On March 10, 1987, the Vatican statement on human reproduction was made public. In a tightly reasoned, logical fashion, its architects apply traditional Roman Catholic understandings of the nature of the human person and of marriage to several crucial ethical issues of the day—abortion and fetal experimentation, artificial fertilization, and legislation in these areas.

Basically, this document voices a necessary caution regarding the advancing technology that threatens respect for the mysteries of human life and procreation. But one point has already generated special interest and controversy: the evaluation of artificial insemination.

The document rightly distinguishes between two types of artificial fertilization: “heterologous” (conception apart from the husband-wife bond) and “homologous” (conception between husband and wife). The magisterium is surely correct in warning against conception outside the marriage bond. This warning is based on a properly high view of marriage: “The fidelity of the spouses in the unity of marriage involves reciprocal respect of their right to become a father and a mother only through each other.”

To this basis could be added the practical problems our society faces when artificial fertilization brings parties other than husband and wife into the procreative process. Cases of children seeking their genetic fathers or mothers, lawsuits surrounding the rights of surrogates, and the problem of disposing of the unwanted embryos from in vitro fertilizations are but the beginning of what could develop in the future. Although the proper Christian response to this may not be the simple categorical rejection proposed by the Vatican, the Catholic hierarchy has done all of us a service by bravely articulating a needed warning in this area.

The Vatican then speaks against the second variety of artificial fertilization, disallowing nearly all types of technological assistance in the procreative process, even when no third party is introduced. At the heart of this condemnation is an affirmation of the “inseparable connection … between the two meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning.” Based on this conviction, the document condemns not only artificial birth control (for thereby the sex act can occur without “respect for its openness to creation”) and in vitro fertilization, but also artificial insemination (“the transfer into the genital tracts of a married woman of the sperm previously collected from her husband”). Fertilization through these means, the document maintains, undermines the origin of the human person as the result of “an act of giving,” the fruit of the parent’s love; and it results in the child being “an object of scientific technology.” In other words, “such fertilization entrusts the life and identity of the embryo into the power of doctors and biologists and establishes the domination of technology over the origin and destiny of the human race.”

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Here again one must applaud the magisterium for launching a commendable attempt to maintain the mystery of human procreation in the face of the unchallenged intrusion of technology into human life. Yet, the warning against artificial insemination is ill advised. The wholesale rejection of technological assistance in the natural human drive to produce offspring in which the husband’s sperm is implanted into the wife’s body is unwarranted. In fact, the rejection voiced by the Vatican document arises out of a truncated (and therefore damaging) understanding of the sex act within the context of marriage. By insisting that the “unitive meaning” of the sex act, which the document acknowledges, cannot be separated from the “procreative meaning,” the magisterium is maintaining virtually unaltered the antiquated understanding that works to limit sexual activity to procreation.

The document’s understanding of the sex act is truncated, for within the marriage bond sexual activity can carry other equally significant meanings.

First, this act is an expression of the self-giving of the marriage partners. Marriage is intended to be the most intimate human relationship, one in which each person gives freely of his or her self for the sake of the other. This self-giving is to be expressed in the mundane aspects of daily life together. But the highest symbol of one’s willingness to give of oneself freely and totally to one’s spouse and to develop a fully intimate relationship is the sex act. In this act, one gives oneself fully and unashamedly and becomes fully vulnerable and open to the other. In this act, one seeks to please and fulfill the need of the other.

Second, in the context of marriage the sex act is a spiritual metaphor. As an expression of the giving of oneself for the other, this act is a vivid reminder of the self-giving love of Christ for the church. Paul uses marriage metaphorically when instructing the church in Ephesus (Eph. 5:22–33). Husbands are admonished to love their wives as Christ loved the church. The apostle then applies the Genesis statement concerning a man leaving parents to be joined with a wife (Gen. 2:24), which carries implicit sexual overtones, metaphorically to Christ and the church.

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The sex act, as a sign of the desire to give of oneself completely, is an appropriate reminder of the spiritual truth that Jesus has given himself completely for his church. The coming together of the marriage partners with the intent to please and satisfy each other in this intensely intimate act speaks of Jesus’ act of total self-giving in living and dying for others. As one’s first desire in the sexual act should be to please the other, so also Jesus sought to meet the ultimate human need for spiritual intimacy with God.

Finally, the sex act may be seen as the “sacrament” of the marriage covenant. This is not to suggest that marriage is a “means of grace.” Rather, sexual intercourse is an outward act that seals and signifies an inward commitment. In marriage the partners enter into a mutual covenant, as they pledge their faithfulness to each another. Their commitment is sealed in the marriage bed; and the continuing practice of the sex act is a repeated reaffirmation of their pledge.

These three aspects of the meaning of the sex act may all exist apart from the procreative intent. In fact, rather than the procreative meaning being central for the unitive meaning (as is implied in the Vatican statement), these aspects of the sex act form the context for procreation. As self-giving love is creative, so the giving of oneself in the marriage act can be procreative within the context of the marital covenant.

The position of the Vatican document is also dangerous. By maintaining the inseparability of the unitive and procreative meanings of the sex act, it fails to see that the latter properly belongs in the context of the three other, more profound meanings. The outworking of the document is an unwholesome, tacit condemnation of marital sexual relations where no “openness to procreation” is possible or intended. This precludes sex for a great many married couples, including those who are seeking to practice responsible family planning or are beyond the childbearing years. In contrast, however, Paul never discourages the practice of sexual relations, except for the purpose of concentrated prayer (1 Cor. 7:3–5).

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The position of the Vatican document that underlies its rejection of artificial insemination by husband (AIH,) therefore, is questionable. A fuller understanding of the meaning of the sex act within the marital bond would welcome as God’s gift, and not discourage, technological assistance in procreation—so long as the process employed is not objectionable on other moral grounds (as is the case, for example, with in vitro fertilization), AIH assists in the formation of new life—the natural offspring of the marital union—giving expression to the creative love present in the union of husband and wife.

What does the Vatican document offer childless marriages? Infertile couples are called to find in their situation “an opportunity for sharing in a particular way in the Lord’s cross.…” Such persons are encouraged to adopt or engage in assisting other families. While these commendable suggestions ought to be given careful consideration, they must not be cited as the only options.

For some infertile couples, the desire to experience the joy of being partners with God in the mystery of procreation may be a divinely given impulse, which ought to be facilitated when morally and technologically feasible. By developing the means to implant the husband’s sperm into the wife’s body, modern medical technology has provided hope for some infertile couples that this joy may be realized.

Stanley J. Grenz is associate professor of systematic theology and Christian ethics at North American Baptist Seminary, Sioux Falls, South Dakota. A member of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, he recently coedited Christian Freedom: Essays in Honor of Vernon Grounds.

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