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Bioethical Questions Addressed in Vatican Released "Dignitas Personae"

An interview with Father Thomas Berg LC, executive director of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person and member of the Ethics Committee of New York’s Empire State Stem Cell Board.
by Colin Fagnan, LC | Source:

Dignitas Personae (“The Dignity of the Person”), document released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with the approval of the Holy Father, reaffirms the Vatican’s position on multiple bioethical topics which include human cloning, in vitro fertilization and more recently, embryonic stem cell research. The ongoing scientific research on such topics continues to produce new moral questions which for the most part, do not immediately provide quick easy answers.   

The precursor to Dignitas Personae (DP) was Donum Vitae (The Gift of Life) which the same congregation published in 1987 and sparked debate in some quarters of the Church, particularly because of the document’s “restrictions” on certain alternative means of procreation  such as invitro-fertilization. DP will not substitute Donum Vitae nor does it introduce any new core principles; the new Instruction seems intended rather to serve as a compliment to the 1987 document.

With the release of this new Instruction as a backdrop, I recently interviewed Father Thomas Berg LC, executive director of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person and member of the Ethics Committee of New York’s Empire State Stem Cell Board. Fr. Berg is directly involved with bioethics issues and collaborates with leading experts in the field of both science and morality.

1) Before we address the Instruction, what can you tell us of your involvement in the bioethics debate in North America?
Here at the Westchester Institute, our central purpose to is address very thorny moral problems by bringing together some of the finest specialists in ethics, moral theology and related disciplines to address the problem and hopefully move the debate forward. Many of these problems of course are to be found in the realm of bioethics. We have worked for the past four years evaluating and promoting alternatives to embryo-destructive stem cell research (such as Altered Nuclear Transfer and Direct Cell Reprogramming), we have explored the issue of ‘embryo rescue’ from a Catholic perspective as a possible solution to the dilemma of surplus and unwanted, frozen IVF embryos; we have explored such questions as the use of condoms to prevent the spread of the AIDS virus, as well as the still controversial question of brain death. I also serve on the ethics committee of the Empire State Stem Cell Board which oversees $600 million in New York state funding for stem cell research. I also collaborate closely with members of the President’s Council on Bioethics, the National Catholic Bioethics Center and the United States Catholic Conference.

2) How does your work with the Westchester Institute contribute to the ongoing research on bioethics?
I’ll answer with one example.  Both times that President Bush used his veto power to halt bills in Congress that would have increased federal funding for embryo destructive research, he did so on the premise that there are ethically acceptable and scientifically endorsed alternatives either available or in the making.  His hand was strengthened by the fact these alternatives were on the horizon. They were on the horizon (and on the White House radar) largely due to the efforts of Dr. William Hurlbut of Stanford University and member of the President’s Council on Bioethics.  Dr. Hurlbut’s ability to influence the situation was, in turn, largely strengthened by our work as an Institute in getting a large number of ethicists and moral theologians in the know and on board in supporting and at least conditionally endorsing some of these alternatives. I think we had a real impact on the Bush policy and indirectly on public opinion about stem cell research.

3) What do you think the Magisterium is trying to communicate to the public through Dignitas Personae? Is the document very explicit in addressing many issues in bioethics?
The Church wants to first of all reaffirm the principles already established in the previous Instruction, also from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, published in 1987, Donum Vitae, a document which in its time did the same thing, namely, addressing several issues bearing on the dignity of nascent human life and conjugal love.  The new instruction, Dignitas Personae, is something of an update. With it, the Church has shown that she is very forward looking on these matters and abreast of the most recent developments. Through DP, the Church wants to offer faithful Catholics a point of reference around which to form their consciences on these delicate and complex matters such as In Vitro Fertilization, Emergency Contraception, Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD), Gene Therapy, and a host of other issues mentioned in the document.

4) In your opinion, what is the most significant topic addressed by the Church with this important document?
I would say there are two teachings that are most prominent. The first is that the human embryo is to be treated as, and given the respect due to, a human person from the first moment of conception. The other is the reaffirmation of the dignity of human procreation and its proper place within marriage and its proper source, namely, the marital act of a husband and wife.

5) Will Dignitas Personae be overall well received by North American Catholics? Do you think its population as a whole is open to what this document offers as a message?
If they read it thoughtfully and with an open mind, yes. Even better if they were to take the time to study it carefully, and also to re-read and study the previous Instruction Donum Vitae.  Unfortunately, I fear these Catholics will be a minority. Many Catholics will largely remain ignorant of the document, and many will struggle to understand the Church’s teaching that recourse to in vitro fertilization is morally illicit. But that is not the fault of the document or the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It is simply a reminder of the dire need we have in the Church today for adult catechesis.  Adult Catholics need to have the reasons behind these various moral norms explained to them, and explained well and convincingly. Today, that is still a very tall order. There are not enough well prepared, adult catechists to go around. So this remains a huge challenge for the Church as we continue on into the 21st century.

6) It seems to be the case that many people are simply out of touch with what the Catholic Church is teaching on the topic of bioethics; many were not aware, especially among the younger generation, of any previous document addressing the issue (such as Donum Vitae, not to mention Humanae Vitae  the Church’s 1968 teaching on contraception). Do you think Dignitas Personae is relevant to the lives of people today? Even to young people?

Yes, absolutely. But again, this Instruction will refer them back to the previous Instruction Donum Vitae and I think most people who never looked at that document will want to go back and read and study it.  The younger the readers, the more “relevant” these documents become because for younger persons bioethical issues are as ordinary as baseball, the Internet or text messaging. They are also much more familiar with biology and biotech than older folks, so yes, this will be of interest to them.

7) Many Catholics were hoping that DP would give a clear answer on the question of whether so-called ‘embryo rescue’ is licit, meaning whether, for example, a married couple could attempt to thaw and then implant in the wife’s womb one or more unwanted embryos in frozen storage at an IVF clinic, perhaps even with the intention of adopting the embryos later. Did DP clarify this question?
Suprisingly, no, DP is unclear in its answer in this regard. It addresses the question in number 19. The long and the short of it is that the document would appear to lean in the direction of considering embryo-rescue illicit, but it falls short of stating that clearly.  It does state, however, that a couple attempting to transfer embryos merely as a solution for their infertility would be acting illicitly.  In this, it seems, the document sees a violation of the goods of marriage. The yet unresolved question is whether embryo adoption, pursued simply with the intent of rescuing unwanted embryos, is in itself illicit for similar reasons. The document does not address this and we will need further clarification on this from the CDF is some other form.

We can be sure that continued medical and scientific breakthroughs in biotechnology will occasion more instructions from Rome similar to DP. These instructions are of vital importance in order to give reasons for the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of life and marriage, and offer guidance to Catholics who want to inform their consciences in accord with those teachings. 

In these months following its release in North America, DP has not played a major role in the public square and it remains to be seen what impact it will have, if any, on bioethical debates. It’s still not clear precisely when the Vatican will unveil its next instruction on the bioethics issue, but it will undoubtedly keep a close watch on any new developments from under the microscope.

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