By Bishop Robert Vasa
My recent reflections on the document Dignitas Personae served me very well this past week as I traveled to Dallas for a meeting for bishops hosted by the National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC).
The range of topics centered primarily on the freedom of religious expression and the rights and role of conscience. Dignitas Personae is applicable because it is important to know what our Church teaches in order to properly form one’s conscience and it is important to know what one is bound to in conscience in order to recognize when religious rights, whether institutional or individual, are being challenged or ignored.
Thus at the conference we discussed the First Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees the free exercise of religion and we saw how this freedom is ever so gradually being eroded. We looked at various state mandates related to healthcare.
With these, various states have decided that certain procedures or medications must be covered in health plans offered by employers without regard for the religious convictions of those employers who are directly or indirectly paying for the procedures which the health plan covers. In the most general terms, an employer whose health plan covers abortion is providing the money to the insurance company that it is using to pay for abortions. It is one thing, in our country, for the government to allow individuals to choose to abort their pre-born children. It is quite another for a state to mandate that an employer pay for this “choice” when there is a moral objection to doing so.
While a number of the issues discussed made reference to Dignitas Personae, the area which I found most interesting was that of the use of “biological material” of illicit origin. In the document this immediately followed the section on embryonic stem cell research because it concerns a very similar issue but contains an additional circumstance that makes it slightly different. Again, rather than trying to describe what the document says I think it is prudent to quote the document at greater length and then try to explain the ramifications.
The document notes: “A different situation is created when researchers use ‘biological material’ of illicit origin which has been produced apart from their research center or which has been obtained commercially. The Instruction Donum Vitae (D.V.) formulated the general principle which must be observed in these cases: The corpses of human embryos and fetuses, whether they have been deliberately aborted or not, must be respected just as the remains of other human beings. In particular, they cannot be subjected to mutilation or to autopsies if their death has not yet been verified and without the consent of the parents or of the mother. Furthermore, the moral requirements must be safeguarded that there be no complicity in deliberate abortion and that the risk of scandal be avoided.” [D.V.,I,4]
In this regard, the criterion of independence as it has been formulated by some ethics committees is not sufficient. According to this criterion, the use of “biological material” of illicit origin would be ethically permissible provided there is a clear separation between those who, on the one hand, produce, freeze and cause the death of embryos and, on the other, the researchers involved in scientific experimentation.
The criterion of independence is not sufficient to avoid a contradiction in the attitude of the person who says that he does not approve of the injustice perpetrated by others, but at the same time accepts for his own work the “biological material” which the others have obtained by means of that injustice. When the illicit action is endorsed by the laws that regulate healthcare and scientific research, it is necessary to distance oneself from the evil aspects of that system in order not to give the impression of a certain toleration or tacit acceptance of actions that are gravely unjust. Any appearance of acceptance would in fact contribute to the growing indifference to, if not the approval of, such actions in certain medical and political circles.
At times, the objection is raised that the above-mentioned considerations would mean that people of good conscience involved in research would have the duty to oppose actively all the illicit actions that take place in the field of medicine, thus excessively broadening their ethical responsibility. In reality, the duty to avoid cooperation in evil and scandal relates to their ordinary professional activities, which they must pursue in a just manner and by means of which they must give witness to the value of life by their opposition to gravely unjust laws. Therefore, it needs to be stated that there is a duty to refuse to use such “biological material” even when there is no close connection between the researcher and the actions of those who performed the artificial fertilization or the abortion, or when there was no prior agreement with the centers in which the artificial fertilization took place. This duty springs from the necessity to remove oneself, within the area of one’s own research, from a gravely unjust legal situation and to affirm with clarity the value of human life. Therefore, the above-mentioned criterion of independence is necessary, but may be ethically insufficient. Of course, within this general picture there exist differing degrees of responsibility.
“Grave reasons may be morally proportionate to justify the use of such ‘biological material.’ Thus, for example, danger to the health of children could permit parents to use a vaccine which was developed using cell lines of illicit origin, while keeping in mind that everyone has the duty to make known their disagreement and to ask that their healthcare system make other types of vaccines available. Moreover, in organizations where cell lines of illicit origin are being utilized, the responsibility of those who make the decision to use them is not the same as that of those who have no voice in such a decision.” (D.P., 35)
Unfortunately, once I have cited those portions of the document which need to be discussed I have exhausted the allotted space and must extend this discussion one more week. Hopefully, the mention of the use of a “vaccine which was developed using cell lines of illicit origin” will serve as a bit of a teaser for what is coming next week.