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Dignitas Personae December 23, 2008

Posted by Erin Ptah in News Roundup.
Tags: , , ,

The Catholic Church recently released a new document dealing with stem cell research, abortion, and in vitro fertilization. (You can read the full text here, and USA Today has a summary. All quotations are from the original.)

It follows the principles you would probably expect. The Catholic Church has spent thousands of years taking basic ideas and divining from them an increasingly complicated system of rules. As world religions go, only Judaism rivals them for sheer paperwork, a lot of which is devoted to the task of reconciling contradictions from the last round.

And there are contradictions. You can’t start with a rigid framework, refusing to adapt the first principles to anything, and get a comprehensive philosophy of life out of it. It’s simply not possible.

In this document, two Catholic principles crash head-on into each other.

The first is one you’re familiar with if you’ve ever heard a pro-lifer argue: life begins at conception. (More eloquently, “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.”)

A basic logic operates here: if you wouldn’t do it to a one-month-old, you shouldn’t do it to a one-month-in-the-womb-old. Whether or not you agree with this, it’s easy to understand.

The next idea is very Catholic: “The origin of human life has its authentic context in marriage and in the family, where it is generated through an act which expresses the reciprocal love between a man and a woman.” In other words, children are for married couples having sex.

This principle is used to develop guidelines for fertility treatments. If a technique makes it easier for a couple to have children through sex (for instance, hormonal treatments), it’s okay. If the technique replaces sex (say, in vitro fertilization), it’s out.

With me so far? Good.

Now let’s talk frozen embryos.

We have a lot of these lying around. In the process of in vitro fertilization, doctors often give their patients hormones to increase their egg production, after which they can remove multiple eggs at once and fertilize them all. That way, if the first embryo doesn’t take, there are spares handy. However, once the woman is pregnant, any extra embryos get stuck in the deep freeze.

So what exactly should we do with these embryos? If you believe they’re human beings, with all the rights and dignity that that implies, you can’t condone them being used for medical research, any more than you would condone the dissection of unwanted infants. So that’s out.

After making that argument, however, the document says the following:

The proposal that these embryos could be put at the disposal of infertile couples as a treatment for infertility is not ethically acceptable for the same reasons which make artificial heterologous procreation illicit as well as any form of surrogate motherhood; this practice would also lead to other problems of a medical, psychological and legal nature.

It has also been proposed, solely in order to allow human beings to be born who are otherwise condemned to destruction, that there could be a form of “prenatal adoption“. This proposal, praiseworthy with regard to the intention of respecting and defending human life, presents however various problems not dissimilar to those mentioned above.

That’s right, folks. If the biological parents of these embryos don’t have a womb to spare, then—regardless of whether there are couples ready and willing to carry and raise them—then not only are they not allowed to be adopted, they do not have the right to be born.

Remember that bit about no “change in nature” between an embryo and any other human being? It just went out the window.

This section of the document concludes that “the thousands of abandoned embryos represent a situation of injustice which in fact cannot be resolved.” In fact, the resolution is easy. You just have to recognize that one or both of the principles mentioned above is not always true.

By clinging rigidly to its base principles, the Church has written itself into a corner. According to its own principles, thousands upon thousands of children are trapped in a frozen limbo—unable to grow, to learn, to live—and it doesn’t know what to do about this.

I don’t know how these people sleep at night.



1. X - December 24, 2008

I think it’s less a case of the two terms not always being true and more the Church not playing with semantics enough to make it work. The prenatal adoption idea is consistent with their internal logic, I don’t understand why they dismiss it so easily. Guess they feel like making it hard on themselves.

2. Snowcat - December 24, 2008

It must be hard to live like that, always trying to find answers that are moral without violating tradition, trying to distill the world into black and white issues, and trying to ignore all the contradictions. Oddly enough, this would all be so much easier without the God thing…

3. sleepdeprivation - December 24, 2008

Trying to understand this makes my head hurt. If they think the embryos = babies, why are they against adoption of them? I figured they be all for that so they’re not used for medical research.

It’s a good thing I’m not Catholic. I don’t have the ability to rationalize this to make any damn sense in my mind.

4. X - December 24, 2008

Even without the tradition, the whole matter is still pretty thorny ethically. The simple fact is that the question of “Are embryos people?” has no clear answer from science or philosophy. And I say that as a biology graduate.

The Church is trying to determine the issue through a set of Biblical axioms, but it seems like they can’t keep their own axioms straight. As I pointed out, it’s not the axioms themselves conflicting on the issue, but their derivations that are clashing.

5. Ali - December 24, 2008

This just might be enough justification for me to not only follow the basic and positive Catholic ideals, but pretty much makes me officially a Universal Unitarian.

6. Nathan - December 24, 2008

I’ve often had to wonder what the Biblical support is for the “life begins at conception” idea. From what I remember, most of it either promoted the idea that life began at birth, or that it actually begins BEFORE conception (which is why you can’t waste valuable sperm on male-on-male sex).

7. Elizabeth - December 25, 2008

It’s funny you should use the word “limbo”, since Catholics condemn “thousands upon thousands of children are trapped in a frozen limbo—unable to grow, to learn, to live” because they aren’t baptized. The Church last year released a document talking about salvation for unbaptized infants, but it only refers to what the Church “hopes”, not doctrine, and limbo is still a “possible theological hypothesis”. So what’s a few more stuck in a freezer, eh?

8. Dominique - July 3, 2009

. . . so, basically the thousands of “children” who are still embryos are going to be stuck in a frozen stasis for the rest of eternity? According to the Catholic Church, these embryos have souls and sentience. Are they insisting on damning an entire section of what they consider to be people to an eternal, all-senses deprivation prison just because they happen to be the eggs of a couple who doesn’t want a thousand kids?

What does the Church say about regular adoption? Since, ya know, it was God’s choice to give those kids to abusers, addicts, and poverty-stricken folks. Are those children, who are actually in the living world, supposed to be stuck with parents who abuse and neglect them? Or is the Church just going to ignore them as usual? As far as the Catholic Church and the right are concerned, once you’re out of your mother, you’re on your own.

Yet another reason I left the Church.

Dominique - July 3, 2009

Also, I in no way meant to imply all poor people are addicts or vice-versa. I just know many families, including my own, who really didn’t have the money to raise a lot of kids.

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