VATICAN CITY – “Dignitas Personae” forcefully states that although there is no certainty about when a human being receives a soul an embryo is to be treated as a person from the moment of conception.
That means all human embryos deserve recognition of fundamental human rights, including the inviolable right to life, the document said.
This ethical principle conforms to natural moral law and is also supported by solid scientific evidence about the initial stages of human life, it said.
Debate over the precise timing of ensoulment has been raised by some who argue that the destruction of an early-stage embryo might not be the same as killing an innocent human person.
The Vatican document said that although the presence of the spiritual soul cannot be observed experimentally, scientific knowledge about the human embryo supports “continuity in development of a human being” from conception onward.
“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 document said.
“The human embryo has therefore from the very beginning the dignity proper to a person,” it said.
The instruction builds on the teaching expressed in a similar 1987 Vatican instruction on procreation, which noted increasing scientific evidence about personal identity from the earliest moments of life and raised the question: “How could a human individual not be a human person?”
This argument leaves the burden of proof on those who hold that an embryo is not a person, a point made in 1987 by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – now Pope Benedict XVI – when he was head of the doctrinal congregation.
At that time, Cardinal Ratzinger said determining whether an embryo is a person with a soul was a question for philosophy, not science. On the basis of scientific evidence, however, there is “at least a good probability that it is”, he said.
He said science shows there is no “qualitative leap” in the life of a child in the period from conception to birth.
“Already in the zygote (fertilised egg) there is a genetically
defined individual,” he said. -By John Thavis, cns