By Bishop Robert Vasa
Last week I covered the introduction to the document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith known as Dignitatis Personae or Dignity of a Person. In light of recent indications that there may be an expansion of permission to experiment with human embryonic cells the section of Dignitatis Personae, which deals with this topic, is particularly timely.
Once again, Dignitatis Personae reminds us: It is appropriate to recall the fundamental ethical criterion expressed in the instruction Donum Vitae in order to evaluate all moral questions, which relate to procedures involving the human embryo: “Thus the fruit of human generation, from the first moment of its existence, that is to say, from the moment the zygote has formed, demands the unconditional respect that is morally due to the human being in his bodily and spiritual totality. The human being 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” (D.P.,4 – Citing Donum Vitae).
The teaching that every human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception has consequences for both how that human being is conceived and how he or she is treated immediately after conception. Thus the teaching directly touches infertility treatments. “With regard to the treatment of infertility, new medical techniques must respect three fundamental goods: a) the right to life and to physical integrity of every human being from conception to natural death; b) 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; c) 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 specific to the love between spouses.’ Techniques which assist procreation ‘are not to be rejected on the grounds that they are artificial. As such, they bear witness to the possibilities of the art of medicine. But they must be given a moral evaluation in reference to the dignity of the human person, who is called to realize his vocation from God to the gift of love and the gift of life.’ In light of this principle, all techniques of heterologous artificial fertilization, as well as those techniques of homologous artificial fertilization which substitute for the conjugal act, are to be excluded.” (D.P., 12)
The teaching of the church is clear. All forms of artificial fertilization, and the subsequent insemination which normally follows, whether the gametes are from a suitably married couple or not, are a violation of the dignity of the person. In our society pragmatism and utility are principles that rule the day. Thus the general perception is that anyone who wants to have a child is deemed free to do whatever needs to be done in order to achieve the fulfillment of this desire. No one of us is free from pangs of heart as we hear of the heartfelt longing of a couple for a child. Yet that longing does not justify a violation of the fundamental principle that every human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception, indeed, in the very act of being conceived. The document makes a distinction between those methods which “substitute for” and those interventions that “assist” procreation. I do not intend to give any kind of in-depth scientific exposition other than to note that anytime human embryos are created in a setting other than the woman’s body (conception usually occurs within the fallopian tube) there has been a “substitution for” the conjugal act.
A very sad corollary to much of the present day reproductive technology is the destruction of unwanted or unused embryos or their cryogenic preservation. Neither is acceptable. As the document notes: “These losses are accepted by the practitioners of in vitro fertilization as the price to be paid for positive results. In reality, it is deeply disturbing that research in this area aims principally at obtaining better results in terms of the percentage of babies born to women who begin the process, but does not manifest a concrete interest in the right to life of each individual embryo.” (D.P., 14) The document continues: “The blithe acceptance of the enormous number of abortions involved in the process of in vitro fertilization vividly illustrates how the replacement of the conjugal act by a technical procedure — in addition to being in contradiction with the respect that is due to procreation as something that cannot be reduced to mere reproduction — leads to a weakening of the respect owed to every human being.” (D.P., 16) The document links the utilitarian desire for a child with the same utilitarianism, which fosters direct abortion: “The desire for a child cannot justify the ‘production’ of offspring, just as the desire not to have a child cannot justify the abandonment or destruction of a child once he or she has been conceived.” (D.P., 16)
While it is not possible for us to see these tiny microscopic embryos as God sees them, the document very beautifully includes, in this same paragraph 16, a citation from Pope Benedict, which should touch us deeply: “God’s love does not differentiate between the newly conceived infant still in his or her mother’s womb and the child or young person, or the adult and the elderly person. God does not distinguish between them because he sees an impression of his own image and likeness (Gen 1:26) in each one. Therefore, the Magisterium of the Church has constantly proclaimed the sacred and inviolable character of every human life from its conception until its natural end. Benedict XVI, Address to the General Assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life and International Congress on ‘The Human Embryo in the Pre-implantation Phase.’” (February 27, 2006) (D.P., 16)
I did not yet get to embryonic stem cell research, but in light of what we have already seen, we would conclude, in advance, that the dignity of a person precludes such experimentation. It is not right to treat that in which God “sees an impression of his own image and likeness” like a common laboratory rat. To do so does immeasurable harm to us all.