By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
The Vatican chose the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Protectress of the Unborn, to issue a brilliant and sweeping Instruction on various methods of reproductive technology, from in vitro fertilization to adoption of frozen embryos. Dignitas Personae (Dignity of a Person) was issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) with the express approval of Pope Benedict XVI.
The Instruction, meant for “all who seek the truth” falls within the category of documents that “participate in the ordinary Magisterium of Peter” and is to be received by Catholics “with the religious assent of their spirit.”
Written in a three-part structure, the first part deals with various anthropological, theological and ethical elements of the debate and addresses two fundamental principals: 1) that the human being has the rights of, and must be respected as, a person from the moment of conception, and; 2) the creation of human life must take place within marriage where it is generated through an act of reciprocal love between a man and a woman.
These stipulations are not meant to deprive mankind of technology but rather calls everyone involved “to ethical and social responsibility for their actions.”
The second part deals with problems arising from new techniques for assisting fertility such as artificial fertilization using the gametes from a married couple or an anonymous donor, and techniques which serve as an aid to the conjugal act or to remove obstacles to natural fertility, as well as adoption.
“(T)echniques which act as an aid to the conjugal act and its fertility are permitted” as are techniques aimed at removing obstacles to natural fertilization. Adoption is also encouraged, as is research directed at the prevention of sterility.
In vitro fertilization (IVF)
The problems with IVF are very clearly spelled out and stress the extremely high number of discarded embryos that are a sadly under-publicized result of this research. It points out that even in the most technically advanced centers of artificial fertilization, more than 80 percent of embryos created by this method are discarded.
Another sad “byproduct” of IVF is the large number of embryos subjected to freezing (cryopreservation) which “exposes them to the serious risk of death or physical harm, since a high percentage do not survive the process of freezing and thawing . . . it places them in a situation in which they are susceptible to further offense and manipulation.”
Another technique is to implant a large number of embryos in a woman’s womb, raising the risk of multiple births which in turn gives rise to the practice of “embryo reduction,” a procedure that destroys several of these fetuses. The document clearly states that “From the ethical point of view, embryo reduction is an intentional selective abortion.”
Pre-implantation diagnosis is another procedure that is not morally licit. This technique is a form of prenatal diagnosis which takes place before an embryo is implanted in the womb. It is screened for suspected genetic or chromosomal defects, a specific sex, or other unwanted qualities.
IUD, RU-486, and the Morning After Pill
The document also clearly condemns the use of “interceptive methods” such as the IUD (intrauterine device) and the morning after pill which destroy human life before it has a chance to implant itself into a mothers womb.
Pharmaceuticals that cause the elimination of an embryo once implanted, such as RU-486, are also condemned.
While addressing the problem of what to do with these frozen embryos, the document states “that the thousands of abandoned embryos represent a situation of injustice which in fact cannot be resolved.” While the document does not reject the practice outright but warns of medical, psychological and legal problems associated with it and underscores the moral wrong of producing and freezing embryos in the first place.
Part three of the document deals with a variety of new treatments that have not been addressed in previous Vatican documents such as gene therapy, designer babies, human cloning and the creation of human/animal hybrids.
“Somatic cell” gene therapy (correcting a specific genetic defect in the cells of an individual patient) raises the same basic issues of risk and benefit as other medical techniques, though “procedures used on somatic cells for strictly therapeutic purposes are in principle morally licit,” the Instruction states.
However, the Instruction raises special caution about “germ line” gene therapy (which would affect all of a person’s cells, including reproductive cells, and therefore affect future generations). Human germ line therapy is not acceptable “in its current state,” due to its massive and unpredictable risks and its need to manipulate human embryos in the laboratory.
“It is not morally permissible to act in a way that may cause possible harm to the resulting progeny,” the Instruction states.
Genetic enhancement/designer babies
Beyond the medical risks involved, the Instruction warns against an attitude of dissatisfaction with finite human nature as created, a “eugenic mentality” that would drive new divisions between groups of human beings, the arbitrary and questionable criteria some would use to decide what a “better” human being is, and an ideology that seeks to take over God’s role in creation.
The Instruction says that “in stating the ethical negativity of these kinds of interventions which imply an unjust domination of man over man, the church also recalls the need to return to an attitude of care for people and of education in accepting human life in its concrete historical finite nature.”
Human/animal hybrid embryos
The Instruction rejects attempts to create such hybrids (including the use of animal eggs in attempts at human cloning), noting that “from an ethical standpoint such procedures represent an offense against the dignity of human beings on account of the admixture of human and genetic elements capable of disrupting the specific identity of man.”
Part three also contains a warning about using human biological material obtained from aborted fetuses in the making of vaccines. It states that researchers have a duty to distance themselves and their work from unjust situations created by others and to affirm the inviolable dignity of human life.
“Grave reasons may be morally proportionate to justify the use of such ‘biological material,'” the Instruction states, however. “Thus, for example, danger to the health of children could permit parents to use a vaccine which was developed using cell lines of illicit origin, while keeping in mind that everyone has the duty to make known their disagreement and to ask their healthcare system to make other types of vaccine available.”
The Instruction concludes by explaining the positive vision of human progress that grounds its moral judgments against specific abuses of biotechnology. Through modern science and technology, the Instruction says, the human person “participates in the creative power of God and is called to transform creation” in service to “the dignity and wellbeing of all human beings and of the human person in his entirety.”
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1. This document is not an infallibly defined dogma, but Catholics are still called to inform their consciences with it by adhering to it with “religious assent.” What does that mean? (See No. 888-892 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church which can be found here: http://www.vatican.va/archive/catechism/p123a9p4.htm
2. The Church does not base opinions such as these solely on science. What other criteria guides the Church in these matters? (See No. 3 in Dignitas Personae, available here: http://www.usccb.org/comm/Dignitaspersonae/Dignitas_Personae.pdf)
3. Do statements such as these show that the Church is anti-science and anti-progress? (See No. 3, the second paragraph, in Dignitas Personae)
4. People say the Church issues too many moral prohibitions. How should we defend her against these accusations? (See No. 36 in Dignitas Personae)