Dignitas Personae

Today, December 12, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith officially issued a new document (available here) approved by Pope Benedict XVI. It is technically called an “instruction” on “certain biological questions.” Its Latin title, Dignitas Personae, comes from the first line and summarizes its focus, “the dignity of a person,” that is, of each and every person, however he came into existence. The instruction builds upon a prior instruction, Donum Vitae, which it notes was “particularly significant.” Dignitas Personae aims to provide thoughtful consideration and analysis of developments in biotechnology, and thereby to give guidance to “the Catholic faithful and to all who seek the truth.” Despite some weaknesses, by and large it succeeds in doing so, and is to be welcomed at a time of great pressure in the world to ignore ethical concerns about biotechnology in pursuit of utilitarian gains.

Much in the instruction is not, as it acknowledges, new. Rather, it usefully repeats and emphasizes the general principles that should guide all of us when we consider issues of bioethics.

First, of course, is the dignity of each human being. Simply because they are very young, embryos, for example, may not be sacrificed or manipulated to help other, older human beings (i.e., those who are already born). That their conception was illicit (for example, with cloning) does not justify using them as “biological material.” Thus, “selective reduction” of fetuses is wrong because it is abortion. Likewise, anything such as an intra-uterine device or “emergency contraception” that is used to prevent the implantation of an embryo is abortifacient and impermissible.

Human dignity forbids not only the killing but also the “manipulation” of the human being. Thus, both the creation of children designed to someone else’s specifications (“designer babies”) and “therapies” that alter a person’s genetic identity (“germ line genetic engineering”) are ethically problematic. Nor should living beings that are “hybrids” of human and animal genetic material be created (which, by the way, is permitted in Great Britain).

Closely allied to this first principle is the fact that human life should always and solely be conceived within the married love of husband and wife: “Procreation which is truly responsible vis-a-vis the child to be born must be the fruit of marriage.”

The second principle is that the Church is on the side of science, that is, of science faithful to its calling. Science is knowledge that serves humanity. Thus, as in every other area of human endeavor, science must be subject to ethical principles designed to protect the dignity and equality of all human beings. To insist on this, as Dignitas Personae does, is not to be anti-scientific; rather it is to remind science of its noble calling. Thus, for instance, Dignitas Personae calls upon scientists to be careful that in using “human material” that was originally obtained unethically by others, they are not actually complicit or do not give rise to scandal.

Third is the cautionary principle. Since, as the Good Book says, fools rush in where angels fear to tread, one should go slowly where the dignity of man is at stake. The instruction is a bit too cautious in my judgment in some areas, such as embryo adoption and oocyte-assisted reprogramming (OAR). There’s no space to deal with these questions here. I will return to them in a later column. But the general approach – that we must be sure we are not overstepping ethical boundaries before we go forward with new approaches and techniques – is sound. (Both of these areas, again in my judgment, require additional, deeper reflection and articulation by the congregation, which is something I hope we can look forward to in the future.)

Fourth is what we might call the political principle. Elected representatives are obliged to take ethical principles into account in making policy. One hopes this reminder will have a salutary effect on the Obama administration and its Catholic political supporters.

The 800-pound gorilla in the room is, of course, the assisted reproduction industry. Many, if not most, of the ethical issues considered in Dignitas Personae are the result of what is truly an industry, which creates a “supply” of embryonic human beings to meet the “demand” of potential parents. While one may fully sympathize with the anguish of married couples who are unable to conceive children, there are moral principles that restrict what can be done in response. One must lament, as does the instruction, the growth of an in vitro fertilization (IVF) industry that has resulted in the freezing of hundreds of thousands of embryonic human beings.

This is probably unknown to most Americans, who likely also do not know that this “industry” is almost wholly unregulated. This need not be the case. European nations such as Italy and Germany have severe restrictions on IVF, permitting only the creation of the number of embryos that will be implanted (and prohibiting freezing). If political realities in the United States do not permit the outlawing of these procedures, why can we not act to limit them and the harm they cause?

In the end, the importance of Dignitas Personae may be less in what it specifically says, than in the reminder it gives us all of our obligation to respect and protect the dignity of each and every human being. Coming as it does two days after “Human Rights Day,” this is a timely and salutary reminder.

William Saunders is Senior Vice President of Legal Affairs at Americans United for Life. A graduate of the Harvard Law School, he writes frequently on a wide variety of legal and policy issues.