Separating the Inseparable: Technology’s Sexual Nihilism
by Bethany Wall
The sad irony of contraception’s desire to cling to sex without its procreative consequences is that in its separating of the unitive from the procreative, both union and procreation have been removed from sex itself, rendering the act empty and meaningless.
There is an “inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.” So writes Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae, his 1968 encyclical on contraception. This claim not only presupposes an anthropology—a particular way of understanding the human person and especially the body, marriage, and the child—but also implies a link between the entire material order and human freedom.
Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, Paul VI’s warning hasn’t stopped man from attempting to break that “inseparable connection” through technological means. The attempts have not been without consequences. The unitive and procreative aspects of the conjugal act are intertwined to such a degree that man’s attempts to uphold one without the other has led, in ways that are still unfolding, to a destruction of both.
Getting Sexual Anthropology Right
At stake in the question of contraception is the meaning of the sexual act and whether its natural ordination to procreation is essential to it. The inseparability doctrine is grounded in an understanding of the entire natural world as orderedand meaningful, and human freedom as inherently linked to its truth. The human person is not understood here, as the modern philosophers would conceive him, as a reasonable entity whose dominion lies over and against a nature drained of form and finality. Rather, precisely by his reason is man able to recognize the truth of the natural world and by his freedom to raise it up to the realm of the personal by acting in accordance with it.
Following this logic, both the male and female bodies and their union in the sexual act are understood as latent with a given order that the freedom of man and woman consents to. Further, the fruitfulness of the sexual act is understood as already implicit in sexual difference—in the very bodily existence of the parents, fit for one another. Thus, we see the inseparability doctrine confirmed rather obviously in the natural order: man and woman’s ordination to union is one and the same as their ordination to fruitfulness.
The child here is understood not as a product of the parents’ willful choosing, but as a surprising outcome of an already fruitful love between mother and father. This ontological foundation of the child in the loving act of his parents affects both how the parents view the child and the child’s own existential understanding of himself—as a gift born of love and therefore not first as an isolated individual defined by an unaffected will.
Unity Without Procreation
The acceptance of contraception presupposes an entirely different, fragmented paradigm of humanity—one in which nature is unintelligible and burdensome, over and against which stands the human will. Contraception renders the procreative dimension of sex optional; it can be added or subtracted by a sheer exercise of the parents’ will. As David Crawford points out, what used to be considered teleological “ends” inherent in nature “are reduced to personal goals or aims.” The child becomes a choice to be responsibly made when the time is right—the object of a plan rather than a gift to be accepted.
At first glance, this is simply a logical unfolding of the modern worldview that sees man’s main task to be a will-based rationalization of a meaningless physical order. Contraception frees couples from unwanted pregnancy, so that they can reap the benefits of sexual intimacy without the burdens of its natural outcomes. What was perhaps not so obvious in the ’60s and ’70s was just how deeply this fragmentation would run. To empty sexuality of its procreative meaning is also to drain the male and female bodies of their procreative ordination to each other, of their potential fruitfulness. The sexual act comes to be understood as an encounter of meaningless body parts, which become significant only through the will’s sentimental or erotic inscriptions. It consequently becomes impossible to discern any reasonable difference between a man-woman couple and a same-sex couple.
Where contraception is the norm, sex becomes normatively non-procreative, and this “entails a basically ‘gay’ (and disintegrative) anthropology,” whichCrawford calls “liberal androgyny.” Liberal androgyny “merely grafts the possibility for ‘heterosexuality’ onto this anthropology as one of its variations.” Homosexuality becomes not only one possibility among many but thearchetypal (even if not statistical) norm of sexuality. This is not just an outcome—a logical unfolding—of contraception, but the logical foundation for its acceptance.
Procreation Without Unity
The attempt to remove procreation from union, then, inevitably forces us to reconceive union along the lines of liberal androgyny; so also does liberal androgyny undermine a true understanding of procreation, turning the child into a product of the will rather than an overflowing of parental love.
With procreation divorced from the union of a man and a woman in a loving sexual act, the difference between natural conception in the womb and artificial conception in the lab becomes more and more difficult to uphold. Technology has long been deployed to help couples avoid children; now, especially with the widespread social and legal acceptance of same-sex marriage, it is being used by couples (or individuals) wanting a child.
If ARTs are to be the sole way for same-sex couples to have children, then,writes Michael Hanby, they must be “not merely a remedy for infertility but a normative form of reproduction equivalent to procreation.” Once more, the deployment of technologies in the realm of sexuality tends to strip the sexual act of its natural fruitfulness and of any meaning that would distinguish it from the technological alternative. Once conception has been rendered only accidentally dependent on the sexual union of a man and a woman, and once the womb of a woman becomes drained of meaning beyond pure function, the lab simply becomes a better version of the womb, into which human control extends more fully.
What began with the practice of artificial insemination and implantation has already advanced to include genetic screening and selection of embryos. This development is unsurprising once sheer will has become the driving force of reproduction. If procreation is to occur only when the desiring individual wants it, then it is natural for wanting a child to turn into wanting this specific child, with these characteristics and without those defects. The President’s Council on Bioethics had already recognized this tendency in 2003. The practice of prenatal screening and embryo selection, the Council reported,
has established as a cultural norm . . . a new notion about children: the notion that admission to life is no longer unconditional . . . [T]here appears to be a growing consensus, both in the medical community and society at large, that a child-to-be should meet a certain (for now minimal) standard to be entitled to be born . . . Finally, the practice of prenatal screening establishes the principle that parents may choose the qualities of their children . . . This new principle in conjunction with the cultural norm just mentioned, may already be shifting parental and societal attitudes toward prospective children: from simple acceptance to judgment and control.
The contrast with Pope Paul VI’s anthropology could not be starker. The child here is not viewed as a new and surprising gift, springing from the inherently fruitful love of his parents, but as the outcome of one or two or more individuals’ self-directed wills. Because children are thus viewed as mere extensions of the self, and because the modern self is equated with the will, the child becomes logically—even if not yet genetically—a product indistinguishable from the parent’s will and therefore from the parent him- or herself. Although cloning still strikes much of the public as the bottom of a frightening but surely fanciful slippery slope, in the same way that Crawford’s liberal androgyny is alreadyinchoately present at the foundation of a contraceptive mentality, the logic of cloning is in some way present already at the foundation of ARTs.
In its 2002 report on human cloning, the President’s Council notes that “cloning has arisen, not so much because it was actively sought for its own sake, but because it is a natural extension of certain biotechnological advances of the past several decades.” That isn’t to say there isn’t something novel about cloning; it establishes “the introduction of asexual reproduction,” which raises a host of problems regarding the physical relationship of one generation to the next, the meaning of parenthood, and the existential identity of the cloned child. But for all its novelty and all the questions it has provoked both in the public sphere and among bioethicists, the possibility of cloning is contained within the logic of the biotechnical promise: to give “humanity the power to alter and ‘master’ itself.” It in fact seems to be the archetype of this promise in that it extends total will-based (and therefore self-mirroring) control over the child’s genotype.
The President’s Council poignantly stated that “a society that clones human beings thinks about human beings (and especially children) differently than does a society that refuses to do so.” A society that views relationships in light of a paradigmatic liberal androgyny will, it seems, necessarily come to view procreation in light of a paradigmatic asexual form of manufacturing that avoids the unpredictability and contingencies of natural processes. As a result, both differentiation in union and the gift character of procreation are replaced by a desire for sameness and control.
Reality Reasserts Itself
All of that said, reality still gives us cause for hope in that it remains and often reasserts itself through these distortions. Same-sex relationships, even in their denial of the sexual meaning inherent to the body, still rely on its sexualization and as such remain parasitic on the ordination of the male body to the female and vice versa. With ARTs, while the process has been technologized, the creation of an embryo still depends on the union of sperm and egg. When it comes to cloning, though dependence on the sexually differentiated body is less obvious, it remains in that the forty-six chromosomes needed for the act of cloning imply the joining of an egg and sperm at some point in the past. Procreation—even under the method of cloning—can never be truly asexual,just as no relationship between embodied persons can ever be truly androgynous. Further, it is absolutely the case that a child born through ARTs still retains the gift character of a new and uniquely existent being. Even a cloned child would remain a new being, regardless of his or her genotype, whose existence is only possible through a man-woman relationship at some point in time.
To return to where we began, Paul VI’s inseparability doctrine is not simply a moral imperative but an ontological assessment of the sexual act. The sad irony of contraception’s desire to cling to sex without its procreative consequences is that in its separating of the unitive from the procreative, both union and procreation have been removed from sex itself, rendering the act empty and meaningless. With the intrusion of technology, union and procreation have been extracted from the objectivity of the act, and exiled to the realm of subjectivity in the human psyche and will. As we have seen, far from humanizing sex and procreation, this attempt unravels them in an inherent logic of androgynous relationality and asexual reproduction. Union and procreation in the sex act cannot be separated; the technical attempts to do so have resulted in a kind of nihilism that denies the meaning of sex, union, and procreation altogether.
Bethany Wall graduated in May 2016 with her MTS from the John Paul II Institute for Marriage & Family Studies in Washington, DC.