Is There a Right to a Child?
The goal to be a father, to be a mother, is a human right. An absolute human right.
~Italian infertility specialist Severino Antinori.1
God bestowed men and women with an innate desire to procreate and to nurture their children. This is one of the most fundamental instincts of all, shared by all of God’s creatures. But sometimes God’s plan for our lives differs from our own, and couples find that they cannot have their own natural children.
In this most complex of issues―infertility and its possible resolutions―there is a great amount of confusion and misunderstanding regarding the teachings of the Catholic Church. After all, we have a virtual universe of surgical and medical procedures to evaluate, with new ones being announced on nearly a monthly basis. We must consider the impregnation of single women and lesbian couples with sperm; various forms of surgery to repair damaged reproductive systems; early human embryos grown in cow or other animal uteri (“xenotransplantation”); numerous variants of in-vitro fertilization (IVF); designer babies conceived solely to avoid (or even inherit) certain genetic diseases; reproductive cloning; and surrogate motherhood, to name just a few.
We must judge each specific procedure on its own merits, but underlying all of them is the fundamental question: “Is having children a right?”
IVF specialist Randy S. Morris, M.D., says, “A different [religious] view states that in order to determine God’s will, fertility treatments must first be tried. If God truly does not want a couple to have children, he will simply prevent the treatments from working.”
Unfortunately, Dr. Morris’ misunderstanding of Church teachings is shared by many. Under the same reasoning, I could point a gun at someone and pull the trigger. If God desires my intended victim to live, He will make certain that the gun jams or misfires. Whether it is reproductive technologies or outright murder, God permits us to bypass His will for our lives because He has given us the most precious gift of free will. He allows us to choose evil.
Then Dr. Morris goes on to accurately describe the difference between morally licit and illicit ARTs:
If a couple has no right to a child, then it can be argued that a doctor lacks the moral justification to help produce one for them. While it may be moral to treat a disease which hinders the body from producing a child, such as surgery to open blocked fallopian tubes, it would be morally unacceptable to use those treatments which aim to produce a child but still leaves a couple infertile. IVF would fall into this latter category.
In practice, impermissible assisted reproductive technologies do not seek to heal an illness or injury. They instead cater to a desire by bypassing or replacing the marital act. By contrast, licit ARTs actually treat an injury or a defect, with the intent of allowing the married couple to conceive naturally.
Is Having Children a Right?
As the quotation at the beginning of this article demonstrates, many scientists equate urges and wants with “basic human rights.” Large multinational organizations are taking up this cause; the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) recently published a document claiming that the inability to have children (including a lack of success in finding a sexual “partner”) constitutes a disability that governments are obligated to ameliorate, giving every person a “right to reproduce.”2 In other words, single men and women are by definition “infertile.” Fertility specialist David Adamson, one of the authors of the new and expanded classification of “infertility,” claims that the new definition
…puts a stake in the ground and says an individual’s got a right to reproduce whether or not they have a partner. It’s a big change. It fundamentally alters who should be included in this group and who should have access to healthcare. It sets an international legal standard. Countries are bound by it.
Apparently, the ivory tower medical bureaucrats at the WHO are blissfully unaware that every new “right” they invent necessitates a corresponding obligation on the part of others—in this case, the use of a woman’s body, a fact noted and rightly criticized by leading feminists.
Simply proclaiming something to be “an absolute human right” does not magically make it so. Even a happily married couple with ample resources does not have a right to a child, because a child is a person, and nobody has a “right” to another person.
We are all created in the image and likeness of God, and therefore share in His dignity. Unfortunately, our world is rife with violations of this dignity, especially at life’s beginning and at its end. In addition, married couples share an additional unique and precious dignity due to the fact that they have been united in one flesh. When other parties are introduced into their co-creation of a child, many problems―both spiritual and physical―will result.
Of all people, pro-life activists can empathize with the yearning for a child that an infertile couple experiences. Crisis pregnancy center workers and sidewalk counselors, especially, are struck by the irony of abortionists killing thousands of perfectly healthy children every day―while thousands of couples undergo the stress and pain of a complicated and expensive series of tests and procedures so they can have what others are contemptuously disposing of as “biological waste.”
People who know infertile couples often wish that they could somehow miraculously present them with the infant they long for.
This kind response is commendable, but unfortunately it defines children as a “right” and intrinsically and unconsciously reduces their status from a supreme “gift of the Lord” (Psalm 127:3) to an acquisition or a possession. Worse, it seems that those who promote the most popular assisted reproductive technologies do not even begin to consider the impacts the procedures may have on resulting children.
Donum Vitae explains:
A true and proper right to a child would be contrary to the child’s dignity and nature. The child is not an object to which one has a right, nor can he be considered as an object of ownership: rather, a child is a gift, “the supreme gift” and the most gratuitous gift of marriage, and is a living testimony of the mutual giving of his parents. For this reason, the child has the right, as already mentioned, to be the fruit of the specific act of the conjugal love of his parents; and he also has the right to be respected as a person from the moment of his conception. [II,8]
Our Lord gives every one of us crosses to bear. Some of these involve losses close to us and are much more difficult to carry than others―such as the death of a child, the inability to conceive or lack of success in finding a spouse.
The thinking that there is a “right” to a child is a derivation of the mentality that is confused about the nature of true freedom. True freedom is doing what you should do, not what you want to do. Those who pursue their desires without regard for the moral law are enslaved to those wants and tend to trample any person or law that gets in their way.
We can respond to the severe trial of childlessness or an inability to find a spouse in one of two ways. We can struggle against them with all of our energy and strength, and, whether we conquer them or not, find ourselves afflicted with a strange emptiness of soul. Or we can use licit technology in an attempt to bypass our infertility, while acknowledging God’s mastery over our lives, knowing that our ultimate happiness is His concern.
Donum Vitae offers hope and solace to infertile couples:
Spouses who find themselves in this sad situation are called to find in it an opportunity for sharing in a particular way in the Lord’s Cross, the source of spiritual fruitfulness. Sterile couples must not forget that even when procreation is not possible, conjugal life does not for this reason lose its value. Physical sterility in fact can be for spouses the occasion for other important services to the life of the human person, for example, adoption, various forms of educational work, and assistance to other families and to poor or handicapped children. [II,8]
 Italian infertility specialist Severino Antinori, quoted in the Lexington Herald-Leader, January 26, 2001 and the SPUC News Digest for 30 January 2001.
 Julian Vigo. “The World Health Organization And The ‘Right’ To Reproduce.” The Huffington Post Blog, October 31, 2016. Males could even be classified as “infertile” in the sense that “the inability to find a suitable sexual partner—or the lack of sexual relationships which could achieve conception—could be considered an equal disability.”
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Dr. Brian Clowes has been HLI’s director of research since 1995 and is one of the most accomplished and respected intellectuals in the international pro-life movement. Best known as author of the most exhaustive pro-life informational resource volume The Facts of Life, and for his Pro-Life Basic Training Course, Brian is the author of nine books and over 500 scholarly and popular articles, and has traveled to 70 countries on six continents as a pro-life speaker, educator and trainer.