Tenth General Assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life
This year on its 10th anniversary, the Pontifical Academy
for Life has devoted the debates and deliberations of its General Assembly
to a topic of very great contemporary relevance and strong social impact.
This subject was well expressed by the title of the meeting: "The dignity
of human procreation and reproductive technologies: Anthropological and
More than 25 years since the
first `in vitro' child
By now more than 25 years have passed since the birth of
the first baby created by a procedure of fertilization in vitro. It
is estimated that since that time more than 1 million children have been
born throughout the world employing the same procedures.
Indeed, during these years the use of techniques of
assisted reproduction has undergone a progressive diffusion in various
countries of the world, in many cases leading national Governments to
develop specific legislation to govern the complex procedures connected
with the use of these methods.
In this field as well, scientific research has invested
increasing human and economic resources in order to make these "artificial
reproductive techniques" (ART) more "effective", without, however,
managing to obtain a substantial increase in the overall rate of births
compared to the number of cycles of treatment. Indeed, this rate remains
so low that if it were to occur in other kinds of medical treatment it
would without doubt be interpreted as a clear sign of fundamental
Furthermore, in the case of artificial procreation such a
low level of success, in addition to being a statistical fact attesting to
technical failure, often has as a sad consequence very great suffering and
disappointment on the part of couples who thus see their hopes of
parenthood by this route frustrated.
Unfortunately, this negative statistical fact is
tragically matched at an empirical level by an enormous loss of human
embryos. This is because the greatest difficulties still to be found at a
practical level in ART are specifically encountered at the moment of
implantation and during the subsequent development of the embryo.
Childless couples and the
desire for parenthood
It should also be noted that the intervention of medicine
upon the act of procreation was initiated under the aegis of helping the
"treatment of sterility" in many couples afflicted by this condition and
in response to a sincere desire for parenthood. The data available today,
moreover, demonstrate that the incidence of sterility in couples is
increasing, above all in Western societies, a fact that invites science to
engage in the demanding task of identifying its real causes and finding
remedies for it.
This original aim, however, has in part changed over time.
On the one hand, it has at times been expressed in an
approach which one might term "self-congratulatory". In the face of a
large number of cases of sterility caused by unascertained factors, and
without being concerned about engaging in further diagnostic and clinical
investigations, this approach perceives in the hasty use of artificial
reproductive techniques the only useful form of treatment there is.
On the other hand, an even more worrying phenomenon is
looming on the horizon. We refer here to the progressive emergence of a
new mentality, according to which recourse to ART constitutes a
compared to the "natural" route
bring a child into this world, because it is possible through these
techniques to exercise a more effective "control" over the quality of the
conceived child in line with the wishes of those who ask for such a child.
All this works in favour of seeing the child obtained through the use of
ART as being on the same level as a "product" whose value in reality
depends in large measure on its "good quality", which for its part is
subjected to severe controls and careful selection.
The dramatic consequence of this is the systematic
elimination of those human embryos that lack the level of quality that is
held to be sufficient and, moreover, according to parameters and criteria
that are inevitably disputable.
Unfortunately, there are scientific and legislative
initiatives designed to produce human embryos through ART to be "used"
exclusively for research purposes
which amounts to their destruction
thereby transforming them into laboratory objects,
sacrificial victims predestined to be immolated on the altar of scientific
progress that has to be followed "at all costs".
The dignity of procreation and its intrinsic meanings
In light of all this, the Pontifical Academy for Life, in
conformity with its institutional purpose, feels the need and at the same
time the responsibility to offer the ecclesial community and civil society
its contribution of thought on the subject in order to propose again to
every person of good will the very great dignity of human procreation and
its intrinsic meanings.
The coming into being of a new human being is always in
itself a gift and a blessing: "Lo, sons are a heritage from the Lord, the
fruit of the womb a reward" (Psalm 126:3). Each person from the first
moment of his life is the tangible sign of God's faithful love for
humanity; he is the living icon of the "Yes" of the Creator to the history
of men, a history of salvation that will be completed in full communion
with God in the joy of eternal life.
Each human being, in fact, from his conception is a unity
of body and soul, and possesses in himself the vital principle that will
lead him to develop his potentialities, which are not only of a biological
character but are also anthropological.
For this reason, the dignity (which is the dignity of the
human person) of a child, of every child, independently of the practical
circumstances in which his life begins, remains an intangible and
immutable good which requires recognition and defence, both by individuals
and by society as a whole.
The linking of love and life has a meaning all its own
Among all the fundamental rights that every human being
possesses from the moment of conception, the right to life is certainly
the primary right because it is the pre-condition for the existence
of all other such rights. On the basis of this right, every human being,
especially if weak or not self-sufficient, must receive adequate social
defence against every form of offence or substantial violation of his or
her physical and mental integrity.
It is precisely this inalienable dignity of the person,
which belongs to every human being from the first moment of his existence,
which requires that his origins should be the direct consequence of
suitable personal human action; only the reciprocal gift of the married
love of a man and a woman, expressed and realized in the conjugal act with
respect for the inseparable unity of its unitive and procreative meanings,
is a worthy context for the coming forth of a new human life.
This truth, which has always been taught by the Church, is
fully met in the heart of every person, as the recent words of John Paul
II well emphasize: "What emerges ever more clearly in the procreation of a
new creature is its indispensable bond with spousal union, by which
the husband becomes a father through the conjugal union with his wife, and
the wife becomes a mother through the conjugal union with her husband. The
Creator's plan is engraved in the physical and spiritual nature of
the man and of the woman, and as such has universal value" (Address to
the Participants in the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Academy for
Life, 21 February 2004, n. 2).
We thus state again our firm conviction that artificial
reproductive techniques, far from being a real treatment for the sterility
of a couple, in reality constitute an unworthy method for the coming forth
of a new life, whose beginning thus depends in large measure on the
technical action of third parties outside the couple and takes place in a
context totally separated from conjugal love. In employing ART, indeed,
the spouses do not in any way take part in the conception of their child
through the reciprocal corporeal and spiritual self-giving of their
persons by means of the conjugal act.
The Pope also wanted to call attention to this truth when
he pronounced the following words: "The act in which the spouses become
parents through the reciprocal and total gift of themselves makes them
cooperators with the Creator in bringing into the world a new human being
called to eternal life. An act so rich that it transcends even the life of
the parents cannot be replaced by a mere technological intervention,
depleted of human value and at the mercy of the determinism of
technological and instrumental procedures" (Ibid., n. 2).
'Slaughter of the innocents' of our times
Beyond these arguments at the level of principle, there
are also certain practical circumstances in the application of ART
given present-day technical possibilities
that increase the negative ethical judgment to be applied to such
techniques. Among these we may refer above all to the enormous number of
human embryos that are lost or destroyed following these procedures
real "slaughter of the innocents" of our times; indeed, no war or
catastrophe has ever caused so many victims.
In addition to these embryos there are also those that for
various reasons end up by being frozen. If rejected by those who have
ordered them, these embryos "are exposed to an absurd fate, with no
possibility of being offered the safe means of survival which can be
licitly pursued" (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Donum
Vitae, I, 5).
Every other reflection on this point, and in particular on
the question of the (theoretical and real) possibility of a possible
pre-natal adoption of these "spare" embryos, would require a detailed
analysis of scientific and statistical data on the subject, which in fact
is still not available in the literature in the field. For this reason,
the Pontifical Academy for Life thought that it was premature to address
this subject directly during its recent General Assembly.
In addition, it should be emphasized that the
implementation and improvement of artificial techniques of reproduction,
whose level of efficacy is objectively very low, require the investment of
notable health-care and economic resources, which are thus withdrawn from
the need to treat other pathologies that are much more serious and
widespread and on which often depends the very survival of entire human
In the case of "heterologous" methods of ART (that is, in
the case of recourse to the donation of gametes by a subject outside the
couple), we are in the presence of a further element that increases the
already negative ethical judgment that should be applied. The conjugal
unity of the couple, in fact, is offended and violated by the presence of
a third person (at times also by a fourth person), who will be one of the
real biological parents of the child that has been requested.
Furthermore, the right of the newly conceived child to
have a man and a woman as his parents from whom his biological structure
originate and who in a stable way concern themselves with his growth and
upbringing, is fundamentally violated.
We believe, in different fashion, that the implementation
of possible medical interventions (when a real need exists for them) that
are intended to facilitate the naturally carried out conjugal act or to
help it achieve its natural objects (without substituting it), is morally
licit(cf. Donum Vitae, II, 6).
A 'desire for a child' can never be 'a right to a child'
Sterility in the case of spouses who wish to find "in
their child a confirmation and completion of their reciprocal self-giving"
(Donum Vitae, II, 1) can undoubtedly be a real reason for
great suffering and also a source for them of further problems. There can
be no doubt that such a real desire is in itself more than legitimate and
a positive sign of a conjugal love that wants to grow and be expressed in
all its forms.
It should be stressed, however, that a more than
understandable and licit "desire for a child" can never be transformed
into an arrogant "right to a child" and, moreover, a "right to a child
at all costs". No person can claim the right to the existence of
another, otherwise the latter would be placed on a lower level of value
than the one who claims such a right.
In reality, a child can never be understood as an "object
of desire" to be obtained at any cost. Rather, a child should be seen as a
very valuable gift to be welcomed with love, whenever he arrives. Spouses
are called through their reciprocal conjugal self-giving to create all the
conditions needed for a new life to begin, but they cannot licitly go so
far as to determine its coming forth by commissioning its "production" in
a laboratory through the work of technicians who have nothing to do with
the couple itself.
It seems to us, rather, that all those efforts that modern
medicine can make in an attempt to cure forms of conjugal sterility should
be very strongly welcomed and encouraged. As the Supreme Pontiff himself
has declared: "I would like to encourage scientific research
that seeks a natural way to overcome the infertility of the spouses,
and likewise to urge all specialists to perfect those procedures that can
serve this end. I hope that the scientific community
appeal particularly to those scientists who are believers
advance reassuringly on the road to true prevention and authentic
treatment" (Address, n. 3).
By way of a confirmation of the sincerity of these hopes,
we would like to point out that during this General Assembly of the
Pontifical Academy for Life, a number of practical programmes were
presented of notable scientific interest for the therapy and treatment of
certain forms of sterility in couples.
The gift of conjugal fecundity, however, should be
understood in a much broader sense than biological fertility. Spousal
love, as a practical expression of God's love for humankind, is always
called to love, serve, defend and promote human life (cf. John Paul II,
Evangelium Vitae, n. 29) in all its dimensions, even when, in actual
fact, it cannot in a biological sense generate it.
For this reason, feeling very near to spouses who are
still unable to find a solution in medicine to their condition of
sterility, we fraternally encourage them to equally express and realize
their conjugal fecundity by placing themselves generously at the service
of the very many human situations that need love and sharing.
Among these, special reference should be made to the
social institutions of adoption and the legal entrusting of children to
families, in relation to which we hope that there will be juridical rules
and regulations increasingly able to assure due guarantees and at the same
time the speedy completion of bureaucratic procedures.
Duty of Catholic politicians in relation to unjust laws
Lastly, we wish to make a final observation about the
question of the role of Catholic members of parliament in relation to
unjust laws in the field of human artificial reproduction.
We declare ourselves in full harmony with the general
moral norm, upheld by Catholic doctrine, according to which an
intrinsically unjust law that clearly violates the dignity of human life
example, in the case of legalisation on abortion or euthanasia
must be firmly opposed by believers through the institution of
conscientious objection. It is never licit for a Catholic to "take part in
a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law, or vote for it" (Evangelium
Vitae, n. 73).
However, the same ratio of this norm raises
questions about what form of action can be seen as morally licit when the
vote in a parliament of one or more Catholics is decisive (totally or
partially) in repealing an unjust law which is already being applied or
supporting a new formulation of that law which limits its unjust aspects.
In such a context, the giving of one's own vote
after publicly expressing one's own firm disapproval of the unjust aspects
of the law itself
ethically justifiable on the grounds that the greatest good possible and
the greatest reduction of injury possible at that moment are obtained. A
Catholic member of a parliament, in fact, in such circumstances would only
be morally responsible for the effects arising from the (total or partial)
repeal of such a law, whereas the continued existence of the unjust
elements in that law would be attributable solely to those who voted for
them and supported them.
For that matter, it should be remembered that for each
person there exists hic et nunc the specific moral duty to do all
the good that is practically possible, and one cannot deny that
eliminating or reducing an evil is in itself a good.
The Pontifical Academy for Life once again wishes to
appeal to every person of good will to consider the lofty and special
dignity of human procreation, in which the creative love of God is
expressed at its highest level and the interpersonal communion of the
spouses is fully realized. The creativity of man and his
technical-scientific capacities in this matter should, however, be at the
service of the human person, for the good of the spouses and their
children, without ever seeking to replace or to substitute human