The Dignity of Human Life and Procreation: Reflections on the Recent Vatican “Instruction”

The recent Vatican “Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation” is a profoundly significant document. The issues it discusses, the “Brave New World” reproductive technologies and their associated social practices — in vitro fertilization, sperm banks, surrogate motherhood, sex selection, etc. — have recently emerged as major social problems. There can be no doubt about the document’s practical relevance and timeliness.

Not yet adequately recognized is the document’s theoretical importance, its contribution to a more profound understanding of the dignity of the human person. This principle, so fruitful for the development of the Church’s teachings on social justice, has shed new light also on her teachings in the area of human life and sexuality. The “Instruction” focuses our attention on human dignity with special clarity. For this reason it deserves our careful study and reflection.

To help begin this process of reflection, I want to clarify the fundamental premise which underlies the “Instruction’s” approach to the questions of artificial procreation and the value of embryonic human life. I shall then briefly review the argumentation in Parts I and II, concerned, respectively, with respect for human embryos and with interventions upon human procreation. (Part III, which offers guidelines for civil legislation, will be omitted for the sake of brevity.) I shall conclude with a suggestion for further study.


Technology and Human Dignity

In its introduction, the “Instruction” delineates the fundamental premise upon which its argument is based. Briefly stated, this premise is as follows: the use of technology is morally valid insofar and only insofar as it is at the service of the human person. What does this premise mean?

Let us begin by stating what it definitely does not mean. It does not mean that the use of technology is morally right merely because it responds to a human desire, even if the desire is in itself legitimate. The “Instruction” admits that a married couple’s desire to have a child is good, yet it rejects artificial fertilization. It also rejects non-therapeutic experiments on human embryos, but surely is not opposed to the desire for accurate scientific knowledge which lies behind such experiments.

According to the “Instruction,” technology “must be at the service of the human person, of his inalienable rights and his true and integral good according to the design and will of God.” Elsewhere, it states that the criteria for the moral evaluation of scientific research and technology are “the respect, defense and promotion of man, his ‘primary and fundamental right’ to life, his dignity as a person who is endowed with a spiritual soul and with moral responsibility and who is called to beatific communion with God.” These statements indicate clearly that the morality of technological intervention is to be evaluated not on the subjective basis of human desires but on the objective basis of human dignity considered in its natural and supernatural dimensions. (It should be noted that the argument of the “Instruction” is based primarily on the natural dimensions of human dignity.)

It is therefore clear that human dignity, as understood by the “Instruction,” is not to be identified with the so-called principle of autonomy. Autonomy emphasizes individual choice without adequately considering its moral value — i.e., the degree to which individual choice is consistent with and promotes the dignity of man understood as an objective reality rooted in human nature.

Because of his natural dignity, his status as a being who exists for his own sake, man is essentially superior to other bodily creatures. The latter exist ultimately as things to be used in the service of persons and are therefore appropriate objects for technological manipulation and domination. Not so man himself. Any technological intervention by which the human person (even with his own consent) is reduced to the status of a thing is contrary to his dignity.

To understand how a technological intervention might violate the dignity of man, we must consider that the human person is not just a soul or conscious mind. Human nature, in the words of the “Instruction,” is “at the same time corporeal and spiritual,” a “unified totality.” The human body “cannot be considered as a mere complex of tissues, organs and functions, nor can it be evaluated in the same way as the body of animals; rather it is a constitutive part of the person who manifests and expresses himself through it.” It follows that a technological intervention on the human body “affects not only the tissues, the organs and their functions but also involves the person himself on different levels.”

Incorporating this last clarification, let us summarize what has been said so far. Technology is man’s instrument for dominating the physical world, for placing the world at his service. It is not meant to dominate man himself. But it is impossible to subject the human body to the domination of technology without also subjecting the human person to this same domination. For man is essentially a “unified totality” of body and soul.

Does the foregoing require us to reject, in principle, every use of technology on the human body, including even therapeutic medical procedures? Consider, for example, the sophisticated technological manipulations of the human body in organ transplantation and open heart surgery. Don’t such procedures constitute a subjugation of the human body to the domination of technology? The “Instruction” rejects such an implication. It states that applied biology and medicine “work together for the integral good of human life when they come to the aid of a person stricken by illness and infirmity.” Moreover, the document explicitly permits therapeutic medical interventions on human embryos. We must therefore attempt to clarify further the idea of technological domination, distinguishing it essentially from therapeutic medicine.

It is not difficult to see that therapeutic medical interventions, however elaborate the technology involved, fall under the category of “service to the human person” and are not forms of domination. All appropriate medical procedures begin with the ideal of the human body functioning as nature intended it to function and then strive to assist nature in realizing this ideal. The nature of man establishes the defining purpose and sets the limits of such procedures. Man remains in the superior or dominant position and technology assumes the role of servant.

On the other hand, technology assumes the dominant role when it goes beyond therapeutic medicine and presumes to destroy or injure the human body, to frustrate its natural purposes, or to displace those activities which naturally belong to the sphere of personal life. Such interventions treat the human person as if he existed to be used as a means to the ends proposed by technology rather than exclusively for the expression and fulfillment of his own nature, as human dignity requires. In every use of technology, man must be revealed precisely as the one who dominates and never, even with his own consent, as the one who is dominated. Significant among these properly human activities which are not to be displaced by technology is the act of love in marriage. In this connection, the “Instruction” quotes a pertinent passage from John XXIII’s Mater et Magistra: “The transmission of human life is entrusted by nature to a personal and conscious act and as such is subjected to the all-holy laws of God: immutable and inviolable laws which must be recognized and observed. For this reason one cannot use means and follow methods which could be licit in the transmission of the life of plants and animals.”

We may now turn to the proper subject matter of the “Instruction,” human procreation. Procreation involves human dignity in two distinct but interrelated ways: the dignity of the new human life which is procreated and the dignity of the procreative act itself. Bearing in mind the fundamental premise — that technology is meant to serve and not dominate the human person — let us briefly review the document’s teaching on each of these topics.


Respect for Human Embryos

Part I begins with a strong affirmation of the dignity of human life from the moment of fertilization. Although it does not attempt a definitive resolution of the question of “ensoulment” (the moment at which new human life receives a spiritual soul), the “Instruction” does affirm that “the conclusions of science regarding the human embryo provide a valuable indication for discerning by the use of reason a personal presence at the first appearance of human life; how could a human individual not be a human person?” Moreover, it reaffirms the Church’s moral condemnation of any kind of procured abortion, stating that this teaching “has not been changed and is unchangeable.”

Technology must therefore recognize a personal value or dignity in human embryos. It may not destroy them or in any way treat them as if they had only utility value and might be used for purposes alien to their nature. Only strictly therapeutic procedures and such research projects as do not pose a risk to the embryo’s life or physical integrity are permissible. Diagnostic procedures such as amniocentesis are licit when done for valid therapeutic purposes, but not when done with the thought of possibly inducing an abortion.

The document rejects all non-therapeutic experimentation on living embryos, whether viable or not, no matter how advantageous to science. Such experimentation clearly reduces the embryo to the status of a thing, as though it existed for the benefit of others and not for itself. This evil is compounded by the practice of “keeping alive human embryos in vivo or in vitro for experimental or commercial purposes” and, even more so, by the deliberate production of human embryos “destined to be exploited as disposable biological material.”

The concluding section of Part I condemns certain violations of the dignity of human embryos which are even more closely connected, at least potentially, with artificial procreation. Included is the practice of preselecting human beings according to sex or other predetermined qualities. This practice is opposed to the right of human beings to be respected for themselves from the very beginning, whatever their sex or other physical or mental attributes.

Also condemned are possible new experiments in artificial fertilization and gestation — e.g., attempts to clone human beings, to unite human and animal gametes or to gestate human embryos in artificial or animal uteruses. These practices, the document asserts, are “contrary to the right of every person to be conceived and to be born within marriage and from marriage.”


Interventions Upon Human Procreation

The main purpose of Part II of the “Instruction” is to evaluate artificial human procreation considered in itself — that is, apart from the practice of destroying or harming embryonic life. Artificial procreation includes artificial insemination as well as in vitro fertilization. Two sorts of cases are considered: those which take place outside the marriage bond, involving an outside sperm donor or surrogate mother (heterologous artificial fertilization) and those which take place within marriage (homologous artificial fertilization).

The “Instruction” opposes both forms of artificial fertilization as contrary to the dignity of human procreation. The objections to the heterologous form are based on the morally necessary connection between procreation and marriage: that marriage and its indissoluble unity represent the “only setting worthy of truly responsible procreation.” The homologous form is rejected because it violates the natural connection between procreation and the act of love in marriage. A considerable amount of discussion is devoted to these topics, especially homologous artificial fertilization. It cannot be adequately summarized here. I shall attempt only to put the discussion in general perspective and to sketch very briefly the main lines of argument.

Perhaps the easiest way to gain some perspective on the “Instruction’s” teaching is to reflect on the natural linkages between the various aspects of human procreation. The human procreative act, as ordained by nature, is not merely the union of a sperm and an ovum; it has many other dimensions as well. Sperm and ovum are brought into proximity through an act which also celebrates the love of a man and woman who have given themselves to each other in marriage. It expresses their openness to a new human being as a gift from God. It involves the conception and gestation of a child within the womb of its mother and the miracle of birth itself. It entails the joint responsibility of the father and mother to bring up the child with whom they have been entrusted.

Through these natural linkages, the procreation of a new human being achieves the perfection proper to it as human procreation. When fertilization is artificially separated from its human context, it is reduced to a sub-human level. It takes place in a way suitable for beings without dignity, thereby asserting the domination of technology over the origin of the human person.

In its discussion of heterologous artificial procreation, the “Instruction” emphasizes especially the linkage between human procreation and the unity of marriage. Many aspects of this relationship are discussed in order to establish, as the most important conclusion, that “Recourse to the gametes of a third person . . . constitutes a violation of the reciprocal commitment of the spouses and a grave lack in regard to that essential property of marriage which is its unity.”

The practice of surrogate motherhood introduces a special complication in the case where the surrogate is implanted with an embryo fertilized in vitro from the wife’s ovum and the husband’s sperm. Here the child is genetically the fruit of the marriage. Nevertheless, in the words of the “Instruction,” “it offends the dignity and right of the child to be conceived, carried in the womb, brought into the world and brought up by his own parents; it sets up, to the detriment of families, a division between the physical, psychological and moral elements which constitute those families.”

On the topic of homologous artificial fertilization, the “Instruction” proposes three levels of reflection and argument intended to clarify the essential relationship between truly human procreation and the marriage act.

The first level of argument is based on the natural connection between the unitive and procreative meanings of the marriage act. Just as contraception violates the dignity of the marriage act by excluding its natural orientation to procreation, so artificial procreation violates its dignity by excluding the expression of personal love. Artificial procreation, like contraception, mechanically severs meanings of an act which, insofar as it expresses the nature of man and woman, contains these meanings within it in an indissoluble unity.

The argument is developed at a second level by relating the marriage act to the unity of body and soul which constitutes the essence of the human person. Inasmuch as man and woman are corporeal, the procreative act proper to them should express the spousal and parental meanings contained in the “language of the body.” As spiritual beings, their procreative act should be “the fruit and result of married love.” Fertilization outside the bodies of the couple is, by this very fact, deprived of these meanings and values.

The third level of argument focuses on the dignity of the child. Because his dignity is equal to that of his parents, he must not be desired or conceived as the product of a technological intervention, as though he existed to satisfy the desires or needs of his parents. He must be desired as a gift of God, as one who exists for his own sake. It is in the natural marriage act that this value of the child, as a gift from God, is precisely expressed. For in this act the spouses give themselves to each other as those who “cooperate as servants and not as masters in the work of the Creator who is Love.”

Space does not permit a further elaboration of these arguments or a more specific discussion of their application to in vitro fertilization and artificial insemination. Let me conclude this summary by briefly noting three points. First, the “Instruction” rejects the idea that artificial fertilization could be adequately humanized through its association with other natural marriage acts which precede and follow it; these acts, however excellent in themselves, could not change the moral status of an act of artificial fertilization distinct from them. Secondly, the document would permit a medical intervention which “seeks to assist the conjugal act either in order to facilitate its performance or in order to enable it to achieve its objective once it has been normally performed.” An example of this might be the low tubal ovum transfer (L.T.O.T.), a procedure which bypasses a blocked oviduct by artifically transferring an ovum to the lower fallopian tubes where it could be fertilized through natural intercourse. Finally, recognizing the suffering caused by infertility in marriage, the document encourages scientists to seek remedies within the limits permitted by the moral law.


A Concluding Reflection

As we study this document, it is of great importance to consider not just the specific issues discussed but also, and especially, their relation to human dignity. This, in turn, will require a deeper understanding of human dignity itself, as a starting point for the moral evaluation of human actions, especially those which are intrinsically wrong.

For this purpose, the present document, focusing as it does on artificial fertilization, is particularly useful. Other practices condemned by the Church also violate the dignity of man — for example, abortion and contraception. But these latter have, in addition, certain obvious destructive or negative aspects which enable us to understand, in a more common sense way, why the Church opposes them. Artificial fertilization, on the other hand, often appears to people primarily as a positive, life-giving technology serving a perfectly legitimate human desire. Therefore, an understanding of the Church’s opposition to it requires us to turn our attention more immediately and more decisively to the basic principle itself — human dignity. This, I believe, could be of enormous benefit to us in achieving a more unified and profound understanding of all of the Church’s moral teachings.


  • Richard Berquist

    Richard Berquist is professor emeritus of philosophy, University of St. Thomas.

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