As we saw last week, the primary purpose of the new Vatican instruction on bioethics, Dignitas Personae, is to clarify Church teachings on biotechnologies that have become prominent since Donum Vitae was published in 1987. Dignitas Personae draws a bright line between scientific activities that treat human beings as a commodity to be produced - or as God's greatest gift.
One of the primary topics addressed by Dignitas Personae is assisted reproductive technologies, or ARTs. Some people think that the authentic pro-lifer should welcome any means taken to bring children into this world, but such thinking reflects an improper understanding of human dignity.
The Catholic Church has always taught that a child should be the fruit of total self-giving between a man and woman who are committed to each other through marriage. Technologies that assist the marital union in conceiving a child through natural means respect the dignity of the child. One example would be the surgical repair of damaged Fallopian tubes. However, those that replace it through brute-force technology, such as in-vitro fertilization, do not respect this inherent dignity and inevitably lead to terrible abuses.
For example, if a child can be conceived in a Petri dish, why should we not then check to ensure that this "product" is free of defects? Why not freeze, experiment on, or discard embryos that are defective or that nobody wants? Why not use gametes from people who have desirable genetic characteristics? Why not rent a third party's uterus to perform the arduous task of childbearing, thereby pushing pregnancy into the province of the poor?
Dignitas Personae is very helpful in that it clearly shows how certain common medical procedures may be either licit or illicit, depending on their objective or usage;
- the freezing of oocytes is illicit, although the freezing of ovaries may be permissible if a woman with cancer or some other disease of the ovaries desires to have children in the future;
- pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), which "weeds out" those embryos deemed to be inferior is not allowable because it is a eugenic procedure, although prenatal diagnosis is permissible if its intent is to prepare medical teams and parents to properly care for a sick infant;
- embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) is impermissible, since it invariably leads to the death of the embryo, although adult stem cell research is licit; and
- using gene therapy to enhance the human race is considered the ultimate in the condemned pseudoscience of positive eugenics, although the same type of therapy used to cure disease in a single subject's non-reproductive cells would be permissible. In other words, correcting a specific defect in one person's cells is called "somatic cell" gene therapy and is acceptable. But "germ line" gene therapy, which would affect all of a person's cells, is not, since it requires manipulation of embryos in a laboratory.
Since Donum Vitae in 1987, rapidly advancing biological technology has raised many completely new issues. One of these is "altered nuclear transfer," or human cloning that produces embryonic stem cells but not an embryo. This procedure needs more study to ensure that a new human being is never created and then destroyed before it can be declared licit. By contrast, reprogramming adult cells into what are called "induced pluripotent stem cells" is allowable since it can never result in the creation of a human person.
Pro-lifers will perhaps find the most controversial segment of Dignitas Personae to be the one dealing with the "prenatal adoption" of frozen embryos, leading to the birth of "snowflake babies." The desire to adopt these "orphan" embryos is certainly well intentioned and understandable, but leads to a number of problems, the primary of which is the perpetuation of the system that leads to the perceived necessity for such adoptions in the first place. The closest parallel might be Christian organizations which recently "bought back" slaves in Sudan, which implicitly implied that human beings may be bought and sold, and also encouraged slave-taking for profit. Dignitas Personae warns of the many ethical and practical problems associated with it.
Another subject that pro-lifers have been debating for years is vaccines made from the cell lines of aborted preborn babies. For the first time, the Church definitively addresses this topic in Dignitas Personae. The document states that parents may legitimately use such vaccines if there are no alternatives, since they have no say in how the vaccines are made. However, the parents should always ask their health care systems to make other vaccines available.
Dignitas Personae represents a welcome clarification regarding many medical and scientific procedures in the increasingly complex area of human reproduction, and will answer many questions that have, until now, not been dealt with authoritatively.We urge all of our readers to go directly to the document and study it if they have any questions.
- Dr. Brian Clowes
Human Life International