By Bishop Robert Vasa
It is impossible for the Church to treat the subject of the dignity of a human person without reiterating its consistent teaching about the sinfulness of artificial contraception. Dignitas Personae, a 2008 instruction from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, does not make any direct comment about whether contraceptive pharmaceuticals (i.e. the pill) are abortifacient but this does not mean that the question is completely ignored. The document does distinguish between those mechanisms which are contraceptive, which has its own clear meaning, and those which are “interceptive” and “contragestative.” These words, too, have their own clear meaning. These latter two are designed and intended to “act after fertilization.” As such, they directly touch the human being about whom this document is concerned.
A fuller citation is in order: “Alongside methods of preventing pregnancy which are, properly speaking, contraceptive, that is, which prevent conception following from a sexual act, there are other technical means which act after fertilization, when the embryo is already constituted, either before or after implantation in the uterine wall. Such methods are interceptive if they interfere with the embryo before implantation and contragestative if they cause the elimination of the embryo once implanted.
“In order to promote wider use of interceptive methods, [IUD (intrauterine device) and the so-called “morning-after pills] it is sometimes stated that the way in which they function is not sufficiently understood. It is true that there is not always complete knowledge of the way that different pharmaceuticals operate, but 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. It must be noted, however, that anyone who seeks to prevent the implantation of an embryo which may possibly have been conceived and who therefore either requests or prescribes such a pharmaceutical, generally intends abortion.” (D.P.,23)
This last sentence is most significant: “anyone who seeks to prevent the implantation of an embryo which may possibly have been conceived and who therefore either requests or prescribes such a pharmaceutical, generally intends abortion.” While the document very narrowly defines those mechanisms, which are primarily and intentionally designed to work in this fashion, it also acknowledges that “there is not always complete knowledge of the way that different pharmaceuticals operate.” The document does not directly state, but it certainly must be inferred, that where “scientific studies indicate that the effect of inhibiting implantation is certainly present,” abortion is generally intended. This is where the meaning of words is very important. When a “contraceptive” is solely “contraceptive,” in keeping with the clear meaning of that word, then there is no direct offense to the dignity of a newly created human being. The dignity of the spouses is a whole other question. Unfortunately, the clear meaning of the word “contraceptive” (i.e. that which prevents conception or fertilization) has been altered to mean that which prevents pregnancy. That which prevents pregnancy includes not only contraception but also interception and contragestation. Scientific studies indicate that inhibiting implantation is one of the effects of the so-called contraceptive pill. Thus the contraceptive pill is not solely contraceptive, as this document defines “contraceptive.” It would perhaps be more accurate to begin to refer to such pharmaceuticals as contra/interceptive pills. It would seem to stand to reason that what is said about interceptives in this document needs to be applied also to those pharmaceutical contraceptives, which also have an interceptive function.
This is not an easy concept to grasp and it is not any easier to explain than it is to grasp. This document concerns itself with the dignity of a human person, which needs to be extended to every human being. Since the human embryo, even hours after the establishment of a unique genetic signature consisting of 23 pairs of chromosomes, is already a human being, any action on the part of anyone who wantonly disregards that humanity violates the dignity owed to a human person. Such a violation diminishes us all.
Another area, closely aligned with abortion, is embryonic stem cell research. It must be said that the Church does not in any way disdain legitimate and ethical research, even stem cell research. The document notes: “Therapeutic protocols in force today provide for the use of adult stem cells and many lines of research have been launched, opening new and promising possibilities.” (D.P.,31) This research, following proper ethical standards, is legitimate.
The major difficulty with embryonic stem cell research, and the reason why such research becomes a part of a Church document on the dignity of a human person is that: “The obtaining of stem cells from a living human embryo, on the other hand, invariably causes the death of the embryo and is consequently gravely illicit: research, in such cases, irrespective of efficacious therapeutic results, is not truly at the service of humanity. In fact, this research advances 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.” (D.P.,32) Endorsing embryonic stem cell research, in the simplest of terms, is to embrace the direct and intentional killing of human beings for the sake of scientific advancement. This is grotesque. Recognizing that such a violation of human dignity is commonplace, and still worse recognizing that our government sometimes provides the money needed for this desecration, ought to be offensive to us all.
“By treating the human embryo as mere ‘laboratory material,’ the concept of human dignity itself is also subjected to alteration and discrimination. Dignity belongs equally to every single human being, irrespective of his parents’ desires, his social condition, educational formation or level of physical development.” (D.P.,22) This includes the human embryo, a real human being.