Tag Archives: Dignitas Personae

Justice served in stem cell case

The blind desire of scientific researchers for embryonic stem cells is distressing . . .

Dr. Edward Furton

Dr. Edward Furton

On Aug. 23, Federal District Judge Royce C. Lamberth blocked President Obama’s 2009 executive order expanding federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

The decision was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise poisonous environment for abandoned human embryos. The administration appealed, and in September the U.S. Court of Appeals put that injunction on hold while Lamberth reviews the lawsuit itself.

The blind desire of scientific researchers for embryonic stem cells has been one of the more distressing and regrettable developments of our time. Much of the news media seems to applaud this effort, and has used its influence to portray the debate as a struggle between enlightened science and benighted religious believers. How sad!

There is no need for us to kill our fellow human beings in order to make progress in the sciences. Most people know that there are two basic types of stem cells: adult (or perhaps better put, post-natal) and embryonic. Most have also heard that adult cells are generating all the progress in the effort to cure disease. Adult stem cells have been in practical application for decades and have a proven record of success.

Embryonic stem cells do not. The first human trial using embryonic stem cells was just recently approved, though Lamberth’s decision has thrown a legal wrench into the effort, along with the whole cause of embryonic stem cell research. Millions of dollars allocated by the National Institutes of Health for this type of work is up in the air because a judge faced and boldly acknowledged one simple fact: that embryos must first be killed to get their cells.

Lamberth ruled that the use of taxpayer dollars to fund embryonic stem cell research violates the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, a law passed by Congress each year since 1996 that prohibits federal funding for “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death.” This law reflects the majority view of Americans, who don’t want their tax monies used to support embryo destruction.

The Obama administration had argued that federal funding would not be distributed for the actual killing of the embryo, but only for the research on the cells taken afterwards. This reasoning didn’t fool Lamberth. “Had Congress intended to limit the Dickey-Wicker to only those discrete acts that result in the destruction of an embryo,” he said, “Congress could have written the statute that way. Congress, however, has not written the statute that way, and this Court is bound to apply the law as it is written.”

If you want to make an omelet, you have to break some eggs. Only these are not eggs, but human beings. They result from the union of human sperm and eggs. This isn’t a benighted “religious” view, but standard science. We begin with the scientific fact that human embryos are human beings, and therefore should not be killed.

Of particular interest to Catholics is that the judge’s ruling followed the judgment of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in its recent Instruction, Dignitas Personae. In paragraph 35, the Congregation discussed the “criterion of independence” often used to defend the use of embryonic stem cell lines.

Some Catholic researchers said that if as they personally didn’t want these embryos destroyed, and weren’t responsible for their death, it would be licit to use the resulting lines. But as the Vatican pointed out, there can be no “radical separation of the act from its subsequent uses and applications.” One’s personal expression of opposition to embryo destruction suffers an immediate contradiction as soon as one willingly makes use of the resulting remains.

The Obama administration had made a similar argument. So long as federal money was not spent on the destruction of the embryo, taxpayers could fund embryonic stem cell research independently — and so without violation of the letter of law.

Remarkably, we have no need for embryonic stem cells today. We have known since 2006 that it’s possible to reprogram adult cells, giving us embryonic-like stem cells that don’t require the destruction of embryos.

These “induced pluripotent stem cells” have essentially the same properties as the embryonic, and so not only the same potential, but also the same problems. These cells tend to grow wildly and often produce dangerous tumors and clumps of tissue. Embryonic stem cells, which induced pluripotent stem cells mimic, are the earliest cells of the human body. They have an inherent drive to produce a variety different cell types. Not surprisingly, when that drive is not regulated by the embryo, they grow unchecked.

But what matters most for us as Catholics is not that adult stem cells are far more successful, or that induced pluripotent stem cells are a viable alternative to the embryonic, but that human life be respected from the moment of conception. Judge Lamberth has recognized that our law demands that respect.

Edward J. Furton, Ph.D., is the director of publications for the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

Vatican examines bioethics controversies

Stem cell research which depends on the destruction of human embryos is morally unacceptable . . .

Fr. Tad Pacholczyk

The Vatican document Dignitas Personae is an “instruction on certain bioethical questions.” It examines and ethically evaluates several controversial research techniques including cloning, stem cells and attempts to create hybrid human-animal embryos.

Released in 2008, the document notes how human cloning attempts to produce a copy of a human who would be nearly genetically identical (in effect, an identical twin), and concludes that such attempts are “intrinsically illicit.” It says that we have an “obligation to respect the singularity and integrity of each person, even on the biological and genetic levels.” This is a consequence of being willed by God in all of our specificity and particularity. Every human being “owes his existence and his proper characteristics to the love of God, and only the love of husband and wife constitutes a mediation of that love in conformity with the plan of the Creator” (#29).

When carried out to produce a live birth, cloning is morally objectionable for two reasons: first, because it transforms human reproduction into a laboratory undertaking, rather than the interpersonal and shared marital activity it is meant to be; and second, because it sanctions the raw arrogation of power by one human being over another by allowing the former to choose “who” the latter shall be through direct predetermination of many of that individual’s most fundamental characteristics. This kind of cloning is called “reproductive” because it seeks to reproduce or copy an individual.

When cloning is carried out to produce an embryo not for reproduction, but for the purposes of harvesting its stem cells, it’s objectionable for both of the above reasons — and for the additional reason that it “makes the existence of a human being at the embryonic stage nothing more than a means to be used and destroyed” (#30). This kind of cloning is sometimes termed “therapeutic” because the stem cells extracted from the clone can theoretically be used to develop therapies for the patient who was cloned (the clone’s adult identical twin) and the transplanted cells should not be rejected by the recipient, given that identical twins are generally immune-compatible with each other. It should be noted, though, that this kind of cloning is certainly not “therapeutic” for the embryo. On the contrary, it is invariably lethal to the cloned embryo, and could therefore more accurately be termed “exploitative cloning” instead of “therapeutic cloning.”

Certain other, more recently proposed techniques for obtaining stem cells, putatively without destroying embryos, remain questionable in terms of their ethical permissibility, since it’s not entirely clear whether embryo-destructive steps might or might not be involved. Dignitas Personae mentions several of these techniques, including parthenogenesis (using an activated egg to create stem cells), altered nuclear transfer (a modified form of cloning to create stem cells), and oocyte-assisted reprogramming (another modified form of cloning to obtain stem cells).

Those forms of research where stem cells can be obtained without causing serious harm to the donor, including stem cells obtained from spontaneously miscarried fetuses, umbilical cord-derived stem cells, and other kinds of adult stem cells “are to be considered licit.” In fact, any such research which does not raise significant ethical problems, and most particularly adult stem cell research, “should be encouraged and supported” (#32).

Stem cell research which depends on the destruction of human embryos, on the other hand, is identified as morally unacceptable. It’s an inhumane activity that progresses “through the suppression of human lives that are equal in dignity to the lives of other human individuals and to the lives of the researchers themselves” (#32).

It’s not merely the derivation of these cells from embryos that is problematic, but even their subsequent use when somebody else may have done the embryo-killing years earlier in order to obtain the cells, which now propagate continuously in the lab. There are likely to be concerns about whether a researcher, who uses such cells derived by somebody else, would be involved in an unacceptable form of cooperation with evil, and there could be additional concerns about the scandal that would be caused by tacitly accepting the use of such cells in one’s own laboratory or pharmaceutical company.

Other ways of generating stem cells have also been proposed, including approaches that might be construed to “reduce the humanness” of an embryo by “mixing it” with animal parts (in street parlance, sometimes termed “Franken-embryos”). The technique involves using an animal egg, rather than a woman’s egg, to start off the process of cloning. The animal egg is given a kind of “DNA transplant” using human DNA to make an embryo which contains mostly human genetic information, and a little bit of animal genetic material as well. The Vatican document reminds us that doing this kind of hybrid cloning to make a hybrid embryo (to be harvested for its stem cells) represents “an offense against the dignity of human beings on account of the admixture of human and animal genetic elements capable of disrupting the specific identity of man” (#33).

Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D. is director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center. A priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., he earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Yale University.

Gene therapy and enhancement

Stephen Napier says the Vatican is concerned about the use of  gene therapy technology . . .

Dr. Stephen Napier

Dr. Stephen Napier

Despite scientific advances in gene therapy and enhancement, the 2008 Vatican document Dignitas Personae (DP) expresses concern for the use of these technologies. First, let’s look at what these terms mean. Numerous diseases have a genetic base, either causing or pre-disposing one to disease. Gene therapy aims to address such abnormalities by modifying the gene/genetic complement that is functioning abnormally.

Although gene therapy trials have not had significant success to date, science is making progress, and the risk-benefit ratio for this research is slowly changing. DP recognizes that gene therapy may progress more rapidly and, with cautious foresight, considers that gene research might not be used only to cure disease, but to enhance our capacities or abilities.

To consider adequately the ethical issues, DP makes some needed distinctions. First, there are two kinds of gene-therapy: somatic cell therapy which “seeks to eliminate or reduce genetic defects on the level of … cells which make up the tissue and organs of the body,” and germ-line therapy which “aims instead at correcting genetic defects present in [sperm and eggs] with the purpose of transmitting the therapeutic effects to the offspring of the individual” (# 25). Second, there is an intuitive distinction between therapy and enhancement. As is commonly understood, therapy refers to procedures or practices that aim to cure a pathology or disease. Enhancement (in this context) refers to procedures that aim to improve the capacities or abilities of the person by modifying his or her genome.

The ethical issues, then, are that gene therapy seeks to adjust our genetic complement, and the risks of doing so are as yet uncertain. Furthermore, such research on the embryo requires the embryo be engendered through IVF, itself an immoral practice. And lastly, seeking enhancements manifests an attitude of domination of man over man.

Regarding body-cell therapy, DP renders a positive judgment, saying that “such actions seek to restore the normal genetic configuration of the patient or to counter damage caused by genetic anomalies or those related to other pathologies” (#26). The document gives germline (sex cell) therapy a more cautious judgment because the modifications affect one’s offspring. These risks are unknown. “Because the risks connected to any genetic manipulation are considerable … it is not morally permissible to act in a way that may cause possible harm to the resulting progeny” (# 26).

Germ-line modification would be done for the sake of future children. For example, the decision to eliminate the gene that causes sickle cell anemia would theoretically produce future children free of this disease. But it might also have serious side-effects. The gene for controlling this type of anemia also protects children against malaria. Efforts at germ-line engineering seek to take control of our genetic patrimony, but we do not yet have the wisdom to do this successfully. Once changes are made in the germ line, they may be very difficult to reverse.

With regard to genetic enhancement technologies, one would modify a gene (or have one added) that would confer greater abilities or capacities to a particular individual. Parents who enjoy athletics might wish to have a child who is a speedy runner.

Such a plan is highly unlikely to succeed because many of our capacities are poly-genetic (they involve a group of genes manifesting complex interactions with one another) and our most meaningful traits and abilities are not genetically determined but are learned and formed through practice, upbringing, formal learning and environment.

When the President’s Council on Bioethics discussed enhancement technologies, it did not address genetic enhancement, saying that in such cases the relationships and interactions among these genes (and between one’s genes and the environment) are certain to be enormously complex. Isolating all the relevant genetic variants and knowing how to work with them to produce the desired result will therefore prove immensely difficult.

Nevertheless, in the event that such advances are made, DP renders the following judgment: “Such manipulation would promote a eugenic mentality and would lead to indirect social stigma with regard to people who lack certain qualities, while privileging qualities that happen to be appreciated by a certain culture or society; such qualities do not constitute what is specifically human” (# 27).

The document goes on to point out that seeking enhancements violates both the principles of justice and charity. Justice is violated because the equality of all humans would be compromised in a culture that had an enhanced and unenhanced class — or one in which certain capacities were favored and lacking them meant lacking full moral status.

Seeking enhancement violates charity in that at some level seeking to modify oneself manifests a disgust with oneself, a rejection of the finite nature of man. Implicitly, man takes on a domineering role, seeking to rule and control his nature and life. Such is the height of hubris and is contrary to the self-love required to respect every human being, even ourselves.

In rendering a negative judgment on these kinds of interventions, DP says that they imply “an unjust domination of man over man” and urges us to “an attitude of care for people and of education in accepting human life in its concrete historical finite nature” (# 27).

Stephen Napier, Ph.D., is a staff ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center. He serves on the University of Pennsylvania’s Institutional Review Board.

Caring for victims of sexual assault

Dr. Marie Hilliard discusses the Catholic ethical position on caring for rape victims . . .

Dr. Marie T. Hilliard

Dr. Marie T. Hilliard

Historically, those subject to the canonical penalty of a latae sententiae excommunication for abortion were the doctor and woman who consented to the surgical procedure — and those who cooperated with it by either causing the abortion to happen (a coercing parent or boyfriend) or making it possible (the anesthesiologist).

With the advent of drugs which induce non-surgical abortions, the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts clarified in 1988 that abortion includes the destruction of the embryo or fetus any time after conception. Thus, the health care professionals who prescribe, dispense or administer interceptives — which interfere with the embryo before implantation (intrauterine devices and the “morning-after pills”) or contragestatives which eliminate the implanted embryo (RU-486) — also would be subject to canonical penalties if there is certainty that a completed abortion has resulted and the conditions for such penalties were present.

The use of Plan B or any other “morning after pill” for the purpose of avoiding conception following consensual sex is contraceptive in nature and is rejected by the Church. Many Catholics are surprised to discover that sexual assault is another matter. The issue of sexual assault is not addressed in the Vatican’s new bioethical document, Dignitas Personae, so sound moral reasoning has to be used to determine which protocol is morally acceptable for the administration of emergency contraceptive drugs. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services (ERD) states:

“A female who has been raped should be able to defend herself against a potential conception from the sexual assault. If, after appropriate testing, there is no evidence that conception has occurred already, she may be treated with medications that would prevent ovulation, sperm capacitation or fertilization. It is not permissible, however, to initiate or to recommend treatments that have as their purpose or direct effect the removal, destruction or interference with the implantation of a fertilized ovum” (#36).

Thus, it would be moral to administer medications to prevent conception from a sexual assault. The question remains: What protocol would be moral in accomplishing this good without endangering the life of the potentially conceived embryo?

The primary action of the Plan B “morning-after pill” (sometimes referred to as emergency contraception or EC) is anovulatory. It suppresses ovulation — the release of the woman’s ovum — preventing the engendering of an embryo. However, depending on when the medication is administered, Plan B also may prevent the implantation of a conceived embryo in the uterus, thus acting as an interceptive.

Dignitas Personae states that “scientific studies indicate that the effect of inhibiting implantation is certainly present, even if this does not mean that such interceptives cause an abortion every time they are used, also because conception does not occur after every act of sexual intercourse” (#23).

Some hold that EC may never be administered to a victim of sexual assault unless one definitively could determine the day of the victim’s reproductive cycle. They cite research indicating that it does not always prevent ovulation, but if administered during or around the time of ovulation, precipitates a disruption in the complex mechanisms of the endometrium, negatively impacting the implantation of any conceived embryo.

Others hold that before the administration of EC, all that is morally required is a negative pregnancy test. However, pregnancy test results become accurate only after implantation, about 10-14 days after ovulation. A pregnancy test performed within 72 hours after the assault (the optimal time period for effective EC administration) cannot indicate whether conception has or will result from the assault. These proponents cite research indicating that EC will not disrupt or harm an implanted embryo, and studies indicating that any effect on the endometrium is insufficient to prevent implantation. However, there is credible research to the contrary.

The National Catholic Bioethics Center holds that administration of EC must be consistent with ERD (#36) —to “prevent ovulation, sperm capacitation or fertilization.” Current research indicates that the impact of EC on sperm capacitation is not fast enough to prevent fertilization. Therefore, the only reason for which EC morally can be given is to prevent ovulation. The key is to have as much medical certainty as possible that ovulation can be prevented in the particular patient in question. EC alone is unable to prevent ovulation once the surge of luteinizing hormone (LH) stimulates ovulation and the pregnancy-test-only protocol does not tell us whether this surge has begun.

Adding an ovulation (LH) test to the protocol indicates whether ovulation is occurring or imminent. With a positive ovulation test, one may conclude that EC will not prevent ovulation and that conception likely could take place with the potential for the disruption of embryo implantation. Some would go further and argue for a serum progesterone test, which would determine the pre- or post-ovulation day more accurately. However, equipment for such testing is not readily available in many emergency rooms.

Furthermore, if undetected “breakthrough” ovulation does occur, despite the administration of EC in the presence of a negative LH test result, the conditions for the moral administration of EC under the principle of double effect would have been met. Any minimal potential for harm would be an unintended consequence of the legitimate desire to suppress ovulation.

Marie T. Hilliard, JCL, PhD, R.N., is a staff ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

The Vatican and human dignity

Three principles govern Dignitatas Personae‘s moral analysis of human embryos and their conception

Dr. Edward Furton

Dr. Edward Furton

The Vatican examines new reproductive techniques and the treatment of human embryos in its latest bioethics document Dignitas Personae. Generally, the Church teaches that the techniques of medicine may only assist the procreative act and may not replace it. Here the rule of thumb is that conception should take place within the body, not outside. A corresponding rule governs the treatment of human embryos who ought to be conceived through the marital act, not engendered in vitro by a laboratory technician.

More broadly, Dignitas Personae (DP) lays out three principles that govern its moral analysis in this area: “The right to life and to physical integrity of every human being from conception to natural death; the unity of marriage, which means reciprocal respect for the right within marriage to become a father or mother only together with the other spouse; and the specifically human values of sexuality, which require that the procreation of a human person be brought about as the fruit of the conjugal act” (#12).

Any medical technique which conforms to the third principle enunciated above is morally acceptable, for conception will necessarily take place through the immediate sexual act of the married couple. Thus the removal of obstacles to the natural process of fertilization, such as surgery for endometriosis or the unblocking of the fallopian tubes, is morally licit because it assists the marital act. In vitro fertilization, in contrast, takes place without the marital act; hence, it is clearly an act of replacement.

Not only does in vitro fertilization replace the marital act, it also allows for the violation of the first and second principles set forth above. All in vitro fertilization separates conception from the immediate act of sexual union between the spouses, but it can be further deformed when the gametes (the sperm and the ovum) are not taken from the married couple themselves. A married man can use the ovum of any woman, or a married woman can use the sperm of any man, to engender a child in a Petri dish. Indeed, there is no requirement that one even be married. Sperm and ova are offered for sale and can be purchased by anyone. An unmarried man or woman could buy these materials on the market, pay a technician to have them combined in vitro, and then implant the embryo into a surrogate “mother.” This would engender a child without any genetic connection whatsoever to the producer. Obviously, this treats human life as a commodity.

In vitro fertilization also kills many embryonic human beings through neglect or intentional destruction. DP notes that fertility clinics consider the number of embryos destroyed to be inconsequential compared to its rate of success in achieving births. The clinic is mainly interested in “obtaining better results in terms of the percentage of babies born who begin the process, but does not manifest a concrete interest in the right to life of each individual embryo” (#14).

DP also points out the profoundly troubling fact that couples are now “using artificial means of procreation in order to engage in genetic selection of their offspring” (#15). This is eugenics, the use of techniques of animal husbandry to produce the fittest offspring. Eugenics has often been forced on an unwilling population by the power of the state (i.e., China’s infamous “one-child” policy). But in the U.S., we have a consumer-driven model where individual parents select the traits (including gender) they want to see in their children. A single cell can be removed from an early stage embryo produced in vitro, and if that cell shows undesirable traits, the embryo is destroyed. The parents search through their embryos until the suitable genetic traits are found. This embryo is then implanted and brought to term.

These practices reveal two deeply troubling attitudes animating the use of modern reproductive technologies: a base utilitarian approach toward the production of human life and a disregard for the inviolable dignity of every human being. The first is exemplified by techniques better suited to the production of livestock. The second shows itself in the willingness to countenance a staggering loss of human life, a rate that would not be permitted in any other field of medicine, and which demonstrates that all claims about “respecting” embryonic life are without merit.

Leaving human procreation in the hands of laboratory technicians represents a serious danger to our future. If technicians are to be given the authority to control and manipulate the origin of the human being, they will not only have power over the life or death of the embryo, but also the power to decide what life will be allowed to come into this world. They will decide which traits are most desirable, which racial characteristics are preferable, which sex should predominate in numbers. They will stand before us as gatekeepers, advising parents on what is possible, what is moral and what is ideal. We will no longer rely on the workings of nature to decide our offspring in its own mysterious way. Some have already assumed these gargantuan tasks to themselves, claiming an authority superior to nature, and pretending to walk among us as if they were gods.

Dr. Edward J. Furton is the director of publications for the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

God’s plan for marriage and family

We’ve encountered a brave new world of sci-fi and moved into an absurd reality. . .

Dr. John Haas

Dr. John Haas

There really shouldn’t be a need for the Vatican to produce a document explaining what marriage is and how babies come to be. However, we live in a world which can no longer see reality for what it is. I once listened to a week of lectures on human sexuality by an Anglican theologian from Cambridge. Never once did he mention children in relation to sex.

When I asked him at the end of his fifth lecture why he had never mentioned children in relation to human sexuality, he declared, “My good man, you can’t expect me to cover everything in a week!” No. Not everything. But how about the reason why God created sex in the first place?!

Another time I was having lunch with a “Catholic” homosexual activist who wanted to legalize gay “marriage.” He expressed the desire to have children and a family. Finally I said, “Look, don’t you think God has a plan for the way children should be brought into the world and a family established?” “Well, I used to,” he replied. He may have called himself a Catholic, but he was in fact a nonbeliever. If God doesn’t have a plan for the way in which he wants the crown of his creation to be brought into the world, it’s hard to imagine his having a plan for anything.

Dignitas Personae (DP), the Vatican document issued last December, deals fundamentally with bioethical issues at the beginning of life. It reminds us that God does indeed have a plan for human procreation and families.

The Church was compelled to provide this teaching in our day when a woman will carry in her womb a child engendered by her husband’s sperm and her sister’s (or a stranger’s) egg; when parents will engender their children in a glass dish, perform genetic tests on those embryonic children, and then destroy the ones who are the wrong sex; when human beings will be brought into being in glass dishes for the sole purpose of being experimented upon and then destroyed; when over 500,000 embryonic human beings are frozen in liquid nitrogen.

We have encountered the brave new world of science fiction and moved beyond it into an absurd reality. In the face of these countless assaults on the dignity of husbands and wives, the institution of marriage, and helpless embryonic human beings, the Church tries to pull us back to reality.

When Dignitas Personae speaks of the dignity of human persons, it does so squarely in the context of marriage. “The origin of human life has its authentic context in marriage and the family, where it is generated in an act which expresses the reciprocal love between a man and a woman” (DP I.6). There is a profound truth to the saying that when a husband and wife make love, they do not make babies. The marital act is not a manufacturing process and children are not the product.

A husband and wife express their love for one another physically, emotionally and spiritually in the marital act, and that act may or may not be blessed with the gift of life. In Latin, the gift of life is Donum Vitae, the name of the 1987 Vatican document which analyzed the ethics of various means of overcoming infertility. Donum Vitae (DV) taught that any attempt to overcome infertility which replaced the personal loving act of a husband and wife was immoral.

Such attempts at engendering children by eliminating the marital embrace have invariably led to children being treated as manufactured products, subject to quality control and liable to destruction if they do not meet sufficiently high standards.

In vitro fertilization takes place in a glass dish. The healthiest ones are chosen for implantation; the others discarded. If too many to be carried safely take hold in the uterus, the weakest are killed. If a surrogate mother who has been artificially inseminated by a “contracting” couple is carrying a defective baby, the “contracting” couple can order her to abort it. If she does not, the contract is voided, and she’s left with the financial responsibility of raising the child. The child’s father, who artificially inseminated the “surrogate” mother, would subsequently have no legal or financial obligations vis-à-vis the child or the mother. When one departs from God’s plan for marriage and family, there is suffering and injustice.

Dignitas Personae is careful about how it refers to the act of bringing a human being into the world. Human beings do not reproduce. Lower animals do that. Human beings procreate — they co-create with God. They do not act alone!

Such cooperation with God bestows a supernatural quality on the actions of our souls and bodies in the marital bed. This is not a mere human activity, but a divine one. “By taking the interrelationship of these two dimensions, the human and the divine, as the starting point, one understands better why it is that man has unassailable value: He possesses an eternal vocation and is called to share in the Trinitarian love of the living God” (DP I.8). God has a plan. Follow it.

John M. Haas is president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and founding president of the International Institute for Culture. He is a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

The moment of personhood

Dr. Edward Furton writes that the Catholic Church has always condemned abortion . . .

Dr. Edward Furton

Has anyone ever told you that the Catholic Church does not teach that the human soul is infused into the body at conception? Would you be shocked to learn that this is pretty much true? The Church holds that a “human being” begins at conception, but you will not find any official Vatican statement asserting that there is a “human person” at conception.

Regardless of whether or not a person is present from conception, the Church has always condemned abortion. The sacredness of human life remains inviolable. But it is easy to see why those who are hostile to Catholic teaching would want to use this “loop hole” to argue that human embryos do not really deserve protection.

Donum Vitae (DV), a 1987 document from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), said that the point at which the soul is infused into the body is not a scientific question but a philosophical one. “No experimental datum can in itself be sufficient to bring us to the recognition of a spiritual soul,” the document notes. But it also says that science confirms that there is a personal presence from the moment of conception. The zygote, or single-celled organism that is formed from the sperm and ovum, is a unique individual, not identifiable with the life of either the mother or father. Donum Vitae then asks: “How could a human individual not be a human person?” (DV I.1)

That rhetorical question strongly implies what the correct answer must be, but that was as far as Donum Vitae was prepared to go. Thus it concludes that:

“The fruit of human generation, from the first moment of its existence … is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life” (DV I.1).

To say that the human embryo is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception is not the same thing as saying that the human embryo is a person from the moment of conception. There is, in fact, a very significant difference.

The document issued late last year from the CDF, Dignitas Personae (DP), took a further step toward affirming personhood at conception, though it continues to resist arriving at a definitive conclusion.

DP makes it increasingly difficult to imagine how the Church could affirm that there is any other moment at which the soul is infused.

“In recent decades, medical science has made significant strides in understanding human life in its initial stages” (DP I.4). The document acknowledges that great progress has been made in the field of embryology since Donum Vitae. What is now even more evident than before, according to DP, is that “the embryonic human body develops progressively according to a well-defined program with its proper finality” (DP I.4). At no point during that development do we find any other moment (besides conception) that would qualify as the transitional point at which the soul could be infused. Science shows us that embryological development is a continuous process that admits of no sudden leaps or changes.

These are the scientific facts that would seem to justify a stronger conclusion. Dignitas Personae therefore states: “The reality of the human being for the entire span of life, both before and after birth, does not allow us to posit either a change in nature or a gradation in moral value, since it possesses full anthropological and ethical status. The human embryo has, therefore, from the very beginning, the dignity proper to a person” (DP I.5).

We no longer see here Donum Vitae’s language of “as if,” but instead we see the words “the embryo has.” But DP still has not stated point-blank that “the embryo is a person.” Nonetheless, this is the only conclusion that one could possibly draw, for if it is true that the embryo undergoes no change in nature throughout its development, and if it is true that the embryo, by its very nature, has the dignity of a person, then it must also be true that the embryo is a person — and from the moment of conception.

Dr. Edward J. Furton is director of publications for the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

The Church, bioethics and reason

Dignitas Personae defends against the misperception that the Church opposes science . . .

Dr. Stephen Napier

The new bioethics document from the Congregation to the Doctrine of the Faith released last Decmeber, Dignitas Personae (DP), begins: “The dignity of a person must be recognized in every human being from conception to natural death” (# 1).

This sets an appropriate tone for what follows in that the document addresses several contemporary bioethical issues and relates them all to the respect we owe to each human being regardless of his or her developmental maturity.

In the introduction, the Congregation (CDF) offered several reasons for issuing the document — or instruction. It notes the importance of Donum Vitae (the 1987 instruction on bioethical issues) and its limitations. The development of “new biomedical technologies … including embryonic stem cell research, cloning, genetic engineering and others” necessitates an updated Vatican instruction. Additionally, DP promises to provide “additional clarification” to the issues addressed in Donum Vitae.

Though DP begins by noting that it is written in line with Veritatis Spendor and Evangelium Vitae it also notes that the teaching articulated in the document is founded upon reason enlightened by faith:

“In presenting principles and moral evaluations regarding biomedical research on human life, the Church draws upon the light both of reason and of faith and seeks to set forth an integral vision of man and his vocation, capable of incorporating everything that is good in human activity, as well as in various cultural and religious traditions which not infrequently demonstrate a great reverence for life” (# 3).

This statement serves as a crucial interpretive guide. The bioethical teachings of the Church should not be regarded as strictly “religious” teachings which only Catholics should follow, but are teachings consistent with the natural moral law. DP says that these teachings can be universally accepted by anyone because they are rooted in reason. Of course, it’s not just reason per se, but reason and faith. This is to indicate that the teaching outlined in DP can rationally be accepted by non-Catholics.

An analogy may help explain why. If you were to discuss the existence of God with an atheist, you would want the person first to ask the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” or “What explains the intelligent design in the world?” It’s desirable to have the person stop looking at the world, but instead look along the world. What does the existence of the world say about its origins? What does the intricate design say about its origins? Once one looks along the world, one is drawn to that which is beyond the world. If the atheist accepts, he or she is no longer an atheist.

Likewise with the bioethical teachings of the Church. If we look at them, they are consistent with reason. If we look along them, we are drawn to the Divine vision and vocation for man. If one asks the question “Why does the Church teach that?” enough times, the answers will eventually fill out the “integral vision of man and his vocation.” The conclusions of reason and of faith are complementary in making up a complete vision for man.

Dignitas Personae also defends against a common misperception of the Church as “opposing science.” It corrects this misperception by clarifying the appropriate ends of medicine. “The Magisterium also seeks to offer a word of support and encouragement for the perspective on culture which considers science an invaluable service to the integral good of the life and dignity of every human being” (# 3). Here the end of medicine is seen as fundamentally a healing art for every human being. In this regard, DP references the Hippocratic Oath:

“In the current multifaceted philosophical and scientific context, a considerable number of scientists and philosophers, in the spirit of the Hippocratic Oath, see in medical science a service to human fragility aimed at the cure of disease, the relief of suffering and the equitable extension of necessary care to all people” (# 2).

DP drives home the point here that what follows is consistent with reason and that the traditional ends of medicine (life and health) remain the appropriate aims of this discipline. The Church encourages practitioners to seek these good ends.

None of this should be taken to “oppose” science. Rather, the Church is aiming to shape science consistent with the principle outlined in the opening sentence: “The dignity of a person must be recognized in every human being from conception to natural death” (# 1). Medical activities inconsistent with this principle are not “science” any more than Tuskegee and the Nazi experiments count as science.

Dignitas Personae goes on to address first the ethical and anthropological principles needed to assess the moral character of some developments in biotechnology. Second, the document turns to analyze “developments” in engendering human beings.

In the third section, DP addresses the new ways in which human beings, once engendered, are then manipulated further. Commentaries on these sections and their subsections will follow.

Stephen Napier is a staff ethicists at the National Catholic Bioethics Center. He serves on the University of Pennsylvania’s Institutional Review Board.