An open discussion regarding Reproductive Ethics was held at the St. Gregory Armenian Church in Pasadena. The discussion was aimed at young Armenian professionals. Following are excerpts from the opening remarks made by Fr. Vazken Movsesian, Pastor of the parish.
Tonight we’ve gathered to discuss one of the more important and pertinent matters of our day. By reproductive ethics we include all those issues that pertain to the reproduction of our species. Tonight’s discussion will include artificial insemination—which may take place between a husband and a wife, or with borrowed sperm and eggs, or the egg and sperm of someone totally unrelated, as is the case in surrogate motherhood. Part of our discussion will also focus on birth control, whether contraceptive or abortive. And we will discuss the Armenian Church in relation to those these topics.
Let us begin by addressing the question as to why the Church is concerned with these matters. After all, these issues are biological in nature, why involve the Church? Ultimately, we are speaking about the beginning and ending of life. For us, God is Creator. God also allows us to share in the creative process. The sex act is one such way that we come to terms with the creative energy given to us by God.
We also know that the sex act in itself is not merely a mechanical process. In fact, it does carry with it a multitude of emotions and feelings. The human species is among the few (perhaps only) species that engages in the reproductive act face to face. We call it “making love” implying that it is more than mechanical. It involves pleasure. We exchange some of our most profound emotions during sex, such emotions that include desire, passion and lust. It can get dangerous. As a pastor, I also know that relationships are in their most volatile period when sex becomes an issue.
Throughout history, even before the Church, society has tried to regulate sex, because it does produce life – babies are formed. As a society, we collectively regulate the child bearing. The institution of marriage is one way society regulates (or regulated) sex. Traditionally, in our society, marriage implied the union of two people of the opposite sex. Crudely, marriage has also been thought of as a means of legitimizing children. That is, there is an obligation and/or responsibility that we have to our children.
Again, the Church must be involved because the family, the nucleus of society, is at stake. But what about marriage between members of the same sex? Isn’t marriage also a commitment to a loving partner? If so, do children necessarily have to be involved as a product of that union?
The Church has had many teachings about sexual practices. Abortion was definitely equal to murder. Homosexuality was a sin. Sex was only for procreation. Therefore sex without the intention of procreating was a sin. Gratification was not a motive for sex.
Society is not stagnant. It has progressed. The Church has not progressed at the same pace. Sexual identity has changed. In the time of the Bible, women were property. The Bible was written primarily from a male perspective. Until recently, women were not thought to have the same spiritual emotions as men.
The role of women has dramatically changed. In just the past century women have received the right to vote, they have economic rights and therefore economic independence. Their relationship with men has changed. It is not uncommon today to find that the woman is the main breadwinner in a family. With these changes, women have also voiced their need to be satisfied and gratified by sex.
Meanwhile, in our lifetime, as a country we experienced major changes in the moral fabric of our society. In the 1960’s institutions were questioned. We had anti-establishment sentiments. In the 1970’s with Nixon and Watergate, we saw a distrust for the great institutions. Marriage was one such institution, which has been shaken during the last few decades.
Now technology has evolved to a point where we are given opportunities and options. Conception no longer is dependent on intercourse. Husbands and wives who were childless, and had adoption as the only means of acquiring children, are now given an option through artificial insemination. And we didn’t stop with husbands and wives… What about single parenting? If a woman was economically able to manage a child, why include a man in the process? If two women have a loving relationship, why could they not bring a child into the world? Things that were sacred, secret and taboo, are now being openly discussed.
The Catholic Church came out with statements and doctrines about birth control and abortion. Yet how many Catholics practice the teachings of the Church? Some extreme fundamentalists took it a step further and justified killing the killer by bombing abortion clinics. And now we get to the Armenian Church. What are we saying? What have we said? Add to this the “amot” (shame) factor and you may think that these issues aren’t relevant to the Armenian Church.
In May 1996, it was announced that Armenia will not impose a ban on abortions. You may justify this statement by saying that there is a separation of church and state, However, in 1997 it was reported that new born children, in record numbers, were being abandoned by their parents in Yerevan hospitals. The same report mentioned that a special room is provided in the hospital where priests of the Armenian Church baptize the foundlings. What does this tell us? That the Armenian Church has a sphere of influence in Armenia unlike any other institution in Armenian society. Therefore, its critical that the Armenian Church give the guidance in shaping policy when it comes to reproductive rights.
The issues we have brought to forum are only the tip of the iceberg. In the years to come, with the advances of technology and the our openness to accept them, the choices we will make individually and as a society will be loaded with ethical dilemmas. Here the Armenian Church must be ready to address the issues. Issues are no longer black and white. Sometimes the Religious Right forgets this. No woman wants to have an abortion. It’s a painful process both physically as well as emotionally. But, what about cases of rape? Of incest? Of father’s raping their daughters?
Technology now allows us to look into the womb. We are able to terminate pregnancies which will bear children with gross deformities and mental disabilities. But where does genetic engineering end? Who defines birth defects? Can someone claim brown or blue eyes as undesirable and therefore abort a fetus?
What about artificial insemination? Is it everyone’s right to bear a child? And with cloning in the very real future, will it be possible to serve up children in a cafeteria fashion?
Technology and our open attitudes are forcing us to look deeper into the creative process. All life begins with God. So the Church is vital – part and parcel – of such reproductive discussion. This evening is a beginning. The Armenian Church is you and me. Inspired by the scriptures, moved by the Traditions, we must make the Church of Christ a reality in the lives of our people. As a Church, we are a living entity. We should be talking to people and assisting where needed. The Armenian Church has a message of love and hope. It’s a message that can speak to issues that concern us today.
Yes, it is uncomfortable to discuss these issues. Sometimes we are tempted to look for a quick fix. But as we will see this evening, issues are not that clear cut. Religion (and the Armenian Church in particular) must be all-encompassing. It has to permeate into every aspect of our lives. Christianity speaks to our lives with the love Christ demonstrated. He is not a judging God, but a God of compassion. Let us call on that compassion as we discuss issues of reproductive ethics.