Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen, editor in chief of America, explores what a new instruction on bioethics from the Vatican means to humanity


IN HIS DYSTOPIAN (grim) novel, "That Hideous Strength" (1945), the late C. S. Lewis embodied his fears for humanity’s fate in the hands of an unprincipled science in the N.I.C.E. (National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments) and its nominal leader, "The Head", the decapitated head of an executed French scientist, that served as the spokesman for evil spirits (eldila). As in his famous essay "The Abolition of Man", Lewis’s concern was for the loss of genuine humanity to unscrupulous scientific invention, which in the novel consists in the suppression of natural human affections.

 

Science outpaces morality

 

For many years, I thought that Lewis was a better theologian of the moral life than he was a moralist because of his curmudgeonly opposition to modernity and his fear of science. He may have lacked the subtlety in moral matters required of a moral theologian or the penetrating insight of a spiritual director, though "The Screwtape Letters" showed him astute about the varieties of evil; but his grasp of the dangers inherent in the technological manipulation of human life has proved prophetic. Louise Brown, the first child conceived by in vitro fertilisation, is now 30 years old. Among the affluent a market has grown up in double and sometimes triple, side-by-side baby carriages to convey the twins and triplets born to older parents through in vitro technology. Animal cloning, surrogate motherhood, even male pregnancy are realities. Stem cell research is advancing quickly, and experimental therapies using products of stem-cell generation are already being tested. In a vexing development, the British government this year approved experimental development of human-animal hybrids. Human beings are threatened with becoming the instruments of utility and desire.

Scientific advances take place almost faster than law and ethics can keep up. And in some cases,
like embryonic stem cell research, popular and special-interest agitation seems to be wilfully antinomian (opposed to or denying the universal applicability of moral law), attempting to violate moral norms out of sheer defiance, even though adult stem cells already provide a proven and reliable source of biological material for research and therapy. Even more than at the dawn of genetic revolution a generation ago, serious discussion is needed among scientists, ethicists, theologians and lawyers. Innovations like bioethics centres, institutional review boards and the President’s Council on Bioethics have failed to hold back the flood of ethically problematic biotechnologies and produce serious public examination of evolving technologies. A pragmatic attitude – "What we can do we must do" – has captured the media, the public and elites, especially in the field of law.

 

Dignitas Personae

 

Into this morally anarchic environment comes a new instruction on bioethical issues affecting the beginnings of life from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "Dignitas Personae" ("The Dignity of a Person", released on Dec 12). Addressed to "the Catholic faithful and to all who seek the truth", it will most profitably be studied by physicians, biologists (especially embryologists), geneticists, philosophical ethicists and moral theologians because of the technical scientific problems it addresses and the dry philosophical language it employs. But its significance for addressing the watershed we are crossing in the scientific control of human nature should not be underestimated.

The instruction reminds readers that the Catholic tradition favours science and supports endeavours that improve the human condition. It shares the evaluation that "science [is] an invaluable service to the integral good of the life and dignity of every human being". It encourages the participation of Catholics in scientific research and the progress of biomedicine, expressing special hope that the benefits of research will be shared with the afflicted in poor regions of the world. While the document is primarily concerned with problematic innovations in biomedicine, it commends the contribution of contemporary science in advancing knowledge of the beginning stages of life. Furthermore, it regards new developments as "positive and worthy of support when they serve to overcome or correct pathologies (a deviation from a normal condition) and succeed in re-establishing the normal functioning of human procreation". Its criticism and condemnation falls on those developments that "involve the destruction of human beings" and on techniques that "contradict the dignity of the person" or are employed contrary "to the integral good of man".

 

The argument

 

The twin piers of the instruction’s argument are familiar from the moral teaching of Pope John Paul II and the congregation’s previous instruction, "Donum Vitae" (1988): (1) "The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception" and (2) "The origin of human life has its authentic context in marriage and in the family" and so responsible procreation must be "the fruit of marriage". The text is strong, and sometimes eloquent, in expounding its insistence upon respect for the human person in every stage of its development and in whatever natural condition (of ability or disability). It reminds the reader, however, that the role of the magisterium in declaring its moral judgements is not to intervene in medical science, but rather to call "everyone to ethical and social responsibility for their actions".

The first chapter of the instruction lays out the suppositions about human life and procreation taken from "anthropology", i.e., the philosophy of human nature, ethics and theology. The following section addresses issues related to conception, in vitro fertilisation and allied techniques; and a third takes up genetic engineering, commenting on gene therapy, stem cell research and hybridisation. It is not possible here to list all the issues reviewed in the instruction or to summarise all its turns of argument. What I present are some highlights of greater public and pastoral interest.

 

Selected topic

 

The instruction’s treatment of in vitro fertilisation re-applies the teaching of "Donum Vitae" and elaborates it with regard to recent medical developments. Briefly put, conception must take place as a result of the conjugal act, so only techniques that aid sexual intercourse and its fertility are licit. The document encourages adoption for infertile couples and research to prevent sterility, and it deplores the destruction of embryos that takes place as a matter of course during in vitro fertilisation. Furthermore, it regards the freezing of embryos in connection with in vitro fertilisation as weakening respect for the human person. Finally, it explicitly rejects intracytoplasmic sperm injection (I.C.S.I.) as a technical intervention by a third party in what ought to be a fully interpersonal act between spouses.

With respect to genetic engineering, the instruction approves of strictly therapeutic interventions to bring an individual to normal functioning, so-called "somatic cell gene therapy", but it prudently judges so-called "germ-line cell therapies" aimed at correcting an abnormality not only in the patient but also in his or her offspring as morally impermissible for the present, because the risks are considerable and the technique not fully controllable. The congregation opposes non-therapeutic or eugenic uses of genetic engineering to improve the gene pool through the selection or elimination of inherited traits. These, it says, favour the preferences of some over the will of others and, as the example of Nazism has shown, are notoriously liable to ideological taint.

Rejecting the use of embryonic stem cells, it recognises as licit the use of stem cells taken from adults, from umbilical cords and from foetuses who have died of natural causes. Clinical use of stem cells from these sources is morally permissible; and "research initiatives involving the use of adult stem cells, since they do not present ethical problems" are encouraged. Human cloning is rejected because it does not proceed from sexual union and because it violates the dignity of the unique individual person. Therapeutic cloning, moreover, is regarded as especially heinous in that creating "embryos with the intention of destroying them, even with the intention of helping the sick, is completely incompatible with human dignity". It would make one human being a means to the end of health and life for another.

 

Reaching postmodern minds

 

The instruction’s subject matter is technical. It offers a sustained and serious treatment of vital problems. Just as the sciences have their own languages, so moral theology needs technical terminology and patterns of argument. The problems the congregation addresses are pressing; but the obstacles to communication are great. The language of natural law has limited power today to turn back the tide of technological transgression we face. Pastorally, the Church needs to find an improved rhetoric to engage the postmodern mind, and in its apologetics it must experiment with varied genres of persuasion to affect the fluid imaginations of the Digital Age. Who will be the C. S. Lewis for our day, defending human nature and celebrating the Christian vision of life for the 21st century?

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