Dignitas Personae, Vatican Instruction on Bioethics, Welcomed for Guidance on Issues of Procreation, Medical Research
Press release US Conference of Catholic Bishops
December 12, 2008
Dignitas Personae (The Dignity of a Person), an Instruction from the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) on ethical issues arising from biomedical research, provides guidance on how to respect human life and human procreation in our heavily scientific age, said Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“We welcome the Instruction as theologians, medical personnel, researchers and married couples consider new scientific and medical procedures that have profound ethical implications bearing upon the procreation of children and the integrity of marriage,” Cardinal George said in a December 12 statement. “We applaud developments which advance medical progress with respect for the sanctity of human life from the moment of conception,” he said. “We oppose discarding or manipulating innocent lives to benefit future generations, or promoting the creation of new human life in depersonalized ways that substitute for the loving union between a husband and wife.”
Dignitas Personae can be found at www.usccb.org/Comm/Dignitaspersonae.
Cardinal George pointed out that the document defends again the life of unborn human beings, created like all other people in the image of God.
The Instruction notes that “behind every ‘no’ in the difficult task of discerning between good and evil, there shines a great ‘yes’ to the recognition of the dignity and inalienable value of every single and unique human being called into existence.”
Cardinal George also noted that Dignitas Personae approves fertility treatments that “succeed in re-establishing the normal function of human procreation” as well as “stem cell research and therapies that respect the inherent dignity of the human person.” He also noted the Instruction’s encouragement for assisting infertile couples through both adoption and research into infertility.
The Instruction also considers the challenge faced by researchers and families arising from the proposed use of unethically obtained cells and tissues, for example, in making vaccines. It states that researchers have a duty to distance themselves and their work from unjust situations created by others and to affirm the inviolable dignity of human life.
“Grave reasons may be morally proportionate to justify the use of such ‘biological material,'” the Instruction states, however. “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 their healthcare system to make other types of vaccine available.”
The Vatican Instruction, dated September 8 but released December 12, highlights “some anthropological, theological and ethical elements of fundamental importance” as well as “new problems regarding procreation” and “new procedures involving the manipulation of embryos and the human genetic patrimony.” It builds upon Donum vitae, the 1987 CDF instruction on reproductive technologies and embryo experimentation, and discusses more fully the threat of human cloning.
Other issues discussed in Dignitas Personae include:
Embryo adoption. The document does not reject the practice outright but warns of medical, psychological and legal problems associated with it and underscores the moral wrong of producing and freezing embryos in the first place. “Cryopreservation is incompatible with the respect owed to human embryos,” the Instruction states.
Pre-implantation drugs and devices. Knowledge of the mode of action of some of these drugs offered to prevent pregnancy is incomplete. Nonetheless, prescribing and using them in order to prevent the implantation and therefore survival of any embryo involves the sin of abortion.
Gene therapy. “Somatic cell” gene therapy (correcting a specific genetic defect in the cells of an individual patient) raises the same basic issues of risk and benefit as other medical techniques, though “procedures used on somatic cells for strictly therapeutic purposes are in principle morally licit,” the Instruction states. However, the Instruction raises special caution about “germ line” gene therapy (which would affect all of a person’s cells, including reproductive cells, and therefore affect future generations). Human germ line therapy is not acceptable “in its current state,” due to its massive and unpredictable risks and its need to manipulate human embryos in the laboratory.
“It is not morally permissible to act in a way that may cause possible harm to the resulting progeny,” the Instruction states.
Genetic enhancement/designer babies. Beyond the medical risks involved, the Instruction warns against an attitude of dissatisfaction with finite human nature as created, a “eugenic mentality” that would drive new divisions between groups of human beings, the arbitrary and questionable criteria some would use to decide what a “better” human being is, and an ideology that seeks to take over God’s role in creation. The Instruction says that “in stating the ethical negativity of these kinds of interventions which imply an unjust domination of man over man, the church also recalls the need to return to an attitude of care for people and of education in accepting human life in its concrete historical finite nature.”
Human/animal hybrid embryos. The Instruction rejects attempts to create such hybrids (including the use of animal eggs in attempts at human cloning), noting that “from an ethical standpoint such procedures represent an offense against the dignity of human beings on account of the admixture of human and genetic elements capable of disrupting the specific identity of man.” The Instruction concludes by explaining the positive vision of human progress that grounds its moral judgments against specific abuses of biotechnology. Through modern science and technology, the Instruction says, the human person “participates in the creative power of God and is called to transform creation” in service to “the dignity and wellbeing of all human beings and of the human person in his entirety.”