10th General Assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life

10th General Assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life

Palma Sgreccia

Keeping the gift of life in its proper context

The book La dignità della procreazione umana e le tecnologie riproduttive. Aspetti antropologici ed etici (The Dignity of Human Procreation and Reproductive Technologies: Anthropological and Ethical Aspects), a collection of the Proceedings of the 10th General Assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life (Vatican City, 20-22 February 2004), has the merit of addressing issues connected with reproductive technologies, not only from a scientific and ethical standpoint but in a more broadly anthropological perspective: who and what is the person? Is the embryo a human person from conception? What respect do we owe it?

A clear vision of human dignity and human procreation is presented in a perspective that goes beyond moral and juridical aspects to reveal the ontological dimension.

In their Introduction, the editors, Juan De Dios Vial Correa and Elio Sgreccia, stress that "the Pontifical Academy for Life has chosen here to examine the anthropological aspect with its profound spiritual and moral significance, in order to discover what the conception of man, the human race, parenthood and the parental (child-parent) relationship is when technological means are used that separate the moment of procreation from the conjugal act, when the initial phase of a human being's life is consigned to the technologist and his instrumentation" (p. 5).

The text reaffirms the basic principles of Catholic teaching on procreation (see Donum Vitae, "Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation", published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 22 February 1987): respect for human life in its origin from the moment of conception is only right; human procreation must take place within the marriage of a man and a woman and must be the fruit of the conjugal act. Biomedical intervention shows respect for the person's dignity when it aims to assist (and not substitute) the conjugal act.

Procreation depends on God

Already in Humanae Vitae and Familiaris Consortio the two meanings of the conjugal act — unitive and procreative — were presented with a reciprocal implication: there is no true unity without openness to procreation; there is no true procreative responsibility without the total self-giving of the spouses at both the physical and spiritual levels.
The techniques of artificial fertilization distort the meaning of the spousal relationship, of the unitive-procreative act, and of the desire to give life to a child as the acceptance of the other.

Furthermore, they neglect the human, relational (and not merely biological) dimension of prenatal life, of the bond between the mother and the fetus and between the fetus and the interuterine environment (note the difficulty of the implantation of transferred embryos with the risk miscarriage).

If, from a purely rational viewpoint, we have already seen that it is impossible to entirely control procreation, even artificial procreation, let us say from a faith perspective that it always depends upon God, with whom we can collaborate: "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 very mercy of determinism and instrumental procedures" (Address of Pope John Paul II, in "The Dignity of Human Procreation and Reproductive Technologies: Anthropological and Ethical Aspects", 21 Feb 2004, p. 7).

Cardinal Jose Lozano Barragán points out that life has an origin, also for non-believers; but Christian spouses are called to be fully aware that the gift of human procreation stems from Trinitarian fruitfulness.

Procreation is the "gift of a gift" (p. 24), it is "truly human when it is a fruit of spousal love. Marriage, as a communion of persons, further reinforces it as an image of the Trinity in which the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son as a divine personification of their reciprocal love" (pp. 24-25).

From the theological viewpoint, every human being possesses dignity in all situations, since the human being exists in relation to God the Creator. A child cannot be produced, for a child is not something that belongs to us; a child, even if not perfect, has the right to be welcomed, and to be cared for if sick.

Mons. L. Melina cites Marcel, who claims that a child "is never 'here for me', nor does it depend on or belong to me, just as I myself do not belong to myself and cannot give myself life.... The human will that hopes for and seeks the procreation of a child is right to recognize humbly and trustingly that a grace exists, a sort of 'nuptial bond between human beings and life"' (p. 119).

Various reports (especially that of Prof. A. Bompiani and Prof. A. Serra) provide a detailed description of the techniques for artificial reproduction and the risks to the embryo that they entail.

Child: unique, unrepeatable

In 1978, the first child, Louise Brown, was born by the technique of artificial fertilization, applied by Edwards and Steptoe.

Artificial fertilization can be homologous (using the gametes of the couple requesting it), heterologous (one or both gametes are donated by biological parents other than the social ones), in vivo (the fusion of the gametes takes place in the woman's body, for example, GIFT) and in vitro (the fusion of the gametes takes place in a test tube, for example, IVF/ET heterologous artificial insemination and the resulting embryo is subsequently transferred).

Techniques including micromanipulation, a process in which spermatozoa are injected into the wall of the ovocyte, are currently being used.

In the context of these technical applications the terminology has changed: "father" and "mother" disappear to be replaced by "ovocytes" and "spermatozoa", "sexual relations" give way to "syringes" and "tubes", and the "womb" becomes the "uterus".

The outlook has also changed. The child becomes a biological object, a product, since the origin of the person takes place in the times and places dictated by technology, production, organization and the social division of work.

The distortion of the act of begetting has a cultural dimension that deserves consideration.
First, it is necessary to explain that artificial insemination is not a treatment, since it does not involve a cure or an improvement in physiological functions. The infant is generated in a public environment (the laboratory) and not a private place, and the protection and care of this infant are delegated to persons other than the mother.

The liquid culture cannot really substitute for the maternal womb and the relationship of care that it establishes from the outset. Such techniques threaten the original place where the infant is nurtured, reproducing fertilization at a lower level (for example, fish) without sexual intercourse.

The human being at the embryonic stage is already endowed with individuality, but its life is at a high risk due to the temptation to use embryos for "therapeutic" purposes (stem cells) or to destroy them should they fail to measure up to expectations.

After the syngamy [sexual union] in which the encounter of the spermatozoa with the ovocyte, both haploid, occurs, fertilization takes place, in other words, their fusion, which results in the creation of the zygote (diploid). An autonomous, gradual and rigorously oriented, continuous development begins; hence, the term "pre-embryo", found, for example, in the Warnock Report, is incorrect.

If different stances are already emerging on the matter of individuality, the dispute on the classification of the embryo as a "person" who is not yet conscious and who has not even developed a nervous system, is in even starker contrast.

The qualities that constitute a human person refer to faculties that are transcendent in comparison with the biological world: thought and spirituality cannot be exclusively explained through biological structures. We cannot dissect the soul, but nor can we deny that from the moment of conception a vital principle is present, a bodily form that presides over the development of the entire organism.

Gaudium et Spes (cf. n. 14) also recalls that the generation of the human being, corpore et anima unus, is a unitary event in which the spiritual dimension takes shape in simultaneous unity with the physical.

In a climate of morbid relativism, much is said about dialogue and respect, but in emotional tones. It is supposed to be possible via dialogue to recover the universal criteria (respect for life and for the dignity of the person), but only if greater use is made of reason, the faculty that makes a confrontation free of prejudices possible by recourse to methodical reasoning.

Thus, we will be able to rediscover the substantial equality of persons, the common good (not only for me) and the hierarchy of values, in which the life and dignity of the human person are priorities.

Not a purely biological act

Consequently, ethical advice is fundamental in the "guidance" of sterile couples: it helps them to discern the values in conflict. Indeed, as the professors M.L. Di Pietro and A.G. Spagnolo maintain, procreation "is not a vegetative act such as digesting or breathing, nor a purely biological act; it involves the other person in his or her totality and reciprocity; and it is in the context of this relationship, this common union of souls and bodies, this embrace of love, that it can call a new human life into being. From the gift of the person flows the gift of life: a gift that transcends and transfigures the biological factor, although this is present. It is an act that calls for great responsibility: the responsibility of taking decisions with an awareness of the consequences, ready to shoulder the burden of the consequences of these decisions. Can this be reduced to a mere series of technical interventions?" (p. 216).

A full assumption of responsibility is essential, both by the individual and by society. Even were it possible to dispense with the hyperstimulation of the ovaries, harmful to a woman's health, and to "produce" a single embryo and thus avoid freezing and the "reduction" of "spare" embryos, we would still be damaging the dignity of the embryo.

In the embryonic stage, the human being has a right to be conceived in the maternal womb, the only place worthy of his origin since it guarantees the care of the newly conceived infant. Any other means is experimental; moreover, how can parents, who should consider the interests of any child of theirs a priority, subject them to such high risks?

Responsibility must prevail with regard to autonomy. There can be no "right" to a child, nor can it be anyone's duty to produce one, since this would make the child an object.

Sterility gives rise to suffering, but it is neither a sin nor a shortcoming and does not change the meaning or value of conjugality, whose fertility can be expressed in other ways, such as adoption.

The child cannot be desired as "therapeutic", since this would damage his personal dignity; rather, moral and psychological assistance must be offered to sterile couples.

Science and technology can "assist" but cannot "distort" procreation, because this would be harmful to the unborn child.

Where there is true assistance, the assisted person acts as the prime autonomous subject and the initiator of a vital process; assistance is limited to offering help.

In "medically-assisted procreation" one cannot speak of assistance because scientists replace the future mother and father and proceed to act, aware of the high rate of embryo loss. This seems to distort medicine itself, which has always aimed to heal and to benefit or, in any case, to do no harm.

Preventing sterility

It would be timely if medical efforts and resources were directed to the treatment and prevention of sterility in both men and women, and also to education, mindful that, despite competitive professional commitments, there is a biological clock that makes it difficult and dangerous to conceive a child after the age of 40.

An anthropology that does justice to the complexity and dignity of the human person has become an urgent necessity, and the book on The Dignity of Human Procreation and Reproductive Technologies is particularly stimulating since it clearly focuses on the values at stake and helps in the discernment of the cultural transformation under way.

Today a reductionist vision holds sway. It interprets the living person solely in the perspective of biology and genetics: people of the technological age must decipher, correct or replace genetic information.

Many biologists are denouncing genetic totalitarianism, that is, the illusion that the whole of the human being is contained in his genes. On the contrary, there can be no genetic determinism because susceptibility to disease is caused by many factors; it is also linked to the environment, which is not only the air we breathe and the food we eat, but also the psychological, cultural and moral atmosphere in which we live.

Certain stances favourable to techniques of artificial fertilization are precisely a result of the conviction that they will make it possible to control the quality of the genome, hence, the quality of health, under the illusion that it is possible to predetermine the destiny of the living.

These techniques mask the dream of the artificial production of a human being such as was perceptively described more than 200 years ago by Goethe in Faust: Dr Wagner produces Homunculus in a test tube, in the presence of Mephistopheles.

Thus, procreation becomes technical production and a new industry is born, subject to the law of profit, demand and offer of the market, whose business it is to fabricate families.
This utilitarian horizon seems to offer no alternatives other than production, selection (and rejection). Today the life and dignity of the human person are not considered the actual basis of law but options — referendums are organized on them — bound to special convictions.

When the natural connection between sexuality and procreation is misunderstood and considered "biologistic reductionism", people lose the awareness that the human being is born from a relationship between persons and that a relationship is not exclusively oriented to procreation but closely connected with it.

Every relationship is profound if it is welcoming, and the specific relationship between wife and husband, persons definitively and reciprocally committed in a matrimonial bond, consists in the acceptance of the child, the "other" to be welcomed into their life; others, as Lévinas reminds us, who do not receive their value from us but are naturally entitled to it.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
15 June 2005, page 8

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