New Vatican Document is a Positive Affirmation of Human Dignity and Ethical Research

12 December 2008

Statement on Dignitas Personae [Download PDF]

"Looked at closely, the Instruction Dignitas Personae is a realistic and positive document that recognises the often competing desires generated by developments in biomedical research at the beginning of life," says spokesperson for the New Zealand Catholic Bioethics Centre, Mr John Kleinsman, commenting on the newly released Vatican document.

"For example, developments in knowledge about stem cells and the potential that they have to cure debilitating diseases throw up questions about the sourcing of stem cells. When we contemplate using human embryos as a source of stem cells we find that the desire to effect cures contradicts and competes with the fundamental right to life that all human beings have from the first moment of existence as an embryo."

The title of the Instruction, translated as The Dignity of a Person, highlights the fundamental principle that must be at the centre of all biomedical research: "In a time where we find ourselves facing sometimes competing desires of curing illnesses or infertility and protecting life from its first moment, the dignity of the human person presents as a reliable point of reference that provides us with a way of recognising the authentic moral good."

The Instruction, approved by Pope Benedict XVI, has been long awaited. "It is effectively an update of the 1987 Instruction Donum Vitae which addressed some of the earliest developments in reproductive technologies. The teaching contained within Donum Vitae remains valid, but Dignitas Personae applies that teaching specifically to the various applications and technologies that have arisen since then."

The issues addressed include interventions such as in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and the cryopreservation of embryos, the freezing of eggs, preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), methods of pregnancy prevention that act after fertilisation, gene therapy, human cloning, stem cell research and human-animal hybrids.

The stated purpose of the Instruction is twofold: to contribute to the formation of peoples consciences and to encourage research that is respectful of the dignity of every human being from the first moment of existence. "Some people may find it surprising that one of the stated aims of the document is to encourage research," said Mr Kleinsman, "particularly when, at first glance, many of the conclusions reached by the document seem largely prohibitive. The issue is promoting research that is ethical, research that promotes the integral good of the person and our society." As stated in the Instruction: "The legitimacy of every prohibition is based on the need to protect an authentic moral good."

The Instruction is relevant in terms of the continuing debates about reproductive technologies and biomedical research in New Zealand. "This document brings another voice into the debates we are having in New Zealand, a voice of reason as well as caution that reminds us of the fact that we humans have in the past abused our powers and capabilities and can continue to do so."

"It is enlightening that the new Instruction firmly locates the ethical issues generated by biomedical research within the Church's longstanding tradition of social justice. "Technology provides a means for us to cooperate in the creative power of God but the application of some biomedical developments oppresses the right to life of a distinct category of persons – those in the first stages of human life. We have a duty to stand with those who are most vulnerable, those who have no voice other than ours."