Science and Morality

Author: Bartholomew Kiely, S.J.


Bartholomew Kiely, S.J.
Gregorian University, Rome

On the context of the recent
Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin
And on the Dignity of Procreation

1. Progress in the biological and medical sciences gives rise (more directly than progress in other areas of natural science) to moral questions; and science as such cannot give adequate answers to these questions. This point will be developed briefly in the following paragraphs, in the hope of providing an initial orientation to the reading of the recent Instruction. It is in no way intended as a devaluation of biology or medicine. A short time spent working in a laboratory is enough to learn how much labour is needed for even minor discoveries; and any illness whatsoever remind us how much we owe to modern medicine. But the fact remains that new biomedical techniques involve now powers over human life; responsibility goes with power; and such responsibility must be guided by norms based on the respect due to the human person.

2. When an action is described in general and abstract terms, without specifying who acts and who undergoes the action, it is easy to lose sight of important aspects of its moral quality; for the action can have very different meanings for the person who performs it and for the person who undergoes it. (Some current expressions, as when abortion is called "the interruption of pregnancy", are chosen precisely in order to avoid attracting attention to this aspect of the problem; after all, the idea of interrupting an abstraction does not invite the kind of reaction that would be provoked by another description of the same reality). Progress in biology and medicine gives new powers to some people over other people;these powers may be used for good or for ill; and they require in any case a moral orientation. As to the application of these new techniques, let us consider first the person who is active. Anyone able to carry out such a procedure must, with a certain inevitability, be a privileged person; already an adult, more intelligent than most, and having a role that is respected by society. The rights of such a person will be secure; adults who are highly trained are in general respected. Such a person possesses certain real powers, since he can carry out difficult tasks which are beyond the abilities of most people; science, especially practical science, is a recognized form of power. In brief, such a scientist is a person who is privileged in our society, and has no special reason to fear a violation of hisown rights.

Furthermore, the scientist possesses a symbolic kind of power, as a representative (one might say a priest or even prelate) of a contemporary form of implicit religion, namely, technology. For technology has, for many people at the present time, a status that is in effect religious, as the basis of an ultimate hope for the future of humanity. It seems to inspire great reverence, to the point of superstition, perhaps especially in those who know it from a distance, never having actually worked in a laboratory. So science can be, for some and perhaps for many, a kind of contemporary idol; and it seems to me that some negative reactions to the Instruction willarise from this very point, in the sense that some people may feel that the supreme and practically sacred value of technical progress has been insulted.

4. But we must also remember the person who undergoes the application of any technique; and this point brings us to the centre of the problem. Sometimes the rights of this person are more obvious, but at other times less so. When a person is in the years of his maturity, his physical qualities give clear expression to his worth as a person; the person himself and his relatives are more able and willing to defend hisrights, including the right to life and to bodily integrity. Accordingly, society gives relatively good protection to these rights; one may recall, for example, the many tests and trials that a new medicine must go through before it can be sold to the public. When somebody has reached the last stages of his earthly life, or is severely handicapped, his physical condition corresponds less clearly to his value as a person; and here arise the problems of euthanasia. These problems, for all their importance, are not part of this article. The immediately relevant point is that an aged person is still a powerful symbol, having a form that is clearly human; and even a human corpse inspires reverence. But the problem in question becomes especially acute when the human being does not yet have a visible form that is obviously human. The sight of a newborn child, who already appears human, arouses a moral emotion which makes his life effectively sacred; practically nobody would wish to justify infanticide. Once the face of the baby has been seen, it becomes psychologically impossible to kill it. But a fetus does not have the same power over our emotions, since its face has never been seen. The commonly accepted distinction between infanticide and abortion seems to be based far more on emotional reactions to symbols (especially to the powerful symbol which is the face of a baby) than on moral reasoning. Yet the fetus, even after a few months of gestation, has an external form that is clearly human (if only it could be seen); and there exists a body of psychiatric research indicating that the woman who aborts without much regret has repressed the normal process of symbolic fantasy about the fetus she is carrying.

This problem (namely, that our first moral reactions depend on the symbolic qualities of the object) becomes even more important when we are dealing with human life in its origin. Each of us (we should remember) has had a very humble beginning as a microorganism, a single cell (zygote) whose external form was not so very different from that of a common amoeba. But science has shown that the human zygote is one of the wonders of nature, perhaps the greatest of all in terms of its level of organization. It already contains in its nucleus the complete genetic programme of the mature human body, a programme equivalent to more than a thousand megabytes packed into a microscopic space. This programme seems remarkably economic, given the complexity of the mature body, which has a brain containing a thousand million neurons, each as complex as a small computer. As the embryo grows to a fetus, the formation of different tissues involves a process of self-selection carried out by the initial genetic programme, so that in each kind of cell some parts of the programme are operative and others are suppressed. Each differentiated cell is then rather like a child that was born knowing all the branches of science, but who later became a specialist by forgetting all disciplines save one. When conception has occurred, the genetic programme is already complete; and if there were a question of copyright on the programme, it would have to be recognized from that moment, precisely because the basic "text" is already complete, The fact of spontaneous twinning raises some philosophical problems, but these are not insoluble; and the fact remains that the zygote need only be left alone in order to develop into a baby. The very fact that the embryo can carry out the early stages of its development invitro confirms that a new human life has begun and is already under its own management. These facts are matched by the teaching of Gaudium et Spes, n. 51, that "from the moment of conception life must be guarded with the greatest care". Besides, in the light of faith we grasp the point that the conception of a new life is a more solemn event than a sentence of death; the new life is eternal, while death is only a kind of transition.

But the fact remains that the human zygote or embryo does not appeal greatly to our imagination and emotions; its force as a symbol is limited. It is therefore particularly exposed to the danger of becoming a victim of the new powers of technicians over human life.

5. In such a context has appeared the recent Instruction on the respect due to human life in its origin and to the dignity of procreation; to uphold the rights of the defenceless, to uphold at the very beginnings of life the protection due to the human person, and further to point out that this kind of respect means that the child must be born as the fruit of the incarnate love of two parents who are married to each other, a love expressed in a way that is specific to, and reserved to, marriage.

New human lives are defended against the manipulation of embryos, and especially against experimentation on what are called "spare embryos", those which are not destined to be implanted into the body of a mother.

The origin of life is also defended against ways of procreating that are not in keeping with the value of the new life that is coming to be; ways that involve a technical domination over life, as when fertilization takes place in vitro. Such techniques really do involve a relationship of domination and subjection, and really do treat the new human being as a subhuman thing, placed in a position of inevitable inferiority. (I believe that anyone who has ever carried out a laboratory experiment can grasp this point; one's attitude to a piece of apparatus or to the contents of a test tube is very different to the attitude one has to another human person). The situation is quite different when two spouses give sexual expression to their love, being ready to accept a child as a free gift from God; in so doing, they do not place a new life on a level of inferiority with respect to themselves.

6. The teaching of this Instruction is based above all on various aspects of unity in human life: the unity of the person as embodied spirit, which means that the body shares fully in the value of the person, both in the life of the individual and also in the procreation of new life. The teaching of this Instruction is also based on the inseparable connection between the two meanings of the marriage act, the unitive and the procreative. With regard to this unity, it may be noted that the unity of two meanings, in contrast to the unity of two material things or processes, suggests that both meanings form part of a single meaning at a deeper level. It may be (as suggested by Robert Barry and Francis X. Meehan) that the only analogy which does justice to this deeper meaning is to be found in the Blessed Trinity, in which union and generation coincide perfectly. It is also worth noting that the explanation of a unity is inevitably difficult since an explanation has to proceed by taking one aspect at a time, making it easy to lose sight of the unity that is the whole point of the explanation. (One meets a somewhat similar difficulty when the point of a joke has to be explained). On the other hand, it would be all too easy, as a controversial tactic, to prescind from the unity which is the most basic issue, and dispute the Instruction part by part.

7. In such terms one can see that the Instruction is not superfluous, nor is it an unjustified invasion of the territory of science on the part of the Magisterium. We should not forget that the principle that all persons are fundamentally equal, just because they are human persons, has become widely accepted in philosophy, thanks also to the labours of Kant. But this principle was not fully evident either to Plato or to Aristotle, nor is it evident to many of our contemporaries; so it is not really a principle simply to be taken for granted. The justification of this principle given in Gaudium et Spes (29)is theological, not philosophical. A failure to grasp this principle can be seen especially in the widespread practice of abortion; it is very difficult to doubt that a fetus, after ten weeks (say) of gestation, is a human being (its human status being by this point more immediately obvious in comparison to the situation of the zygote); and yet there are doctors who practise abortion without scruple. This very point also goes to show that a mastery of medical techniques by no means guarantees that a doctor or scientist will have a moral sense, or a moral training, which is at the same level as his professional skills. In fact, going by my own experience as a biochemist, and as someone who was reared in a family of Catholic surgeons, it seems that the categories and methods of formal moral reasoning are difficult for anyone who has not had a special training in the area, even for someone who is highly intelligent and has profound moral intuitions. Even people who accept Humanae Vitae do not seem to come to a full grasp of its meaning and logic. They can see in an intuitive way that artificial contraception opens the way to selfishness and related abuses; but it is hard for them to get much beyond that level. Obviously enough, to grasp an argument based on the integral worth of the human person (even when life is in its earliest phases) will be much more difficult for doctors or scientists who are not believers.

One must therefore foresee as inevitable some refusals to accept this Instruction. The contemporary world rejects other teachings of the Church, on divorce and abortion, for example. But that does not mean that these teachings are false or outdated.

Opposition from some moralists is also to be anticipated. An approach that is widespread in contemporary Catholic moral thinking would base the evaluation of human actions, in part or totally, on the balance of their positive and negative consequences. This kind of approach in effect shares the technological outlook, and represents a morality that is teleological in an extrinsic or utilitarian sense; it is focused on the results that are hoped for, attributing moral significance mainly or solely to the intention of the agent, but not to the intelligible form of the actions themselves. An approach to morality which has in effect adopted the technological outlook is not in a position to criticize this outlook when a critique is necessary. The anthropological approach of the Instruction is different (as is that of the preceding teaching of the Magisterium on which it draws), and represents an intrinsic teleology focused on the inherent meaning of a given way of acting and its correspondence, or lack of correspondence, with the integral vocation and worth of the human person, whether of the person who acts, or of the person who undergoes the action.

In a utopia, in which everyone had a deep appreciation of the value of every human person at every stage of the person's life, this Instruction would have been less necessary. But we are not living in any such utopia. We must also remember that, quite probably, we are still in the early stages of a phase of accelerating technical development, whose limits nobody can foresee. Perhaps the twentieth century will be referred to by future historians as the "paleotechnical period". So we live at a time in which the defence of the values of family life is particularly important. If the Church does not undertake this defence, who can be expected to do so? (One may recall the timidity with which health authorities seem to suggest the possibility of monogamy as a defence against the spread of AIDS).

It is therefore a duty of particular urgency to defend the conditions of human life and its transmission, not only at the level of the person's interiority, but also as to the physical conditions of life and of procreation. This requirement corresponds to the strange nature of the human person as the animal made in the image and likeness of God: the animal who is eternal.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
13 April 1987, page 20

L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:

The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069