Vatican on Bioethics

The Catholic Church has just published THIS document which will be of interest for everyone working in the applied ethics and bioethics. The Catholic Church's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has put together a paper called 'Instruction Dignitas Personae ('The Dignity of the Person') on Certain Bioethical Questions'  which has been approved by the Pope. In this document, the Church takes a stand on the new bioethical questions that have come up as a result of the technological development.

This document consists of three parts.
The first introductory part lays out the grounds on which the
bioethical conclusions have been made.
The basic idea is the old
one. From the moment of conception, a human being has, as a person,
dignity which demands unconditional respect. Such respect provides
each person with an inviolable right to life. The second and the
third part explain the normative consequences of this view for the
new advances in biomedical technology. The second part discusses new
methods of both procreation and interception and research done on
embryos. The third part discusses new gene techonology and cloning.
Of course, none of the ethical requirements issued are really
surprising.

    I was taken by how Kantian the document
is in its ethical language. I was also happy to see that the Church
is trying to rearch outside its own members. The document is after
all intended to 'all seekers of truth'. It also recognises, for
instance, the value of scientific research in the attempt to reduce
human suffering and those situation of couples that find it hard
to have children. I'm less happy though about the fact that there is
no real attempt to give arguments or to reply to any of the real
objections that have been made to the view earlier.

    None of the naive worries (what's so
special about conception?, can personhood really be assigned so
early?, what happens when absolute values or inviolable rights
conflict?, what makes human life this so much more valuable than
anything else?, If human life is good, why does it matter how we
create it?, and so on) are addressed in a way that would be
convincing or illuminating. There are also glorious instances of begging
the question like the following:

    'Indeed, the reality of the human being
for the
entire span of life, both before and after birth, does not
allow us to posit either a change in
nature or a gradation in moral
value, since it possesses full anthropological and ethical status.
The human embryo has, therefore, from the very beginning, the dignity
proper to a person.
'

    All of this makes me be suspicious
about the intellectual honesty of the document which is shame. I was
hoping that they would address me as 'a fellow seeker of truth' for
whom reasons can be given.

    Anyway, the reason why I brought up the document
was that I would be really interested in hearing about the
bioethicists' reactions to it.

6 Replies to “Vatican on Bioethics

  1. I’m not a bioethicist, but I think parts of it are hilarious. Example:
    Human cloning is intrinsically illicit in that, by taking the ethical negativity of techniques of artificial fertilization to their extreme, it seeks to give rise to a new human being without a connection to the act of reciprocal self-giving between the spouses and, more radically, without any link to sexuality. This leads to manipulation and abuses gravely injurious to human dignity.
    I get the idea that you shouldn’t act with the intention of severing sex from procreation by means of contraception, but I can’t for the life of me see why we oughtn’t procreate without the sexual act when the sexual act isn’t resulting in procreation. I take it that the rationale is supposed to be contained here, but even if we grant the odd moral principles that figure in their reasoning I can’t for the life of me see how they apply to cloning for reproduction:
    If cloning were to be done for reproduction, this would impose on the resulting individual a predetermined genetic identity, subjecting him – as has been stated – to a form of
    biological slavery, from which it would be difficult to free himself. The fact that someone would arrogate to himself the right to determine arbitrarily the genetic characteristics of another
    person represents a grave offense to the dignity of that person as well as to the fundamental equality of all people.
    The originality of every person is a consequence of the particular relationship that exists between God and a human being from the first moment of his existence and carries with it the obligation to respect the singularity and integrity of each person, even on the biological and genetic levels. In the encounter with another person, we meet a human being who owes his existence and his proper characteristics to the love of God, and only the love of husband and wife constitutes a mediation of that love in conformity with the plan of the Creator and heavenly Father.

  2. That seems right. I wonder what would happen if you introduced some sort of randomizing process to some genes in the cloning process. In that case, the argument in the last quote about the predetermination and biological slavery (a clever term by the way) would not run.

  3. It seems that the Catholic Church doesn’t actually have a problem with genetic predetermination / “biological slavery.” If humans (should) owe their “existence and…proper characteristics to the love of God” then, unless God’s love produces our proper characteristics without fixing our genes, the only acceptable way to create new human life requires that we be genetically predetermined.

  4. Angus: I think they worded that poorly. I think that “biological slavery” is supposed to mean not “slavery to one’s biology” but “slavery to another through one’s biology.” The Church’s complaint is not that we have a predetermined genetic code, but that a human interferes with the proper determination of that code, i.e. by God.
    I’m surprised at how much of this piece depends on the single principle that only sexual procreation is a legitimate method of reproduction. For example, this appears to be the only in principle objection to in vitro fertilization. There are a number of other objections that rely on the wrongness of abortion, but these all have to do with the ways in which in vitro fertilization is performed today (allowing for freezing of embryos, multiple insertions, etc.). This principle also underpins the in principle arguments against freezing oocytes, against cloning for reproduction, and others. Yet, in a piece that claims to wish to engage all rational persons, no argument is ever offered for this principle. The closest they come is some mention of affronts to human dignity and the problem of the dissociation of reproduction from sex. The former isn’t specified very well; I am not at all clear why, even by the Church’s own lights, there is anything undignified about artificial reproduction (especially since it is mentioned early on that nothing should be condemned just because it is artificial). As for the latter, the problematic nature of such a dissociation would itself have to be argued for. In Donum vitae, it is written:
    “If, on the other hand, the procedure were to replace the conjugal act, it is morally illicit. Artificial insemination as a substitute for the conjugal act is prohibited by reason of the voluntarily achieved dissociation of the two meanings of the conjugal act. Masturbation, through which the sperm is normally obtained, is another sign of this dissociation.”
    The argument for this is offered in the Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics:
    “The main reason is that, whatever the motive for acting this way, the deliberate use of the sexual faculty outside normal conjugal relations essentially contradicts the finality of the faculty. For it lacks the sexual relationship called for by the moral order, namely the relationship which realizes ‘the full sense of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love.'”
    But this appears to be a functional argument; masturbation is wrong because it violates the proper function of sexuality. But such an argument is irrelevant here. The fact that x‘s proper function is y may be reason against using x towards other ends, but it is not argument against using other means to obtain y.

  5. I agree with this as well. To be fair, there is another, more indirect argument against in vitro fertilization which is based on the idea that as a result of the procedure some embryos tend to be treated in a ‘utilitarian’ fashion. But, it is true that even if this was a problem no such treatment would be necessary. Maybe the functional argument in this case should be base on the proper function of test tubes…

  6. If I might briefly return to the determined or random selection of the genetic characteristics:
    This seems to involve, on the part of the Vatican, a commitment to some quite extraordinary claims (beyond the usual, I mean). Why would the writers hold that the genetic identity of the person in the normal way — through the randomized matching-up of the alleles of a blindly chosen ovum and a blindly chosen spermatozoon from two people who _do_ arbitrarily choose one another (and hence a considerable part of the person’s genetic identity) — frees the person from the indignities of ‘biological slavery’ to which a clone would be liable?
    As far as I can see, there are only two main answers:
    1) The apparently random choice of ovum and spermatozoon, and of the alleles that are matched up in the process of fertilization, are not in fact random at all, but are specially chosen by God (or one of His Minions) in a pseudo-random process that secretly guarantees some predetermined outcome, etc.; or
    2) God’s choice is in fact random also.
    If 1) is true, an extraordinary result seems to follow: divine intervention occurs every time two humans mate successfully, and God’s intervention in the natural course of events continues for the entire 12-24 hour period during which the two gametes fuse into a zygote.
    If 2) is true, then I think there are two main sub-possibilities:
    One sub-possibility — call it 2a) — is that there is some great moral significance to random processes, regardless of the occasion of the random processes. In that case, the writers of the document have overlooked the obvious fact (mentioned in a previous comment) that, so long as the doctors employ a randomization process in the cloning procedure, there is no moral violation.
    The other sub-possibility — call it 2b) — is that there is some morally relevant difference between random choices made by God flipping a coin and the random choices made by us flipping a coin. In that case, the objection against 2a) fails, but surely we would need to have _some_ explanation of how one random process can be different in a morally relevant way from another! This cannot be allowed to stand as just a brute fact.
    Finally, whichever way all this is decided, there is another brute fact that needs to be explained: what is the reason for thinking there is any connection between the moral worth or slavery of a human being and any of these processes (a selection of genetic identity through an act of divine intervention, or a normal random process, or a ‘divine’ random process)? I think this needs to be explained also.

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