Tag Archives: Edward Furton

The primacy of faith and reason in Catholicism

In his last and largest work, The City of God, St. Augustine defended the faith against the charge that Christians couldn’t be good citizens. The Goths had just sacked Rome, and civic leaders blamed Christians whose pacifism had undermined the state’s moral authority.

Edward Furton

Edward Furton

What a shock the collapse must have been to the people of that time! It would be like ISIS taking over the United States. Surprisingly, the Goths spared those who took refuge in Catholic churches and many pagans were saved. Augustine argued that the Goths’ respect for Christianity had in fact lessened their savage ferocity, but he also faulted those who took Jesus’ words literally, saying that His teaching about turning the other cheek was meant to emphasize the importance of spiritual goods over the temporal.

Christians recognize the duty to protect the innocent. There is a limit to our willingness to submit to tyrannical rule. Augustine therefore argued that Christians cannot only be good citizens, but in view of their exalted love of God and neighbor, they form the very best type of citizen. Our duties under the just laws of the state never conflict with our higher duties as Christians. The Bishop of Hippo was a man of faith, but also a man of reason. He interpreted the faith realistically. Not surprisingly, he was instrumental in formulating the just war theory.

Catholics have long stressed the importance of reason in the practice of their faith. The First Vatican Council affirmed in 1806 that God’s existence is evident to reason. Faith is not needed to grasp this fundamental truth. We may not be able personally to understand these complex proofs and so may turn to faith instead for this knowledge. But scripture makes it clear that “the invisible things of Him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made” (Rom 1:20).

This honor for reason sets Catholicism apart from our Protestant brethren, who are our comrades in arms in the many cultural struggles we face in America today. There are surprising new alliances between Catholics and Protestants, but we must remember that a key theme of the Reformation was the claim that human reason is “totally depraved.” Our most essential power, according to the Reformers, had been completely corrupted by the fall of Adam and Eve. Reason was therefore useless in any pursuit of theological or moral knowledge.

For Catholics, faith does not replace reason, but is added to reason. The first principle of the natural law is that we should pursue the good and avoid what is evil. We don’t need to read the Bible to understand this commonsense principle of morality. We know it through reflection on nature and through our own direct experience of particular goods and evils.

The reason why Catholics have such a long tradition in medical ethics — and now bioethics — is because we recognize that the moral life follows a universal standard, written into nature and known to reason, that applies equally to all human beings. To this we add the supernatural doctrines of our faith. Our hospitals make no demand that patients affirm any doctrine, but insist instead that we be free to follow that objective moral code that is known through reasoned reflection on nature.

The secular world wants us to believe that our opposition to abortion and euthanasia derives from our commitment to the faith, but in fact these prohibitions follow from the rational certitude that our fellow human beings are equal in dignity before the Creator God. Again, this is known to reason. The Affordable Care Act demands that Catholics pay for health insurance that covers contraception and sterilization. Catholics refuse to do this, not because it contradicts our faith, but because it’s obvious that healthy reproductive organs should not have their natural purposes destroyed by surgical or chemical means. In addition, we know that pregnancy is not a disease. Our code of ethics is known through reflection on the natural constitution of the human body and its place within nature.

What are being attacked today are not the teachings of the Catholic Church as such, but the possibility that reason can acquire an objective moral understanding. The more the intellectual class and the ruling elite turn against the power of reason and its ability to know the truth, the more the Catholic Church will become responsible for preserving the great theological and moral heritage of previous civilization. If we are indeed headed for a new Dark Ages, then the institutions of the Church will once again become the key protectors of reason and progress in the West.

EDWARD J. FURTON, PH.D., is the director of publications for the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

Stem cell ‘miracle’

Legate Linda Stafford recovers from rare brain disease after stem cell treatment . . .

Linda and Jerry Stafford

Linda and Jerry Stafford

Jerry and Linda Stafford first met at a Pittsburgh-area diner. Linda was 18.  Jerry was 20. Linda’s girlfriend didn’t have enough money, so they asked Jerry for 35 cents. In response, he asked for a date. Three months later the couple was married.

Members of Legatus’ Las Vegas Chapter, the Staffords have been married 50 years. Jerry, who had been an electrical contractor most of his career, served as president of Republic Energy Services, which provided electrical contracting throughout Nevada and California. He retired last year so that he could concentrate on his wife’s health.

Health problems

Linda first noticed the signs of trouble in 2007, when she began experiencing numbness in her left hand.

“While at our Lake Tahoe summer home, she said something wasn’t right,” recalled Jerry, a member of Legatus’ board of governors. “She was an avid golfer with a 12 handicap, and she started whiffing the ball. I wondered how could that be?”

As time progressed, Linda found herself limited physically and cognitively. She began having trouble determining spatial relationships, which led to difficulty driving and staying in the proper lane. That led to an auto accident in 2010. She also began dropping things with her left hand and felt as if it was “floating by itself,” a condition known as Alien Hand Syndrome.

A year later, she began having difficulty with her speech. While she could remember what an item was, she would have trouble remembering its name, and was increasingly having difficulty finding the words that she wanted to say. She also began having trouble reading. Two or three times per day, Linda suffered from a tremor behind her right ear that led to spasms in her right shoulder and neck. Overall, she found that the symptoms severely hindered her daily life, rendering her unable to multi-task.

An initial medical work-up found no evidence of either a stroke or a transient ischemic attack (mini-stroke).

Linda hugs her daughter-in-law Jlynn Stafford.

Linda hugs her daughter-in-law Jlynn Stafford.

During Legatus’ 2013 Summit in Scottsdale, Ariz., a health representative suggested that Linda visit a clinic in San Francisco. That May, she was diagnosed with corticobasal degeneration (CBD), a rare, progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects the cerebral cortex and is marked by disorders in movement and cognitive dysfunction.

“We were told they could do nothing; there was no cure,” said Jerry. The Staffords were advised to quit their jobs and enjoy what time Linda had left. Patients diagnosed with the disease are typically given five years to live.

Adult stem-cell therapy

Some weeks later, a fellow Legate recommended and set up a conference call with hematologist Dr. Dipnarine Maharaj of the South Florida Bone Marrow/Stem Cell Transplant Institute in Boynton Beach, Fla. After an initial consultation, Maharaj said that he could help Linda.

Maharaj performs stem cell/bone marrow transplants for patients with leukemia and other cancers and blood disorders. He has also pioneered a method for mobilizing patients’ own stem cells using protein injections. The protein releases a patient’s own stem cells in order to repair the body. Since the treatment doesn’t involve killing children in the embryonic stage, Maharaj’s therapy is ethical according to Catholic teaching.

“There are plenty of adult stem cells in the body,” said Edward Furton, an ethicist with the National Catholic Bioethics Center. “There are no concerns with something like this because it’s not dealing with embryonic stem cells.”

In 2003, Maharaj developed a process where doctors could allow the stem cells in reserve in the bone marrow to be released in larger numbers. Those cells then find their way to areas of inflammation and reduce it, allowing areas of the brain to function better.

“I was treating a patient for blood cancer who had had a stroke,” Maharaj said. “I used a protein to increase the white blood cell count and the patient had a significant recovery.”

Because this particular treatment is experimental and not a standard of care recognized by the FDA, it’s not covered by insurance. A six-week cycle of treatment costs approximately $60,000.

Successful treatment

Dr. Dipnarine Maharaj

Dr. Dipnarine Maharaj

In June 2013, while attending a Legatus board meeting in Naples, Fla., the Staffords took time to meet with Maharaj for an evaluation. Linda returned two weeks later for her first six-week treatment.

According to Maharaj, Linda experienced significant improvement. Her Unified Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale, a scale used to study the course of Parkinson’s and other neurological diseases, improved dramatically. According to Maharaj, Linda’s score went from 33 prior to therapy to 12 following therapy.

“She dramatically improved,” Jerry agreed. “Everything improved. She got movement back in her left arm.”

Jerry noticed some regression at the end of 2013, so they returned for a second treatment the following February and March.

“That treatment gave her significant improvement in the brain,” said Jerry. “But after about seven months we began seeing regression again. When we returned, a brain scan showed some inflammation had returned. At that point we decided to go through a third round of treatment.”

After her third course of stem cell mobilization therapy, a subsequent SPECT brain scan showed an improvement in hypoperfusion, or blood flow in the brain.

According to the medical report, Linda “now displays increased facial expression, improved speech and memory as well as better gait, balance and control of her left arm/hand. Her spatial understanding has improved with enhanced awareness of her hand when performing tasks such as writing. Her incidence of traumatic fall has decreased significantly. She is sleeping better and all tremors have resolved. Overall there is marked improvement in the patient’s ability to perform activities of daily living and in her quality of life.”

Jerry says he’s overjoyed to see Linda returning to her old self.

“At her worst, she was unable to smile,” he explained. “She described herself as ‘being in a bubble.’ You could look in her eyes and see that something wasn’t there. She has completely rebounded from that.

“No one has ever been cured of this. We’re very hopeful that her brain will totally heal. Everything has been very positive. Today, she is very healthy physically. I can only attribute that to the work of God. The medical profession will tell you that you can do nothing about some of these diseases, but I want to let people who have who have put some money away know that they can do something.”

Linda plans to go through another two weeks of treatment in April and another in August to continue the healing.

“There’s no question it’s a miracle,” said Jerry. “The most important thing is that she has given hope to a lot of people. Corticobasal degeneration doesn’t have to be a death sentence.”

TIM DRAKE is Legatus magazine’s editorial assistant.

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National Catholic Bioethics Center

Catholic school policy and transgendered students

EDWARD FURTON: Parents and educators need to understand the complexity of this issue . . .

Edward J. Furton

Edward J. Furton

When a parent informs a Catholic school that a child will soon present as a member of the opposite sex, how should the administration respond?

Given the confused moral world in which we live, this question is no longer an academic one. Increasingly, Catholic schools will have to settle on policies concerning children who, in appearance and dress, come to school having “changed their sex.” We must first realize that the child is not at fault. He or she may be in a single-parent household where a member of the same sex is absent; the child thus lacks an appropriate role model. Or the parent(s) may actively encourage identification with the opposite sex in order to satisfy some inner need.

The claim that sexual identity is imposed on us by society — and therefore is malleable and subject to choice — is one of the great delusions of our age. Until recently, an expressed desire to be a member of the opposite sex was recognized as an aberration of normal psychological health. The claim that one’s psychological idea of sexual self does not match one’s physical body is termed “gender dysphoria.”

The Catholic Church offers no judgment on particular medical theories, but rather affirms as central to its theological tradition that the human being, as a unity of body and soul, is destined by God to be the sex plainly visible at birth. Baptismal certificates are determined by physiology and therefore cannot be later revised. Any Catholic policy concerning children who present as a member of the opposite sex at school must clearly affirm this teaching.

Although “cross-dressing” is itself problematic, the Church views with special alarm the decision to surgically alter a healthy male or female body so that one “becomes” a member of the opposite sex. These actions are mutilations and intrinsically immoral. Moreover, they do not change the sex of the person, which remains as it was before the mutilation. Parents should be especially vigilant against allowing others to convince them that they should inflict these surgeries on their children.

Having raised these concerns, consider a factor that compels caution. Some children suffer from genuine genital ambiguities or deformities at birth. These may make the external appearance of sex unclear. Internal organ structure may also be missing or inappropriately developed. Genetic evidence can guide our judgment, but sometimes not even this may be possible, for example, among those who suffer from androgen insensitivity syndrome.

Consider the following possibility. A child born with ambiguous genitalia is surgically altered at birth as a means of correcting the deformity. The surgeon, ignoring the genetic evidence, advises the parents that it would be easier to alter the genitalia so as to give the child a female rather than male appearance. This approach is more likely, he tells them, to produce good surgical results. The parents decide to follow the advice without giving due consideration to the genetic evidence.

One can imagine that, as this supposedly female child grows older and experiences his masculine identity, he would eventually recognize that the physical alterations made to his body were inappropriate. He might tell his parents that he now wants to return to his proper sexual identity and mode of dress. Here Church teaching would encourage the decision of the child. The original operation — although intended to be reparative — was in fact a mutilation; it did not conform to the child’s genetic identity.

Thus the presentation of a child at Catholic school as a member of the opposite sex may in rare cases be the result of a good decision. The correction of a previous error should not be discouraged, but welcomed. Given the confidentiality that is rightly involved in so intimate a matter, Catholic schools are not in a position to distinguish between proper corrective surgery and wrongful cross-dressing or surgical mutilation.

As a general rule, the school must affirm that sexual identity is determined by physical nature. Each of us is a body-soul union, and the body displays our sexuality. This identity cannot be changed by personal whim or desire. The Church’s teaching against mutilation follows the God-given law of nature.

From a practical perspective, the child who presents as the opposite sex at school faces potential ostracism at the hands of friends and classmates. The administration should take decisive steps to limit this harm. At the same time, the whole episode presents the school with an opportunity to publicly explain, by way of letter to the students’ parents, the teachings of the Catholic Church on embodiment, sexual identity, and respect for our created nature.

EDWARD J. FURTON, PH.D., is the director of publications for the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

Philosophy and the Catholic faith

Edward Furton writes that the Church has a deep and profound appreciation of philosophy . . .

Edward J. Furton

Edward J. Furton

The Catholic Church has always had high regard for the disciplines of philosophy and theology. Every Catholic college in the country has professors of these two subjects, sometimes in very significant numbers. This is a mark of respect for the intellectual tradition of the West.

Although it’s perhaps obvious why there should be an emphasis on theology, the importance of philosophy is sometimes neglected. The great philosophers of the past — especially those of the ancient world — have profoundly influenced Church teaching. St. Aurelius Augustine, for example, was strongly influenced by Plato’s philosophy. Similarly, St. Thomas Aquinas was deeply indebted to Aristotle’s thought.

Why this openness to philosophy? Primarily because we hold that faith is added to reason. Faith is neither a substitute for reason nor a contradiction to reason. God created the world, so it’s not surprising that evidence of what He expects of us should be present there. The Catholic Church thus defends the moral outlook known as “natural law philosophy.”

In this understanding of ethics, nature exists as a teleological system that moves under the governance of the Divine Providence. The word “teleological” derives from “telos” and “logos,” two Greek words which combine to mean “the study of purposes.” Catholic philosophy, in its most representative form, sees nature as a realm of purposeful motion in which all things are drawn to the good by the mind of God.

The purposes of nature show themselves in the activities of everything that exists. The spider spins a web for the sake of catching the fly. In doing so, it fulfills its own purposeful activities, which in fact involve highly complex behavior.

Even nonliving things have purposes. Were it not for gravity, the planets would not have been drawn together to form habitable worlds. Without planets, life would not have appeared. If life had not appeared, there would have been no animals — including rational animals like you and me — and therefore no arts, sciences, culture or religion.

Nature is purposeful. This is immediately obvious to any reflective mind. Certain truths of our faith can only be known through revelation, but the common moral code that God has made known to us in nature is given equally to everyone. The Ten Commandments is the essential summary of the natural law as it applies to human society, but Moses should not have had to bring those famous tablets down from the mountain. We all know these already.

Natural law morality is metaphorically described as “written on the heart,” but in fact it is known by the mind. If nature moves under the governance of the Supreme Being, then the goods toward which we are drawn are the natural aims of human action. The love of the opposite sex, for example, is a good towards which men and women are naturally attracted. From this desire there derives the objective truth that men and women are suited for marriage.

The goods of nature are purposes that move us to action. We are free to choose from among a wide range of goods, but we are not free to determine whether or not these things are goods. I may choose not eat broccoli or cauliflower, but I cannot choose to give up eating altogether. Food is a natural good of human beings. To starve myself would be to violate a fundamental law of nature.

Under the teleological conception, morality is objective. What is right and wrong can be deduced from reflection on the purposes that God has made evident to reason in nature. The laws of nature are evident to reason and therefore universally binding on all human beings — Catholic and non-Catholic alike.

Perhaps there is no better example of the respect that the Church has shown philosophy than the First Vatican Council’s affirmation that every Catholic must hold de fidei (the highest standard of fidelity to the faith) that God’s existence is evident to reason. The Council affirmed that the human mind can know, independently of scripture, that there is a Divine Being. Think about that for a moment. We must hold that God’s existence is evident through reflection on nature. This doesn’t mean that every individual Catholic must find this type of philosophical argument persuasive, but only that all Catholics must affirm that this type of knowledge is possible. Behind the metaphysical idea of nature as a teleological system there lies the philosophical conviction that God governs the world as the Divine Providence.

So when someone says that Christianity is about making a leap of faith, remember the role of philosophy within Catholicism. Catholics don’t leap while floating in space without any means of support, but do so only after planting our feet on the firm ground of reason.

EDWARD J. FURTON, PH.D., is the director of publications for the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

The case for marriage

Edward Furton writes that same-sex ‘marriage’ is not a right to be earned . . .

Dr. Edward Furton

Contrary to what you’ve heard, homosexuals have not won the right to marriage in the state of New York. There will be no wedding bells as homosexuals walk down the scented aisles of churches and exchange vows. There will be no cutting of cake, dancing to music or opening of wedding gifts after homosexual unions in the Empire State.

That might sound tongue-in-check, but none of these things will happen because none of them can happen. Marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman. Those of the same sex cannot enjoy this good. All of the outward trappings that have recently surrounded these events in New York are nothing more than appearances. They are designed to convince others — and even the participants themselves — that a true marriage has taken place.

The “right” awarded to homosexuals by New York does indeed confer certain legal benefits and financial advantages on these couples. But New York lawmakers cannot change the nature of marriage — they might as well try to repeal the law of gravity. The legislature can only award an empty title, and even that stands in open contradiction to the true nature of this sacred institution.

When people wonder why the Catholic Church opposes homosexual “marriage,” they might think it’s because of some authoritarian edict or a literal interpretation of the Bible. Rather, opposition comes from the rational insight that only men and women are fitted by nature for sexual union and procreation. They alone have the potential to produce offspring through their sexual activity.

Yes, homosexuals can now purchase what is necessary for a round of in vitro fertilization, but this is not sexual intercourse or natural procreation. Artificial reproduction depends on sexual materials that are purchased or “donated” by others and a technological effort in a lab.

Some married couples are infertile, just as homosexuals are, but this does not change the fact that without the difference between the sexes there would be no children. Nature clearly intends that members of the opposite sex should seek each other out for the purpose of procreation. And the natural needs of children tell us that they must have the lifelong commitment of two parents — male and female — if they are to grow into psychologically grounded and well-balanced adults.

The argument against homosexuality, therefore, follows from reflection on the laws of nature. Those who favor homosexual “marriage” typically dismiss this argument as insufficient and demand better proofs. But none exist. This is the argument — and it’s a good one. Indeed, it’s the only one that we need to show that homosexual acts are fundamentally wrong.

Though it has, from time to time, been tolerated (for example, among the wealthy in ancient Greece), homosexual activity has been generally condemned throughout history. The media likes to present the debate as a struggle between civil rights and an outdated code of morality, but perhaps we’re not seeing the relentless march of human progress, but a repeating pattern. Sex of this type is repressed because it leads to such rank excesses.

Massachusetts, which was the first to go down this path, has seen its school system used to advance graphic programs that teach the young how to engage in oral and anal sex in a vain attempt to avoid disease. Many parents are shocked to discover these materials not only distributed in the local schools, but often authorized and funded by the state.

We do an injustice to our young when we suggest that homosexual unions are the moral equivalent of the heterosexual. The young are subject to many passions, conflicting feelings and confused opinions. We should tell them, frankly, that whatever their disposition may happen to be, their own best interests are not to be found in actions that are contrary to nature.

The homosexual movement has allied itself with other sexual agendas of clearly questionable character. The letters LGBT indicate an expanding list which now embraces bisexuals and transsexuals. This latter group includes those who undergo mutilating procedures designed to transform their gender, crossdressers who want to be listed as their preferred sexual identity on their drivers’ licenses, and those characters who simply want to be free to enter restrooms designated for members of the opposite sex.

More recently, proponents of sex between men and boys have been trying to break into this not-so-exclusive club. Unsurprisingly, there has been some hesitation on the part of the homosexual community to advance the cause of pederasty. And yet, what grounds could there be for objection? Once the standard given in nature is rejected, and procreation is no longer recognized as a central purpose of sexual relations, there can be no objective standard by which to distinguish one sexual act from another.

As the homosexual community continues to advance its agenda, incorporate its doctrines into public schools, and join with other groups in demanding “liberation” from sexual standards rooted in nature, public opposition will inevitably grow. What homosexuals appear to want, above all, is approval for their way of life. Yet the one type of marriage that truly is marriage will always be denied to them. That is not the Catholic Church’s decision, but a decision written in the law of nature.

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

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.

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.