The Honourable Henry Thynn was born on 30 December 2016. His father was Lord Weymouth, but Lady Weymouth, 30 years old, did not give birth. That was an unnamed American lady who, for a consideration, undertook to carry the baby to term. Apparently US laws on surrogacy are more secure than ours. I am not concerned here with the morality of such an arrangement (which also, I assume, involved conception in vitro) but rather with the situation of any married woman for whom a pregnancy would be medically dangerous.
Lady Weymouth, 30 years old, has a rare condition called hypophysitis. It is a complex condition which had caused difficulties with her first pregnancy, and would seriously threaten her life through a second one. But for my purposes her condition stands in place of many commoner conditions which foresee dangers in pregnancy. I think in particular of a close friend who, after four children, was told that she should have no more because of her increasing tendency to blood clotting. She was 32. It must have been a difficult decision.
If we stand back from Catholic moral theology, we might think that the choice would be sterilisation. I know that in this case the couple considered this since they were faced by an imperative to avoid a conception. Their other possible choices were to use completely safe methods of contraception, or to cease marital congress for some 20 years and the arrival of menopause. They rejected contraception as the best approach, not only for aesthetic reasons but because the degree of danger, through faulty methodology or practice, was too high a risk where failure would mean the threat of maternal death.
Would this couple instead be well advised to reject refraining from marital congress? There was a time when the Church believed, and Augustine taught, that the sexual aspects of marriage were regrettable and only justified by the need for reproduction. It was taught that, although marital congress, being ordered by God, could not itself be condemned provided there was explicit intention to reproduce, it was effectively impossible to partake without being guilty of at least venial sins of lust. This teaching was never seriously questioned until the late 19th century, but step by reluctant step, the establishment has gradually accepted that, notwithstanding the obvious perils of lust, a married couple having a fine time in bed is a good thing.
We now understand that marital congress is at the centre of the intimacy which draws the couple together, completing and maintaining the concept of two into one flesh which Adam and Eve first expressed. And science complements this by noting the hormone release which itself draws the couple together. Of course there are times, even long times, when congress must be eschewed; these must be borne with supportive love. But to opt, as my friend might, to refrain for some twenty years would be a hazardous choice, and inconsistent with the relationship of marriage.
So we might expect them to choose sterilisation. I don’t suppose they were much concerned with Catholic moral theology. But in our circumstances, Catechism in hand, we should be. It is of course permitted to remove damaged organisms for the good of the body. But to, for instance, ligate healthy fallopian tubes in order to achieve permanent sterility is gravely wrong, irrespective of reasons. It comes under the condemnation of “mutilation”. Humanae Vitae confirms this prohibition “whether of the man or the woman”. Vasectomy for the husband would be a permanent loss of function – which he might require were he widowed and re-married. But it is harder to see why my friend’s fertility is of value to her life or her marriage when she must never use it.
But moral theology does not see it this way. The appeal is to natural law from which we may read from human structures what God requires. There are no exceptions, though in this case some might feel that the outcome is extreme. But in fact there have been exceptions. Although never formally approved, the Church was complicit in the castration of young males for the Vatican choir. Much more recently the gift of a kidney between living persons was regarded as a mutilation. What was once taught as an intrinsic evil is now hailed as an instance of heroic love.
Is this another case of a definitive law, long maintained in our moral tradition, which must nevertheless yield to particular circumstances? I am not going to tell you what my friend and her husband decided, but let’s imagine that they consult you about this decision. How would you advise them? You might dodge the problem by saying that it is a matter of conscience for them. But you can’t dodge me. If you were in their position, what would you decide?