Some Reflections on "Dignitas Personae"

Thomas Riggins

Mixing up science and religion usually does no credit to the cause of scientific understanding. The latest instruction from the Vatican on bioethical issues is a case in point. The Saturday New York Times, 12-13-2008, ("Vatican Issues Sweeping Bioethics Document" by Laurie Goodstein and Elisabetta Povoledo) has a report that illustrates this.

It took six years for the Congregation of the Faith (formerly, and better known, as the Inquisition) to come up with 32 pages of dogma relating to human sexuality and procreation. The Vatican is opposed to in vitro fertilization, cloning of humans, pre-implantation embryonic gene testing, and research on embryonic stem cells the report says.

Why? Well, because "babies should only be conceived through intercourse by a married couple" and "every human life-- even an embryo-- is sacred." If you did not know the difference between an acorn and an oak tree you would not be a credible botanist. And if you can't tell the difference between a two celled conceptum and a human being you don't know much about biology either. This did not stop the Vatican from making pronouncements on the subject.

"Dignitas Personae" (misnamed "The Dignity of the Person") inveighs against "the morning after pill, the intrauterine device and the pill RU-486, saying these can result in what amounts to abortions." It is clear that the personhood and dignity of women and of the human beings that might develop from concepti are not taken into consideration.

If the Vatican ban on these birth control devices were to be carried out millions of women would suffer from unwanted pregnancies, not have the right to control their own bodies, and their personhood would trampled on in the name of unscientific religious dogma.

There would also be millions of unwanted children born into misery, poverty and short diseased ridden lives. Some "Dignity of the Person." All because some cranky old men who don't particularly like women (and may be overly fond of children) can't tell the difference between an acorn and an oak.

Why is the church against in vitro fertilization? The head of the Catholic Medical Association, Kathleen M. Raviele says "God creates through an act of love." But not always. What about rape? Is God creating through an act of love then?I don't think so. Raviele continues, in the lab "It's the technician who's creating. What in vitro does it separates the creation of a child from the marital act."

That is just ridiculous. If God does the creating he does all of it. The technician just facilitates the fertilization-- which is still a marital act if the people are married and want to have a child this way. And as far creating a potential person is concerned, its just as much an act of love when any two consenting adults arrange a way in which to have a baby.

Josephine Johnston of the Hastings Center (which does research into bioethics) is quoted as saying, "The idea that [in vitro] is not done within the spirit of marital love, I find very strange." Not so strange when you consider that religious dogmas are held out of irrational prejudices and not based of objective scientific criteria.

Archbishop Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer in Rome stated the church issued "Dignitas Personae" in order "to give voice to those who have no voice." In other words, to give voice to two celled concepti on their way to becoming blastocysts. Too bad it doesn't give voice to the millions of poor and oppressed real persons living in poverty and war zones around the earth whose dignity and humanity would be preserved or restored by the very procedures the church seeks to ban.

Thomas Riggins is associate editor of Political Affairs online.