The Catholic Church and reproductive technologies

The Catholic Church and reproductive technologies

Fr John Fleming

The Vatican document, Dignitas Personae, dated 8 September 2008, was released with little fanfare and apparently little media interest. This contrasted with the enormous amount of media coverage at the time of the publication of the earlier and related document, Donum Vitae, on 22 February 1987. Why was this?

Donum Vitae, otherwise known as "Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origins and on the Dignity of Procreation", was a response to the development of in vitro fertilisation, popularly known as "test tube babies".

The background to this document was this: the birth of the first "test tube baby", Louise Brown, in the UK on 25 July 1978 had amazed the world. It was described in the press as a "sensational medical breakthrough" which would give hope to the thousands of couples who were infertile. This seemed to many people, and to the media generally, to be such an obviously good thing it needed no other justification.

But in 1978 not many people had any real idea of what the process of in vitro fertilisation (IVF) actually involved. All attention was focused on the end result, a healthy baby to an otherwise infertile couple.

IVF questioned

In 1982 I, and my late esteemed colleague and close friend, Daniel Overduin, wrote a chapter in our newly published book Life in a Test-Tube, dealing with IVF in which we asked many questions about the morality of IVF. Our questioning of this new technique was not well received in many quarters, especially among those involved in the new reproductive technologies.

In the meantime, debate on the new technologies was taking place within the Catholic Church and there were, among moralists, a variety of positions being explored and taken.

Eventually people began to recognise what were the "hot button" ethical issues that had to be addressed and resolved and what were issues of merely incidental importance. The "hot button" issues included these:

1. The moral status of the embryonic human being.

2. The rightness or wrongness of the creation of new human life outside of the context of marital intimacy.

3. Cloning and parthenogenesis.

4. Freezing embryos.

5. Donor gametes.

6. Whether the application of IVF should be confined to married couples only.

7. Surrogate motherhood.

The publication of Donum Vitae made plain the teaching of the Catholic Church on these issues, and especially the moral wrongfulness of IVF and related technological processes. Oddly enough, this teaching document seemed not to penetrate the minds of many Catholics, including clergy, university lecturers, teachers in Catholic schools, employees of Church agencies, or even Catholic doctors and nurses, let alone many Church-going Catholics for whom the matter has never been really explained.

Twenty-one years later the Church provided us with another teaching document, reiterating the fundamental positions taken in Donum Vitae but now applying those same principles to technologies which have been developed since then.

In 2008, the then Bishop of Parramatta asked me if I would write a series of articles for the Parramatta Outlook, the Diocesan newspaper, explaining the teachings contained in Dignitas Personae.

Given that I had been a Corresponding Member of the Pontifical Academy for Life since 1996 it seemed appropriate. Moreover, I had been involved in some of the Academy's committee work which provided advice to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at its request.

The feedback I received from this series of articles convinced me that there is a real need for people to have these kinds of documents made more easily accessible, especially to clergy, university lecturers, teachers, and the medical profession who would be called upon to not only describe Church teaching but give the reasons why the Church teaches what it does in these important matters.

This latter point is crucial. Some people imagine that the Church takes positions on moral issues which defy what they are pleased to call "common sense", and which, they say, is alright for religious people but defy the canons of reason. These assertions are quite untrue. The Church's teachings on moral questions reflect the synthesis of faith and reason.

Moral injunctions

The Church accepts the competency of science to determine when life begins. But when scientists start making non-scientific distinctions between human beings and human beings who are also persons, they step outside of their competency. Moreover, the moral injunctions not to kill the innocent or to treat human beings contrary to human dignity are prohibitions binding on everyone, including scientists.

The Church relies on the science, and also on reason, to reach normative moral positions where bio-ethical issues are concerned. But we need to do better in explaining why these moral positions are proposed if we want people to accept them.

I resolved then to make the material used in the newspaper articles more widely available. I further developed the articles, added new material, and made it into a new book (details below) which, I hoped, would be widely disseminated in schools and universities, among the clergy, and among the laity of the Church.

This is the edited text of Dr Fleming's address at the launch of his new book , Dignitas Personae Explained: the Catholic Church's Teaching on Reproductive and Related Technologies (Modotti Press, 87pp, 2010, $18.95. ISBN: 978-1-92142-151-8). The book is available from Freedom Publishing.

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