March 5, 2024

Vatican hangs its bioethics on human dignity

First major statement in 20 years
Vatican panel introduces new documentThe Vatican has released its first major statement on bioethics in 20 years. Although the conclusions of Dignitas Personae (“The Dignity of the Person”)– mostly negative – were perfectly predictable, it was treated with surprising respect by the media. Apparently a positive notion of human dignity, which is the foundation of Catholic bioethics, rang a bell everywhere – at least outside of professional bioethics circles. Human dignity? sneered Dr Summer Johnson, who blogs at the American Journal of Bioethics, “Perhaps it could be useful, if anyone knew what it meant.”

The Church was clearly worried that its list of prohibitions would be treated as bio-luddite conservatism. Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told the press: “If it is read in a superficial way, it might give the impression of being a collection of prohibitions, but it is not so," he said. It begins "with the fundamental affirmation of the ‘dignity of the human person,’ and continues with a whole series of positive affirmations on the dignity of marriage and of the personal union of spouses to give origin to life, on the positive results of science to overcome the pathologies of infertility, on research and therapeutic use of adult stem cells, etc."

No one expected the Catholic Church to reverse its ban on reproductive cloning, therapeutic cloning, IVF, pre-implantation diagnosis, ICSI, embryo reduction, germ line therapy, embryonic stem cells, hybrid embryos – and they were not disappointed. However, the document does make an effort to clarify some issues which had been disputed amongst Catholics. It urges caution in the use of “altered nuclear transfer” and discourages embryo adoption.

On the conundrum of what is to be done with the thousands of abandoned embryos, the Vatican did not give a solution. This is “a situation of injustice which in fact cannot be resolved,” the document sayssternly. It seems that it favours keeping them frozen for ever. “They are and remain the subjects of essential rights and should therefore be protected by law as human persons”.

JulieRubio, a professor of theology at St. Louis University, told Canada’sNationalPost that the title of the document sums up its message. “Thereis really an attempt to put everything in terms of the dignity of theperson. They try to answer arguments where people say you’re notresponding to human suffering, to those who have diseases or want tohave children. Or you’re just trying to say something is wrongbecause it’s artificial rather than natural. And the Church issaying no: this is all about respecting the dignity of the person.”

The document, sheexplains, is closely linked to Catholic views on social justice:“human dignity is something that belongs to every human beingirrespective of desires, social conditions. They see this asprophetic: the link between this defence the embryo and othervoiceless people. I think they’re trying to say that, for instance,that the desire to have a child is good, and the suffering of thosewho cannot conceive their biological children is real — but that isnot everything. Even if our intentions are good we have to look atwhat we’re doing. They try to make connections between these kindsof actions and our attitudes about life. And they’re suggestingthat it’s sending us in a not-so-great direction.”

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