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Dr. Edward J. Furton | author
Jun 01, 2009
Filed under Culture of Life
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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.

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