The Dignity of Human Procreation and Reproductive Technologies: Anthropological and Ethical Aspects
Pontifical Academy for Life
Final Communiqué: 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 ethical aspects".
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 technical failure.
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 preferential route — compared to the "natural" route — to 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 — and 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 — a 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 groups.
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 — I appeal particularly to those scientists who are believers — may 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 — for 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 — is 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 procreation itself.
Weekly Edition in English
31 March 2004, page 6
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