Austria: Catholic Bishops’ Conference speaks up against “egg cell donation” and “embryo selection”

In Austria, where political issues are usually resolved “consensually” and bonds between church and government are still strong, it is highly unusual to see Catholic Bishops intervening in such an incisive manner. But the dramatic situation leaves no other choice. Responding to a parliamentary consultation procedure on a bill that, if adopted, would radically erase practically all existing limits and safeguards with regard to medically assisted procreation, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, presided over by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, has asked the government to withdraw the draft that, as it writes, “disregards the fundamental ethical principle of human dignity”.

As the letter further points out, the bill is based on an edifice of misleading statements and false assumptions regarding the requirements of domestic constitutional as well as of international law, both of which are used to push through the bill without allowing a public debate on the substance. In particular,  the Bishops point out that the bill, by allowing the use of “donated” egg and spermcells, would introduce the possibility of “making” children who, according to the plans of their makers, would never know the identity of, or live with and be educated by, their real (i.e., biological) father or mother, which would constitute a brazen violation of Article 7 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Bishops therefore intimate that instead of “liberalizing” the use of “donated” gametes, the law should prohibit it. Furthermore, with regard to the screening of embryos before implantation, they point out that “this procedure never serves the purpose of healing – but it always is used for selection”.

It is well known that socialist, green, or liberal politicians seldom have qualms about human dignity when it comes to laws that they believe facilitate “reproductive choices”. But this law has in fact been prepared under the aegis of Minister for Justice Wolfgang Brandstetter, who has been nominated for the post by the Österreichische Volkspartei (the Austrian affiliate of the European People’s Party EPP), the political movement that was traditionally believed to be closest to the Church. The Bishops’ letter of yesterday is highly significant because it can be seen as a public rupture of a relationship that, due to a creeping de-Christianization of the Volkspartei, had lost its meaning and value. The message is clear: the Catholic vote can no more be taken for granted by a party that is responsible for the most radical anti-human-rights law ever drafted in Austrian history.

Besides the Bishops’ harsh letter, the bill has also drawn reactions ranging from amazement to anger from other quarters of civil society, including a prominent socialist politician who formerly was a Federal Minister of Social Affairs.