|Paradigm for Hierarchical Involvement in the
and Sunday, 11-12 June, 25.9 percent of
Italians nationwide voted in the referendum for the abrogation of Law 40/2004
that strictly controls "medically assisted procreation",
including artificial fertilization. To change this law, over
50 percent had to participate in this vote. Consequently,
the referendum failed.
The Italian Bishops had advised Catholics to abstain from
voting. Citing Cardinal Camillo Ruini, Vicar of Rome and President of the Italian Bishops'
Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi of Milan explained in an article first
published on 25 May in the Italian edition of L'Osservatore Romano
that the current law, though imperfect and in need of future
improvement, at least "has the merit of safeguarding certain
essential principles and criteria".
The position of the Italian Catholic Church on the referendum was that
Christians, to protect life, should abstain from voting;
Cardinal Tettamanzi observed that this was in this particular case a
legitimate decision and not a matter of political disengagement.
His article serves as an effective teaching tool regarding the
possibility of hierarchical involvement in critical moral issues affecting
our day, and the role that Bishops must exercise in informing the
Catholic faithful of their responsibilities in these matters.
In Italy, the debate on the upcoming referendums for the abrogation of
Law 40/2004 is growing more and more heated. What is worrisome is not so
much the "tone", which makes it difficult to have an open and explicit
confrontation that is also responsible and calm, as are the "reasons"
adopted to uphold certain positions.
In this context, I have several times wondered on the one hand,
because of my pastoral responsibility and on the other, because of my
approach as an academic specialized in bioethical problems whether it
might not be useful to present in a simple way a few thoughts on human
life, especially in its early stages.
My starting point is the affirmation that human life is always a good.
Indeed, it is the most precious good, because it constitutes the basis of
every other good that human beings can enjoy on this earth: freedom, love,
peace, health, development, culture, interpersonal relations, prosperity,
the religious experience, faith and even other goods.
In particular, the life of each human being is an unconditional good
with an exalted individual and social value, unequalled among the living.
"The life which God gives man", John Paul II wrote, "is quite different
from the life of all other living creatures, inasmuch as man, although
formed from the dust of the earth... is a manifestation of God in the
world, a sign of his presence, a trace of his glory" (Encyclical Evangelium
Vitae, n. 34}.
With this reference to God, I am indeed speaking as a "believer" but at
the same time as a "man", since life certainly has a value "which every
human being can grasp by the light of reason; thus it necessarily concerns
everyone", believers and non-believers alike (ibid., n. 101).
therefore appealing to human reason, a reason open to the "whole" of
reality and thus even dares to wonder about "transcendence".
This is the basic perspective that will guide our reflection, which
aims to define how to evaluate human life in its initial stages, and
particularly, what responsibility we should assume, especially with regard
to medically assisted procreation, controlled in Italy by Law 40/2004.
This brings us face to face with a highly complex and specialized
medical, ethical, social and legal issue on which we would like to offer
some reflections that I believe to be serious and well-founded, but that
claim neither to be exhaustive nor to have an extremely analytical
approach. My intention is more modest but hopefully useful: I would like
to share, not only with believers but with every human being, certain
"reasons" concerning the good of human life and the contribution to the
common good that we are all called to make.
Pro life: duty for all
Accepting, safeguarding and promoting human life cannot be considered
merely the prerogative of a few individuals, associations or institutions.
Rather, it is a precise moral duty for each one of us excluding no
one to take on with awareness and to discharge with responsible, clear
and firm determination.
It is also a precise civil duty, since accepting, safeguarding and
promoting human life is the basic, indispensable condition for achieving the
common good, to which each one of us is
called to make our own contribution (cf. Evagelium Vitae, n. 72).
In particular, the social dimension and efficaciousness of this
commitment, depending on the circumstances, can require various concrete
expressions, such as participation an initiative, explicit dissent or
merely abstention: all these actions must always comply with what is
permitted and legal and with the observance of the procedures with which a
nation has equipped itself to achieve the common good through the
cooperation of its citizens
Since the good of life is the most common good because it concerns every
individual and, at the same time the whole of society it follows that safeguarding this intrinsic and
integral good of the person from any attempt
exploit it, as do certain aims or projects regardless of their importance,
is a necessary service to human solidarity.
Gospel of life: for everyone
For this reason the Church, who called by her Lord to serve "the whole"
of the person and "every" person, especially when that person is little,
we and defenseless, supports those who welcome, nurture and care for human
life from conception until death.
In fact, how could the Christian community build peace between nations,
help the poor, defend the oppressed and persecuted, teach young people
values and uphold authentic cultural and social advancement if it were not at the same time committed to
defending and promoting that fundamental, indeed basic, good, which is
human life itself?
Moreover, the fact that certain fundamental rights and duties are also
proposed and defended by the Church in no way diminishes or, even less,
removes their full civil legitimacy and authentically "secular" that is,
non-confessional nature of the commitment of those who support
initiatives designed to safeguard and promote those very rights and duties
"which innately belong to the person, rights which every positive law must
recognize and guarantee" (Evangelium Vitae, n. 71).
Among these, the issue of human life and its defense and promotion
should also be listed. This is not a prerogative of Christians alone but
is presented "for everyone", since, "although faith provides special light
and strength" for this defense and promotion, as we read further in the
Encyclical Evangelium Vitae, "this question arises in every human
conscience which seeks the truth and which cares about the future of
humanity" (n. 101).
In this sense, the possible cultural and political marginalization of a
civil action, in itself legitimate, aimed to promote a juridical order
that is fairer and more consistent with human life and dignity, if only
because believers identify with it totally or partially , would
constitute a serious form of ideological intolerance to the contribution
of Christians to building society. And democracy itself would suffer for
Civil law, moral norm
The safeguarding and care of human life true moral and civic duties
that are inalienable begin with conception and early embryonic
development. During this phase of growth, human life is at its weakest and
in need of extreme care. A lack of protection on the part of parents and
of attention on the part of doctors or a lack of social and legal
protection could entail the risk of irreparably damaging or even
destroying the life of the infant conceived.
Today, this risk is increased by the practice of in vitro or artificial
fertilization which is one of the forms of medically assisted
procreation and whose dissemination also in our Country has led to the
introduction in Italian legislation of a law that regulates the practice
with respect for the "rights of all those involved, including the infant
conceived" (Law 40/2004, art. 1, c. 1).
We will now focus our assessment on this specific civil law as a
necessary premise for the discussion on the current referendum.
The first essential point concern is connection and distinction that
exist between a civil law and a moral norm.
There is a connection between legality and morality: with regard to the
reciprocal rights of the individual person and of society, on the one hand
it is the task of morality to enlighten consciences and on the other, it
is the task of law to clarify and coordinate conduct. Actually, the State
is not the original source of human rights but dutifully guarantees them:
just as it does not create them, it cannot destroy them. Its precise task
is to recognize, protect and promote these rights for the good of all.
In the meaning explained above, there is a connection. However, there
is also a distinction between the moral norm and the civil law, the latter
whose purpose is solely and this is the root of both its dignity and its
limitations! to assure the common good.
It follows that "in no sphere of life can the civil law take the place
of conscience or dictate norms concerning things which are outside its
competence" (Evangelium Vitae, n. 71).
The civil law, therefore, "cannot expect to cover the whole field of
morality or to punish all faults. No one expects it to do so. It must
often tolerate what is in fact a lesser evil, in order to avoid a greater
one" (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on
Procured Abortion, n. 20).
This is the so-called principle of civil tolerance or lesser
evil, by virtue of which civil law is not obliged to prohibit any evil
because it is evil, but has the possibility or even the duty to "tolerate"
or "permit" certain evils which in the social and cultural situation today
indeed prove to be "evil" but, in comparison with other evils, appear
merely as "lesser evils".
In this regard, St Thomas Aquinas showed that were human law to claim
to prohibit all that is contrary to natural law, it would be responsible
for bringing forth even worse evils: deteriora mala prorumperent!
In this perspective one can understand the opinion that Bishops have
frequently expressed concerning Law 40/2004: "Many aspects of this law do
not correspond with the ethical teaching of the Church, but at least it
has the merit of safeguarding certain essential principles and criteria in
a matter in which the specific dignity and certain fundamental rights and
concerns of the human person are at stake" (Cardinal Camillo Ruini,
Prolusione al Consiglio Permanente, 17 January 2005, n. 6).
An imperfect law
This opinion on Law 40/2004, which technically qualifies it as an
"imperfect law", is justified on the basis of its own normative content.
This law excludes the possibility of generating human lives, of which
not all are individually destined in the first days of their existence to
be implanted in their own mother's womb.
Furthermore, it does not permit recourse to experimentation on embryos,
which would de facto deprive them of life and trample on their inviolable
dignity as human subjects.
Consequently, such a law objectively constitutes an important step in
the preservation of human life in its initial stages, in comparison with
the previous so-called far west.
The law also recognizes that the life of any person no matter how
small and weak or how precarious his condition, as in the case of embryos
preserved by freezing cannot be sacrificed for the purpose of restoring
health to another life.
In this way, the norm in force in no way deprives scientific research
on the treatment of certain diseases or the valuable contribution offered
by study on stem cells and pre-differentiated cells, because, as has been
shown, biological sources are available today that provide an alternative
to the human cells of the embryo prior to its implantation in the uterus.
Further, this law excludes heterologous artificial fertilization and
thereby protects the fundamental role of the only and reliable bonds in
the parent-child relationship that have been rendered precarious or
uncertain by the use of genoblasts, sperm or ovocytes that do not come
from the couple who seeks medically assisted procreation.
Lastly, the law does not admit that the conceived infant, prior to its
transfer to the uterus, be subjected to genetic screening or interventions
other than for the purpose of protecting the health and development of the
embryo itself. It is hoped in this way, in the context of extra corporeal
fertilization, to prevent the introduction of the practice of eugenic
selection and discrimination between fetuses affected by disease and those
As can be seen, it is not difficult to understand that these measures
respond to fundamental and rational considerations on the nature and task
of medicine with regard to procreation. Medicine must not facilitate the
deliberate and preordained fragmentation of the unitive-somatic, affective
and social relationship between the one who begets and the one who is
begotten, nor must it condition the development of the fetus according to
its state of health, but must make conception possible when it has been
prevented by one or more factors of sterility.
Modification would diminish
The referendum concerns this law, briefly outlined above, and the
answers to the questions will establish whether to "modify" or to "keep"
this law in its present juridical form.
From the moral standpoint that of a morality which respects what has
been said concerning the connection-distinction between a moral law and a
civil law a decision which, in reference to all the questions or even
only to some of them, leads to a "modification" of the law is
unacceptable. There is a twofold and converging reason for this.
The first reason derives from the opinion expressed above on Law
40/2004, a law "imperfect" indeed but which safeguards certain essential
principles and criteria. In fact, this law reduces the negative effects of
extra-corporeal fertilization and regulates its practice in the context of
the rights and duties of al! involved, not excluding those of the infant
In particular, among the rights it recognizes, it protects the
fundamental and inalienable right to life of those who, like human
embryos, have been generated through medically assisted procreation. As
such, it cannot and must not diminish, threaten or deny these rights, as
would be the case were the foreseen modifications to be introduced as a
result of the majority vote at a referendum.
The second reason is that since the modification would in fact end by
"diminishing" the law in force this very same law, from being "tolerant"
would become "intolerant", that is, unacceptable, for it would have gone
beyond the "threshold" that every civil law must respect by virtue of its
goal: the common good.
Above all, however, it would become "intolerant" because by failing to
respect what is intrinsic to the dignity of the human person, it would
become "overbearing" for the individual himself or herself, thereby making
radically impossible the achievement of the common good and undermining
the foundations of social coexistence.
Responsibility of believers
Consequently, the request to "retain" Law 40/2004 in its current
juridical form remains.
I ask myself what the attitude of believers ought to be.
By virtue of Christian tradition they are aware that the integral
vision of respect for human life, for the dignity of procreation and for
the good of the family prevent them from sharing in the perspective of any
conception that is not the fruit of the conjugal act in spousal love that
unites the man and the woman.
Yet, while keeping this original one profound view of procreation,
believers feel called by their own conscience even before any outer
voice to support a law that diminishes the negative effects of
extra-corporeal fertilization and regulates its practice in the area of
the duties and rights of all those involved, not excluding the infant
At the same time, believers are citizens like all others. Hence, they
are responsibly called to participate in public life in all the forms
provided for by the Constitution, and thereby to contribute to building a
more just and supportive society through the integral and institutional
promotion of the common good.
In the specific case of medically assisted procreation, the
responsibility of believers must go further than inner dissent from those
forms of devaluation of human embryonic life that liken it to a cell or an
animal; not even a personal rejection of recourse to specific practices of
artificial fertilization in the context of conjugal life or of medical and
biological activity suffices: a dissent and rejection that are always only
right and praiseworthy.
Believers are called, in addition, to be responsible for contributing
effectively in accordance with the opportunities offered to each citizen
by the State structures to the formulation and/or preservation of
juridical norms which, in practically possible forms, safeguard the basic
and inalienable ethical requirements concerning the good of human life and
the acceptance and protection of children.
By acting in this way, believers an not pursuing any individual
interest but serve the cause of the common good meeting on their way other
men and women of every faith and culture who have at heart the future of
society and the destiny of humanity.
Abstain: Christian solution
It is certain that the law on medically assisted procreation currently
in force could be improved in the future with the contribution of all,
taking into account the experience of its application, the development of
scientific and medical knowledge and the cultural and social evolution in
At the same time, it should be pointed out that the abrogation of the
crucial and qualifying articles of this law would on the contrary, reduce
its effective contribution to a greater protection of the good of
procreation and of human life in the context of a sensitive area in the
application of biomedicine, such as that of extra-corporeal fertilization
and the transfer of human embryos to the uterus.
Along these lines, however, the efforts of believers, with united
intentions and inner consistency, must be said to be a form of true
collaboration in the building of the common good, so that the current law
may be kept unchanged in the Italian juridical order in one of the ways
provided for by the institution of a referendum precisely, abstention ,
a fully legitimate provision which many consider the most effective.
It is not a matter of disengagement with regard to an event in the
democratic life of Italy. In this discernment we are guided by a civil
law; whether or not it remains in force is entrusted to the decision of
each one of us. a correct concept of the human person and his or her
relationship with human life, which makes the person the subject of
thought and action.
Indeed, it is respect for the person and the protection of human life
that makes democratic participation in civil society possible and not vice
versa. Should this elementary respect for life be absent which, if it
does not start from the conception of the human being, will not easily be
able to embrace the whole of the person's subsequent existence , it would
be impossible to guarantee the rights of the person.
Moreover, as the Second Vatican Council teaches, the guarantee of "the
rights of the person is, indeed, a necessary condition for citizens,
individually and collectively, to play an active part in public life and
administration" (Gaudium et Spes, n. 73).