New bioethics instruction ‘positive, respectful and crystal clear’

21 Jan 2009

By The Record

Dignitas Personae, an instruction dealing with ever complex bioethical questions, was released late last year. Dr Joseph Parkinson of the LJ Goody Bioethics Centre summarises the latest Church teaching on IVF and related ethical issues.


MICROSCOPIC VIEW OF EMBRYONIC STEM CELLS: A microscopic view shows a colony of undifferentiated human embryonic stem cells being studied at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Photo CNS.


Twenty-one years after its first foray into assisted reproductive technology, the Vatican’s Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith late last year issued a new document on IVF and related bioethical questions.
The ‘Instruction Dignitas personae on Certain Bioethics Questions’ is positive in content, respectful in tone, and crystal clear on some contentious medical issues.
Technology advances at light speed today, and nowhere faster than in the fields of IVF, stem cells, genetics and biomedicine, so it takes a great deal of courage to challenge the world’s unquestioning acceptance of technological development.
The original 1987 statement Donum vitae has stood the test of time because it was grounded not in the changing technical detail of contemporary medical sciences but in enduring human truths derived from the older and more fundamental sciences of philosophy and theology.  
Dignitas personae repeats the core teachings of Donum vitae, affirming many of its key points, clarifying some problematic issues, and tackling some new ethical questions openly and constructively.
The view of science here is overwhelmingly positive: science is ‘an invaluable service to the integral good of the life and dignity of every human being’, so the Church not only ‘views scientific research with hope’ but also encourages Christians to ‘dedicate themselves to the progress of biomedicine’. [3]
If at times the Church has found it necessary to say ‘no’ to some aspects of medical research and technology, it does so only in order to protect some authentic moral good: ‘Behind every ‘no’ in the difficult task of discerning good from 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.’ [37]
In the same positive light the document acknowledges both the strength of couples’ desire to have children and the suffering caused by infertility [16].
It aims to assist in the formation of Christian conscience [10], a sign that the Congregation is fully aware that we all must take these truths into serious account when making responsible ethical choices.
Basing its arguments not in religious faith but in the inner logic of nature, Dignitas personae often hints at one of Pope Benedict’s favourite themes: all creation has a structure which we can discover and understand because we are part of the same creation, and we can rely on that structure to guide our decision-making in life.
This is the essence of ‘natural law’ in the Catholic moral tradition. We Christians identify God as the source of that ‘law’, and even though many sciences do not acknowledge a divine creator, their very existence depends on the same ‘common structure’ which they too discover in creation.
This fact enables Dignitas personae to challenge the sciences on their own terms, especially on the somewhat arbitrary attitude adopted toward a key question in bioethics: when does human life begin?  [4]
The document also confirms that, since we are personal beings, the generation of human life should never be separated from the deepest and most personal expressions of human love  –  which grounds its objection to many aspects of reproductive technology. [6]
On both questions Dignitas personae reiterates the position of Donum vitae: from the moment of conception every human life is deserving of the respect due to a human person, and every human person deserves an origin worthy of his or her personal dignity.
On some newer technologies the document offers clear guidance:
l  the freezing of embryos in IVF exposes them to harm, and so is ‘incompatible with the respect owed’ to human life; [18]
l  pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (the testing of IVF embryos for genetic anomalies) is discriminatory, leads to negative perceptions of persons with disabilities, and ultimately is destructive of many embryos; [22]
l  gene therapy intended to benefit the individual embryo is morally acceptable, but some other genetic procedures do not accord with human dignity; [25]
l  all forms of human cloning are unacceptable, because they ‘give rise to a new human being without a connection to the act of reciprocal self-giving between spouses’. [28]
Behind all of these ‘no’s’, of course, is the same resounding ‘yes’ to the dignity of every human being, at whatever stage of growth and development.   
Regarding stem cells, it is pleasing to note that the Congregation has reached the position foreshadowed several years ago by this author in a series of parish talks in Perth: ‘there is no moral objection to the clinical use of stem cells that have been obtained licitly’  –  that is, without the destruction of human embryonic life. [32]
Unfortunately, such is the speed of technological advance that the document makes no mention of the most exciting medical breakthrough of 2008: the re-programming of human body cells to form iPSCs  –  induced pluripotent stem cells  –  which could eventually make destructive stem cell research a thing of the past.
Finally, the document tackles one more thorny issue: the use of vaccines derived from unethical sources.
This question concerns the use of various vaccines, usually given to children, which were developed using cultures derived from fetuses aborted back in the 1950s and 1960s.
In line with advice from the Pontifical Academy for Life, the Congregation affirms that while there is a general duty to avoid any connection with wrong-doing, we also need to bear in mind the differing types and degrees of responsibility for wrongs which have been done.
So if parents believe that their children’s health warrants use of such vaccines, they are ethically justified in allowing vaccination.  
At the same time they should continue to pressure healthcare organisations to make other, more ethically acceptable options available.
Such is the common sense line adopted throughout Dignitas personae.  
In its positive outlook on the Church’s role in the world, and in its refusal to engage in the sad polemics which mark too many ethical debates today, this document could be a template for the Church to engage the modern world in a conversation which must be had, a respectful dialogue on the nature, unique dignity, and ultimately the future of mankind.
This is a central aspect of Pope Benedict’s vision for the Church in 2009, and we should be pleased that he, and his successor in the Congregation, Cardinal Levada, have given us such a clear model to follow.
Dignitas personae can be accessed on, by clicking on ‘click here for more news’ and scrolling to 15 Dec. 2008.