Right Tune, Wrong Words

the muffled wisdom of ‘dignitas personae'

Before the December release of Dignitas personae, it had been twenty years since the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) came out with a bioethics document. It is no doubt a good thing that the church moves carefully and slowly on complex matters, but given the radical development of medical technology in the past two decades, a new instruction was needed, and long awaited. When it finally came, there were no big surprises or dramatic reversals, and so journalists barely took notice. In light of the Obama administration’s recent decision to lift some constraints on embryonic stem-cell research, it may be worth taking another look at the document.

Dignitas personae has its flaws: it gets some of the science wrong; it could have been far more persuasive in making its argument about the moral status of the embryo; and its tone perpetuates the destructive divide between “moral-status conservatives” and “social-justice liberals.” But it is nevertheless a valuable document that, despite imperfections, reinforces an important, timely, and countercultural message.

The document is primarily concerned with reproductive technologies and medical interventions related to embryos. Some people may roll their eyes at this and dismiss it as another example of the Vatican’s obsession with sex and tiny clusters of cells. But that would be a mistake. Dignitas personae offers a dramatic and necessary corrective to two principles uncritically accepted by many in the developed world: unlimited procreative liberty and the technological imperative. Dignitas personae’s explicit support of many kinds of medical technology undermines any claim that the church is blindly antiscience or antitechnology. The document explicitly declares three different kinds of stem-cell research to be licit. Gene therapy is also given a green light. The CDF even supports the use of fertility medicines and drugs that “act as an aid to the conjugal act.” But the church is also concerned with balancing its support of biomedicine with a commitment to the dignity of the human person.

Some of the technologies and interventions the CDF considers are so complex that it is not prepared to come down either for or against them. The “morning-after pill” is a good example. Some have suggested that Dignitas personae merely reaffirms previous statements against the morning-after pill as a kind of abortion, but this is not quite right. Paragraph 23 acknowledges that the way in which this pill functions is still not totally understood, though it also claims that it is at least possible that the pill sometimes prevents an embryo from implanting in the uterine wall. (At least one recent clinical study suggests that the pill might work this way, but a lack of significant research makes sweeping judgments difficult to justify.) The document is very careful here. It narrowly specifies what use of the pill is equivalent to abortion: “Anyone who seeks to prevent the implantation of an embryo which may possibly have been conceived and who therefore either requests or prescribes such a pharmaceutical, generally intends abortion.” This formulation leaves the door open to those who take the morning-after pill with no such intention. This is important news for some Roman Catholic hospitals dealing with state laws mandating that the morning-after pill be given to rape victims. As long as the pill is given, and taken, with the intention of stopping ovulation—rather than with the intention of preventing implantation—the Vatican does not forbid it.

Dignitas personae claims to be written for “all who seek the truth,” but the main premise of many of its arguments—that the human embryo should be treated as a person—is never adequately formulated or defended. The instruction claims that several practices in modern biomedicine are illicit precisely because they violate the personal dignity of embryonic life. These forbidden practices include embryonic stem-cell research, in vitro fertilization, the cloning of embryos, the creation of human embryos with nonhuman DNA, and freezing embryos. Obviously the CDF could not dwell for long on any single topic in a document meant to reach a general readership, but the moral status of the embryo is not a question that can be treated lightly, since so much depends on how one answers it. If the CDF could convince readers that the embryo has the moral status of a person, then it would have much less trouble convincing them of many of its other claims, which often follow logically from this premise when it is combined with what the document calls “the common criteria of medical ethics.” Almost everyone would agree, for instance, that we shouldn’t kill persons for the medical benefit of others, or keep them in frozen prisons, or discard them because they seem less desirable than other persons. But unless one is convinced that embryos should be treated as persons, this line of argument is not persuasive.

Unfortunately, Dignitas personae repeats the mistake of its predecessor, Donum vitae, in largely brushing aside this fundamental issue with a rhetorical question: “How could a human individual not be a human person?” A significant number of people believe that the human embryo might be a member of the human species (a biological category) without being a person (a moral category). Indeed, many don’t believe that the more developed human fetus is a person, and some even have doubts about the personhood of infants and the severely disabled. The CDF would have done well to try to answer the arguments proposed by those who have a different definition of personhood. It would also have been helpful for the new instruction to address directly the paradoxes of embryological development that lead many people to conclude that the early embryo is not yet an individual organism—for example, the embryo’s capacity to twin and recombine. And it is at least an imprecision for the CDF to describe conception as a “moment.” We now know that no such moment exists: the union of sperm and egg to form a zygote is best understood as a process without a clear beginning or end.

But then, despite the apparently rhetorical question above, Dignitas personae never actually makes the claim that the embryo is a person-and, as it acknowledges, neither did Donum vitae. Instead it claims, following the earlier instruction, that an embryo is to be respected and treated as a person. The CDF could have clarified this distinction without giving up its fundamental ethical criterion. It might have started by recalling what John Paul II wrote on the matter:

Furthermore, what is at stake is so important that, from the standpoint of moral obligation, the mere probability that a human person is involved would suffice to justify an absolutely clear prohibition of any intervention aimed at killing a human embryo. Precisely for this reason, over and above all scientific debates and those philosophical affirmations to which the magisterium has not expressly committed itself, the church has always taught and continues to teach that the result of human procreation, from the first moment of its existence, must be guaranteed that unconditional respect which is morally due to the human being in his or her totality and unity as body and spirit (Evangelium vitae, 61).

Such an acknowledgment of biological and medical complexity makes the church’s position more persuasive to the skeptic. It also clears some conceptual space for the CDF’s main claim, which is that the mere probability that the embryo is a person means that he or she should be given the respect due to a person.

One of the most serious scandals in today’s church is the perceived gap between “moral-status conservatives” and “social-justice liberals.” Despite the efforts of people such as the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin to frame the issues in terms of a consistent ethic of life, most American Catholics seem to fall into one of these two antagonistic camps. The resulting tribalism produces suspicion, animosity, mockery, and deadlock. Though Dignitas personae is better than past documents on this point, its tone and language continue to perpetuate the divide. It will likely be convincing mainly to moral-status conservatives, but they are obviously not the ones the CDF needs to reach. The church must speak the language of social justice at all times, but especially when it comes to the problems of bioethics, an area in which many social-justice liberals are skeptical of the church’s teachings. It is regrettable, therefore, that not one social encyclical is quoted in Dignitas personae.

The CDF should present embryonic and fetal lives as examples of the “least ones” toward whom Christians have a special responsibility, and it should locate its moral discourse about these lives along a trajectory of concern for other members of our community who have been overlooked or abused by the powerful. For example, the church should draw a clear analogy between its defense of embryos exploited in biomedical research and its defense of workers exploited during the Industrial Revolution. Of course, such an analogy is not itself an argument, but it does make the church’s underlying argument about human dignity appear more coherent and compelling.

Dignitas personae also includes arguments that, if they were further developed, could move the debate in new directions. By opposing certain kinds of reproductive technologies and encouraging adoption, the church at once affirms the full dignity of infertile couples and of children who lack parents. This is an important countercultural message in a society that tends to stigmatize the infertile and treat adoption as either exceptionally heroic or proof of desperation. At the same time, by continuing to insist on the ethical significance of the connection between sexual intercourse and procreation, the church challenges many of the developed world’s attitudes about reproduction. Those attitudes have produced a dramatic decline in the West’s fertility rate and changed the way many regard children—less as a gift than as an optional extension of oneself.

In order for the CDF to make such arguments intelligible to a skeptical audience, however, it will have to mine the considerable resources of its own social teaching. It must learn to speak to those outside the church in a language they understand—and it must be able to refocus the attention of two groups within the church that often seem to be facing in opposite directions.

Published in the 2009-06-05 issue: 

Charles Camosy is an associate professor of theology at Fordham University and the author of several books, including Beyond the Abortion Wars (Eerdmans) and Resisting Throwaway Culture (New City).

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