What “Gift” Really Means

I was balanced somewhat uncomfortably between the driver and passenger, in a little pickup-truck bouncing over the rough back roads of the Mexican town Aculco. This was just one more day of Holy Week missions and we were on our way back from having dinner with a couple who had hosted us. Mario, our host that evening, was driving while telling me about his wife. “Sonia and I have been married for nine years, but we still don’t have children. The doctors say there is no hope Sonia will ever conceive, but we want a family! So we are going to try in vitro fertilization.”

I was a junior at Mater Ecclesiae College, and had just learned why the Church does not support In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) in our bioethics class. But I knew I had about two minutes left until we would be dropped off at the house where we were staying, so I stammered out in simple Spanish some pastoral suggestions that they try to adopt, and that there are many complications associated with IVF. Mario’s disheartening reply was that he and Sonia wanted a child of their own, and would first do everything they could to make that happen, starting with IVF. That was the end of the ride, but only the beginning of my dilemma.

A few days later I found Padre Fernando, a little man with a face as weathered as it was sincere. Hoping he could do the follow up, I explained to him that I had been pressed for time and hadn’t told Mario and Sonia that the Church disapproves of IVF. The Padre’s response took me by surprise. Fixing his big brown eyes on me, he said slowly, “I know this couple, but I wouldn’t tell them IVF is wrong. When so many people are having abortions, and when God has allowed science to develop the means we have, I can’t see why a couple who wants a child can’t use those means.” “Oh great!” I thought. “Now I’m in for it. Well, Spanish or not, here we come!”

The sunny afternoon faded to dusk over the next couple of hours, as Padre Fernando and I discussed IVF. All other complications–such as the creation and destruction of multiple embryos–were set aside, and the question came down to what about IVF is wrong, per se? Throughout that conversation, I held my ground, but my heart ached for Mario and Sonia. I knew the Church taught that the origin of every child should be love, and that procreation cannot licitly take place outside of the conjugal act. But if a couple loved each other and couldn’t conceive naturally, wouldn’t love indeed be the origin of the child? Why should the Church insist the conjugal act take place if ultimately sexual union is just an expression of pre-existing love?

It was only weeks later when I sat down to study my bioethics notes before our final exam that things started to click. As I stared at my notes, a realization suddenly crashed over me like a bucket of icy water. A child is a gift! It has an enormous amount of dignity, just like every person has. That means it cannot be treated as an object, and this holds true even if the reason for doing so is that the parents want it so badly.

And by its nature, a gift is not something that is bought and paid for. A gift must be freely given. Parents who choose IVF end up paying a huge sum for their child, but this very transaction degrades the child, because no amount of money can match the priceless worth of a person. To pay money for a person is to deny they are truly a gift. That is why the selling of slaves or prostitution feels so wrong.

It is not wrong to want a gift, to desire it, to ask for and maybe even pray for it. But to reach out and claim for myself a gift that has not been given does cross a certain boundary. And in the case of a child such a “taking” belittles the value and dignity of the very child I so want. So the dignity of the child, not the dogma of the Church, is what establishes the right of every person to originate directly from an act of love between a man and a woman. It is from the total surrender of the spouses to each other in sexual union, that the gift of a child may freely, mysteriously be given.

I have a compassionate heart by nature. I think this is the very reason it was so hard for me to imagine that loving couples, like Mario and Sonia, who just wanted to have children of their own, would be doing something immoral by turning to IVF. But once the full beauty that a child is dawned upon me, my heart was moved for the child’s sake.

I feel I often am looking at things too closely, as if the world’s problems and solutions were spread out under my nose. When I step back and recognize the enormous gift that each person in my life is, and the gift that I myself am, the horizons of this world expand, unfolding a new and more beautiful reality than I could at first see.



About Mirianna Sternhagen

Mirianna Sternhagen has been a consecrated woman of Regnum Christi since 2010. She is in her fourth years of studies at Mater Ecclesiae College. She was born in Portland, Oregon, and grew up in several states on the beautiful west coast: Oregon, Washington, California and Montana -- as well as in Michigan, where her family now lives.
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