On March 10, 1987, the Vatican reaffirmed the special character of marriage and the dignity of human life before birth in a new document on genetic engineering. The document, Instruction on Respect of Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation, was published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith after wide consultation with many experts around the world. It reaffirms, perfects and consolidates into an organic whole, scattered teaching on various subjects such as artificial insemination, embryo experiments, sex selection, eugenic manipulation through sperm banks and surrogate motherhood. This teaching also covers the creation of new human life outside normal intercourse between husband and wife.
In line with its rejection of the killing of unborn life through abortion, this latest Vatican statement is a human-rights document of great importance. And in line with its earlier rejection of the contraceptive mentality, the Vatican once again defends the institution of marriage against a new technological seduction.
On human life before birth, the document reasserts the truth, long since verified by scientists everywhere, that life begins at conception. Test-tube fertilization with its regular discarding of “spare” conceived embryos is rejected. So is every kind of experimentation on living embryos: cloning, attempts to fashion animal-human hybrids, freezing of embryos and implantation of human embryos in animal uteri. “We encourage scientific research,” the document states, “but science is not absolute, to which everything must be subordinated and eventually sacrificed including the dignity of man…”
The document’s second basic principle rules out all forms of in vitro fertilization, including when the husband supplies the sperm through masturbation. The statement denies that the human body is just something to be exploited by technology, even though the intent may be honourable. Those who have been born as “test-tube” babies are to be welcomed like any other baby; but the methodology itself is condemned as undermining the true understanding of marriage. Just because a couple is infertile does not mean that they have an automatic right to have a child by technological means. Technology which corrects an existing deficiency is acceptable; technology which proceeds outside the God-given human body is not. It then becomes a matter of usurping God’s power over life and death.
Editorials in the March 12 Toronto Globe and Mail and the March 13 Toronto Star wasted no time attacking the Vatican document. As has become common since the 1968 encyclical On Human Life, they were aided herein by dissenting R.C. theologians who feel the need to publicly contradict or disparage the Vatican as soon as a new statement on moral matters appears.
Responding to the rejection of test-tube fertilization, the Rev. Bela Somfai of Regis College, one of the three Catholic colleges belonging to the Toronto School of Theology, was reported in the Toronto Star as saying: “It flies in the face of common sense, if you say people who can’t have children can’t use the mean to bring children into existence.”
The Dean of the St. Michael’s College faculty of theology, the Rev. Michael Fahey, used the usual tactics of the dissenter to belittle this important (and certainly for Catholics, authoritative) document: first, raise doubts about the competency of the authors; then dismiss it as the work of conservatives in Rome.
Thus the Toronto Star earnestly reported Rev. Fahey’s remarks that “there has been some concern among experts in North America that there was not broad enough consultation in drawing up the document,” and “not everyone is convinced of the arguments used.” In the same tone, he concluded, “I guess you can’t expect groups like the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church to be plugging for new things:. It takes a rather conservative view of things.”
Naturally, this grist for the editorial millers of secularity is grinding out their chaff and selling it for whole wheat. The Globe and Mail claimed that the document, whose authors had bent over backwards to look at the needs of infertile married couples with sensitivity and consideration, demonstrated “a callous attitude to the emotional attitude of infertility.” The editorial writer had also been fortified in his opinion by Father Everett MacNeil, chairman of the Catholic Health Association of Canada in Ottawa. The editorial cited him as saying that “the Vatican should have taken a more pastoral approach to the emotional anguish of infertility.”
The Toronto Star editorialized that the rock of St. Peter “is once again at odds with many of its flock” and that “it speaks more for itself than for its people.” It certainly did not occur to the Star writer that Peter’s rock might be defending humanity against editorial writers like himself who so calmly defend the killing of pre-born human babies, presumably as blobs of tissue. Perhaps he wasn’t even aware of the underlying contradiction with his own views because he actually praised the statement as “a thoughtful, moral document” for what it had to say on embryo experimentation, a stand based on the knowledge that embryos are not mere tissue. However, on test-tube fertilization the editorialist stuck with, as he put it, the “Rev. Bela Somfai, a Jesuit theologian (who) told The Star: “It flies in the face of common sense.” A pity.