It's been 21 years since Donum Vitae, and technology has made incredible leaps forward: IVF, intracytoplasmic sperm injection, all kinds of surrogate motherhood, PGD, etc. And most of these leaps are condemned by the Church.
It's my own personal opinion that it's necessary for everyone involved in bioethics to understand the Catholic position, regardless of your personal or professional inclinations. The Church has a powerful lobbying group, especially in states in the northeast of the United States, and this document has the ability to affect many people simply because it does clear up a lot of the grey areas that existed in Catholic doctrine.
Reading the Dignitatis Personae is an exercise in patience and self-control; it's hard to resist the urge to go wake someone up to have someone to discuss such wince-inducing logic as this: This ethical principle, [ed- that life begins at conceptions] which reason is capable of recognizing as true and in conformity with the natural moral law, should be the basis for all legislation in this area. I can tell you with full certainty that such 'reasoning' (a term I use loosely) would fail a philosophy 101 test. But if you can get through the document, you'll learn that the fresh-off-the-newstands update to Catholicism forbids any reproductive act that does not result in fertilization and implantation happening as a result of the sexual act between a married couple. Or put more simply: if the technology assists in intra-uterine conception, YAY! If conception occurs outside the uterus, BOO!
For better or for worse, the Catholic position is at least internally consistent - and for this I certainly give credit where it's due. There's very little cherry-picking of preferences; life begins at conception, all conceived embryos deserve full moral status of a human, etc. But aside from theological and philosophical differences, two things in the Dignitatis Personae stand out to me as worthy of further discussion and debate.
The first is the idea that
"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. Procreation which is truly responsible vis-à-vis the child to be born “must be the fruit of marriage”.Put plainly, and as I said above, children must be conceived through sexual intercourse. Their conception at fertilization in the woman's body is when they become ensouled. What then, does this mean, theologically, for the multitudes of people now being born outside of this very narrow definition of procreation? It's not an answer I have, it's not an answer that is clear in the Dignitatis Personae, and it's definitely not an answer that anyone my local Catholic Conference has been able to answer. So it is a lingering question, and one that should be answered.
The second, and much larger issue, is the chapter on "The use of human “biological material” of illicit origin". This chapter discusses the obligation of researchers to refuse to use materials of illicit origin - that is, human cell lines obtained from stem cells, aborted fetuses, etc. Many, if not most, news outlets are reporting this to mean that the Vatican has said that Catholics may not use vaccines which are grown on human cell lines created from the lung tissues of aborted fetuses (the Meruvax rubella vaccine, at the very least).
Reading the chapter, though, instead of relying on news reports, gives a slightly different interpretation. While the document is clearly against researchers using any biological material of so-called illicit (theologically) origin, and suggests that ethical researchers will refuse to use these mediums, it draws a different line for the general public. The document allows that
Grave reasons may be morally proportionate to justify the use of such “biological material. Thus, for example, danger to the health of children could permit parents to use a vaccine which was developed using cell lines of illicit origin, while keeping in mind that everyone has the duty to make known their disagreement and to ask that their healthcare system make other types of vaccines available.Unfortunately, this again raises more questions than it solves. If there is such a thing as a single grave reason that may be morally proportionate to justify the use of illicit biological material - vaccinating your child from a deadly disease - then why are there not other grave reasons? Isn't this suddenly a large degree of "wiggle room" that will allow individuals an out, who can say that this document is not intended for the lay Catholic but the scientist Catholic, the researcher who spends their life in this and thus needs to consider ethics and morality at a different level than the average person (or at least average Catholic)?
As I said, more questions. But in all fairness, I can't say more questions than answers, since the document clearly gives answers that people have been wondering about for the last 21 years.
Give it a read this morning over your coffee, tea, breakfast, and see what you think the impact of this document will be.