Woodrow Wilson News & Publications
WW NEWSLETTER EXTRA: Spring 2011 - THE NEWCOMBE FELLOWS: 1981-2011
To Conceive Anew:
Paul Lauritzen CN ’84 Examines Reproductive Ethics
Consider: A woman who can’t conceive has genetically identical ovarian tissue from her twin implanted, and the woman and her husband conceive a child. How does the Catholic tradition, which generally opposes the use of donor eggs or sperm, view the ethics of the situation?
Paul Lauritzen CN ’84 tackles such complex questions about bioethics and reproductive technology. Professor of theology and religious studies at John Carroll University, he is teaching at Northwestern University this year in the Brady Scholars Program in Ethics and Civic Life.
He notes a certain irony in the connection between the dissertation on emotions and religious belief that his Newcombe Fellowship supported and the personal and professional path he has taken. “One research track,” he explains, “was in bioethics and the other was on the role of appeals to personal experience as a form of moral argument.”
His own very personal experience shaped his ongoing scholarly work: When his career had just begun, Dr. Lauritzen and his wife discovered they were infertile. Researching the literature on reproductive technology, he decided to write about their experiences and the ethics of the issue. The resulting essay, published in The Hastings Center Report, led to invitations to do more in this field. “The joke in our household,” he says, “is that infertility was the best thing that ever happened to my career.”
Today, Dr. Lauritzen is working with colleagues at Northwestern on an NIH-funded project to develop methods for preserving fertility in women with cancer. The project explicitly includes funds to examine the ethical and social issues this kind of treatment would generate.
Dr. Lauritzen is specifically looking at the likely response of the Catholic tradition to the host of issues the oncofertility treatment could raise. One such issue: ovarian tissue preservation for very young girls with cancer. The youngest patient for whom tissue retrieval had been requested was for a three year old girl, Dr. Lauritzen recalled.
“So here you have a child who couldn’t possibly have any understanding of the issues regarding future fertility. Her parents are attempting to preserve her fertility in the hope that she’ll survive the cancer and have a cancer-free, normal life, which might well include the desire to have children. But there are issues of informed consent there. There are issues of whether retrieving this tissue in some way sexualizes this young girl because it is to treat her in some ways as a sexual being even though you know she’s remarkably young. So these are issues to sort through, for sure.”
Most of the issues Dr. Lauritzen focuses on, however, involve adult women who request oncofertility treatment. One procedure involves freezing the ovarian tissue after it is harvested and preserving it until the woman is ready and able to become fertile again. From the Catholic perspective, questions arise about what is appropriately done with the tissue once it can be used.
“[The frozen tissue] contains immature follicles which could be matured to produce eggs that could be fertilized,” Dr. Lauritzen explained. “There are essentially two ways, at this juncture, to go. You could thaw the ovarian tissue and then attempt to mature those follicles and derive eggs in the laboratory and then fertilize them and implant them, very much like a standard in vitro fertilization procedure. The other option is to surgically reimplant the tissue into the woman’s body. If that is successful, it will restore endocrine function and she would begin to ovulate, and then she could conceive naturally.
“From a Catholic point of view, that first option would be problematic because it would involve manipulating embryos in a laboratory, and there would probably be some loss of embryonic life. The second technique should not be problematic from a Catholic point of view because, assuming this woman is married and she has intercourse with her husband, it’s her genetic material and the conception has taken place naturally.”
Then, Dr. Lauritzen continues, comes the wrinkle—the twin case. “Suppose we transplant ovarian tissue from her identical twin and surgically implant it in the now cancer-free sister, and she begins to ovulate and conceives a child with her husband. The Catholic tradition has said that you shouldn’t separate genetic and social parenthood, and so you shouldn’t use donor sperm or donor egg. But in this case the woman has conceived a child with her husband through sexual intercourse, and it’s not entirely clear that you could discern that this was not her genetic child, because the eggs are essentially genetically identical to any eggs that she would have produced had she not had cancer. And so the question that throws back on Catholic tradition is, what’s the foundation for the concern about genetic parenthood?”
Dr. Lauritzen and Andrea Vicini, S.J., a colleague at Boston College, recently published an article on these questions, “Oncofertility and the Boundaries of Moral Reflection,” in Theological Studies (March 2011). Another forthcoming piece (“Technology and Wholeness: Oncofertility and Catholic Tradition,” in Oncofertility: Cancer Treatment and Research, T.K. Woodruff et al., eds.) is not primarily intended for Catholic theological audiences, but still attempts to articulate basic ideas within the tradition and put them in conversation with the techniques of oncofertility. Dr. Lauritzen has also been a frequent contributor, on a range of subjects, to Commonweal.
Crediting his Newcombe Fellowship, Dr. Lauritzen says, “it set the trajectory of my career in terms of research interest and I am deeply grateful for it.”