnancy through the use of NFP helps couples to experience a "courtship and honeymoon effect". It encourages couples to express love to each other in non-sexual ways, and to have a greater appreciation for intercourse when it does take place.

Their experience has shown that NFP can be used to not only delay pregnancy, but also to achieve it, which is something that contraceptives cannot do. - By Daniel Tay

SINGAPORE – A World Health Organization trial in five developing countries shows NFP to have an effective rate of more than 99 percent if used according to the guidelines. That is as good as oral contraceptives without any negative side effects.

Additional benefits that come from using NFP include shared responsibility for a pregnancy which lifts the burden of fertility control from one partner, and it encourages an attitude of mutual and responsible loving that is the foundation of successful and intelligent family planning.

According to "The Billings Method" by Dr Evelyn Billings and Dr Ann Westmore, "When a
woman knows the days when she
will not conceive, she loses her fear
and expresses her love generously.
Thus mutual love is generated."

About 90 percent of women can learn to identify her fertile days within a month of usage of NFP, but most take up to four cycles (or six months) to become confident of using NFP properly.

NFP is not limited to Catholics only, but, as it is a scientific method, it is available for use with any woman, regardless of the length and regularity of her menstrual cycle.

But if NFP is such a good method to delay pregnancies why are there so few NFP practitioners, and why do many priests seem reluctant to support and promote NFP in their parishes? And why doesn’t the government promote it more?

"Perhaps it is because we confuse NFP with the rhythm method," Gynaecologist Dr Douglas Ong told priests at their monthly day of recollection at the St. Francis Xavier Major Seminary on Jun 18. The secular media has been effective in promoting the rhythm method as ineffective, and many people, priests included, confuse the rhythm method with NFP, he said.

Dr John Hui, Immediate Past Master of the Catholic Medical Guild of Singapore, related that during his studies in medical school,
budding doctors were never even told of the existence of the Billings Ovulation Method. "We only heard of the rhythm method, which our professors immediately dismissed as unscientific and ineffective," he said.

Also, with contraception, which is heavily promoted, "there’s money to be made" through the sale of chemicals and devices, explained Luke Anthony, an NFP instructor. - By Daniel Tay


MUST SPOUSES HAVE as many children as is physically possible? This has never been the teaching of the church. Spouses are expected to be responsible about their child-bearing, to bring forth children that they can raise well. But the means used to limit family size must be moral.

Methods of Natural Family Planning are very effective means and moral means for planning one’s family; for helping spouses to get pregnant when they want to have a child and for helping them to delay having a child when it would not be responsible to have a child. NFP allows couples to respect their bodies, obey their God, and fully respect their spouses.

Natural Family Planning is not the outmoded rhythm method, a method which was based on the calendar. Rather, NFP is a highly scientific way of determining when a woman is fertile based on observing various bodily signs. The couple who want to avoid a pregnancy, abstain from sexual intercourse during the fertile period. The statistics on the reliability of NFP rival the most effective forms of the Pill. And NFP is without the health risks and it is moral.

Couples using NFP find that it has positive results for their marital relationships and their relationship with God. When couples are abstaining during the fertile period they are not thwarting the act of sexual intercourse since
they are not engaging in sexual intercourse. When they are engaging in sexual intercourse during the infertile period they are not withholding their fertility since they do not have it to give at that time. They learn to live in accord with the natural rhythms of their body. In a word, use of NFP may involve non-procreative acts, but never, as with contraception, anti-procreative acts.

Many find it odd that periodic abstinence should be beneficial rather than harmful to a marriage. But abstinence can be another way of expressing love, as it is between those who are not married, or between those for whom engaging in sexual intercourse involves a significant risk. Certainly most who begin to use NFP, especially those who were not chaste before marriage and who have used contraception, generally find the abstinence required to be a source of some strain and irritability. Abstinence, of course, like dieting or any form of self-restraint, brings its hardships; but like dieting and other forms of self-denial, it also brings its benefits. And after all, spouses abstain for all sorts of reasons – because one or the other
is out of town or ill, for instance.

Spouses using NFP find that the method helps them learn to communicate better with each other – and abstinence gives them the opportunity to do so. As they learn to communicate their affection in non-genital ways and as they learn to master their sexual desires, they find a new liberation in the ability to abstain from sexual intercourse. Many find that an element of romance re-enters the relationship during the times of abstinence and an element of excitement accompanies the reuniting. They have gained the virtue of self-mastery since now they can control their sexual desires rather than being in the control of their sexual desires.

Women using NFP generally feel revered by their husbands since their husbands do not make them use unhealthy and unpleasant contraceptives. Men using NFP generally have greater self-respect since they have gained control over their sexual desires and can now engage in sexual intercourse as an act of love not as an act of mere sexual urgency.

A proof that NFP is good for a marriage is that whereas in the U.S. over fifty percent of marriages end in divorce (and it is safe to assume that most of these couples are contracepting), very, very few couples who use NFP ever divorce; they seem to bond in a deeper way than those who are contracepting. - By Janet Smith