Human Embryology and Church Teachings

II. Church Teachings

The Church has always taught that the intentional direct killing of innocent human beings is morally evil and that "no one can claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being" (Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Donum vitae 1987). As Vatican Council II notes, "Divine law and natural reason ... exclude all right to the direct killing of an innocent man" (Pope Paul VI, Professio fidei 1968, p. 436; Gaudium et spes, in O'Rourke and Boyle 1989, p. 38).

A. Philosophical Anthropology

The Church's teachings with respect to the inherent dignity of all human beings, including human embryos, is grounded in the philosophical anthropology upon which those teachings rest: "Teachers, catechists and theologians have the task of emphasizing the anthropological reasons upon which respect for every human life is based" (Pope John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 1995, par. 82).

According to philosophical natural law, known through the light of reason, a human being is a "unified totality." A human nature is "at the same time corporal and spiritual." By virtue of its substantial union with a spiritual soul, "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" (Donum vitae 1987, Introduction 3, emphasis added).

Consequently, the natural moral law expresses and lays down the purposes, rights, and duties that are based on the unified and single bodily and spiritual nature of the human person. This is precisely why "an intervention on the human body affects not only the tissues, the organs, and their functions, but also involves the person himself on different levels." In the body and through the body, "one touches the person himself in his concrete reality." To respect the dignity of man consequently amounts to "safeguarding this identity of the man 'corpore et anima unus'", as the Second Vatican Council says (Gaudium et spes 1965, p. 14, par. 1; Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith 1987, Introduction 3).

Through revelation the Magisterium of the Church also confirms the concurrent theological anthropology of the unified nature of the human being. That is, "from the moment of conception, the life of every human being is to be respected in an absolute way because man is the only creature on earth that God has wished for himself" (Gaudium et spes 1965, p. 24). The spiritual soul of each person is "immediately created by God" (Pope Paul VI, Professio fidei 1968, p. 436; Pope Pius XII, Humani generis 195, p. 575), and his whole being bears the image of the Creator. Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves "the creative action of God" (Pope John XXIII, Mater et magistra: 1961, p. 447; Pope John Paul II, Responsible Procreation 1983, p. 562). Thus no person comes into existence by chance; he or she is always the result of the creative love of God, "and remains forever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end" (Gaudium et spes 1965, p. 24). God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: "no one can, in any circumstance, claim for himself the right to destroy directly an innocent human being" (Pope Pius XII, Discourse to the Saint Luke Medical-Biological Union 1944: Discorsi e Radiomessaggi VI 1944-1945, pp.191-192). Further, human procreation requires on the part of the spouses "responsible collaboration with the fruitful love of God" (Gaudium et spes 1965, p. 50). The gift of human life must be actualized in marriage through the specific and exclusive acts of husband and wife "in accordance with the laws inscribed in their persons and in their union" (Gaudium et spes 1965, p. 51; Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith 1987, Introduction, par. 5).

Thus violations of the inherent dignity of human beings are immoral. In formally rejecting teleological theological moral theories such as proportionalism, utilitarianism, bioethics, communitarianism (a mini-form of secular bioethics), and such, the Church explains that, "There exist acts which per se and in themselves, independent of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object." Examples of such acts include "whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide." Additional examples are "whatever violates the integrity of the human person"; for example, "mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat laborers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons." All of these and similar acts are a disgrace, and "so long as they infect human civilization they contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice" (Pope John Paul II, Veritatis splendor 1993, pars. 75-78, 90, 96, 97).

Likewise, contraception (Pope Paul VI, Humanae vitae 1968, par. 14); the use of abortifacients (Pope John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 1995, par. 61), including the "morning-after" pill (Pontifical Academy for Life 2000b); in vitro fertilization and the use of other artificial reproductive techniques (ARTs) (Pope Pius XII, "Fertility and Sterility" in O'Rourke and Boyle 1989, pp. 164-165; Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith 1987, Parts A and B); the freezing of spare IVF embryos (Pope Pius XII, "Fertility and Sterility": in O'Rourke and Boyle 1989, pp. 164-165); germ-line cell genetic engineering (Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith 1987, I6); surrogate motherhood (Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith 1987, IIA, par. 3); and prenatal diagnosis (Pope John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 1995, par. 14) are inherently immoral. The same anthropological considerations bear on the immorality of the use of human embryos in destructive research.

B. Abortion

Aside from some independent scholars and theologians who speak only for themselves, historically the intentional and direct killing of all innocent human beings by means of abortion (Irving 2000a, pp. 45-55) has always been formally condemned by the Church since its beginning. This teaching has never changed: "The tradition of the Church has always held that human life must be protected and favored from the beginning, just as at the various stages of its development….The same Paul VI, speaking on this subject on many occasions, has not been afraid to declare that this teaching of the Church 'has not changed and is unchangeable'" (Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith 1974, II, par. 6). Regardless of laws to the contrary, "human law can abstain from punishment, but it cannot declare to be right what would be opposed to the natural law, for this opposition suffices to give the assurance that a law is not a law at all" (Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith 1974, V, par. 21). And, as so clearly stated by Pope Pius XI, "Whether inflicted upon the mother or upon the child, [direct abortion] is against the precept of God and the law of nature: 'Thou shalt not kill.' The life of each is equally sacred, and no one has the power, not even the public authority, to destroy it." Those who hold the reins of government must remember that "it is the duty of public authority by appropriate laws and sanctions to defend the lives of the innocent," especially those whose lives are endangered and assailed and cannot defend themselves, "among whom we must mention in the first place infants hidden in the mother's womb" (Pope Pius XI, "Encyclical Letter on Christian Marriage," in O'Rourke and Boyle 1989, pp. 35-36). Thus even appeals to choice are not morally valid: "It is true that it is not the task of the law to choose between points of view or to impose one rather than another. But the life of the child takes precedence over all opinions. One cannot invoke freedom of thought to destroy this life" (Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith 1974, V).

More people have become aware of these truths, particularly as science has uncovered the accurate facts of human embryology and human genetics over the centuries. Even considering genuine burdens as well as misperceptions of the quality of the new life, direct abortion remains inherently immoral:

We do not deny these very great difficulties. It may be a serious question of health, sometimes of life or death, for the mother; it may be the burden represented by an additional child, especially if there are good reasons to fear that the child will be abnormal or retarded; it may be the importance attributed in different classes of society to considerations of honor or dishonor, of loss of social standing, and so forth. We proclaim only that none of these reasons can ever objectively confer the right to dispose of another's life, even when that life is only beginning. (Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith 1974, V)

The same clear principles for the respect and dignity of the early human being can also be found in the situation where vaccines are produced using the cells and tissues from aborted babies or derived by culturing in vitro. The corpses of human embryos and fetuses, "whether they have been deliberately aborted or not," must be respected just as the remains of other human beings. (Donum vitae, 1987, Introduction 5). The Pontifical Academy for Life also addressed the question, "Is it morally licit to use ES [embryonic stem] cells, and the differentiated cells obtained from them, which are supplied by other researchers or are commercially obtainable?", responding that, "The answer is negative, since: Prescinding from the participation - formal or otherwise - in the morally illicit intention of the principal agent, the case in question entails a proximate material cooperation in the production and manipulation of human embryos on the part of those producing or supplying them" (Pontifical Academy for Life, "Declaration on the Production and the Scientific and Therapeutic Use of Human Embryonic Stem Cells", Liberia Editrice, Vaticana, p. 17). And in a statement specifically explaining the various degrees of complicity that would be involved, the Pontifical Academy for Life concluded:

As regards the preparation, distribution and marketing of vaccines produced as a result of the use of biological material whose origin is connected with cells coming from foetuses voluntarily aborted, such a process is stated, as a matter of principle, morally illicit, because it could contribute in encouraging the performance of other voluntary abortions, with the purpose of the production of such vaccines. Nevertheless, it should be recognized that, within the chain of production-distribution-marketing, the various cooperating agents can have different moral responsibilities. ... However, there is another aspect to be considered, and that is the form of passive material cooperation which would be carried out by the producers of these vaccines, if they do not denounce and reject publicly the original immoral act (the voluntary abortion), and if they do not dedicate themselves together to research and promote alternative ways, exempt from moral evil, for the production of vaccines for the same infections. Such passive material cooperation, if it should occur, is equally illicit (Pontifical Academy for Life, Moral Reflection on Vaccines Prepared From Cells Derived From Aborted Human Foetuses, June 2005)

What is clear in these various Church teachings is that the fact of being a human being is sufficient reason to proscribe abortion: "'Human life is sacred,' Pope John XXIII recalled; 'from its very inception it reveals the creating hand of God'"(Pope Paul VI, Humanae vitae 1968). "From the moment of conception, the life of every human being is to be respected in an absolute way because man is the only creature on earth that God has 'wished for himself' and the spiritual soul of each man is 'immediately created' by God; ... no one can, in any circumstance, claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being" (Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith 1987, Introduction 5). As will be noted below, the precious term "conception" has now been so deconstructed to mean "implantation", especially in the law, that it is now very problematic to use, as are the terms "fertilization" and "natural death".

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