On February 22, 1987 – that is, twenty years ago – the Catholic Church gave our society a tremendous gift, and it’s time to open it again. It was a clear trumpet blast of truth and compassion, a ray of Gospel light on problems that continue to be some of the most vexing of our time.
The gift was a document called “Donum Vitae” (Latin words that mean “The Gift of Life”). Issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the document’s fuller title is “Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation: Replies to Certain Questions of the Day.”
The document is not long; it can easily be read in a single sitting. It talks about the tiniest human beings: who they are and how they come to be. It talks about how we treat zygotes and embryos – two categories to which each of us reading this article once belonged. It emphasizes the fact that each person has both a right to life, and a right to come into life in the proper way – not as the result of a scientific project in the lab, but as a result of the union of two people lovingly united in body and soul.
Among the questions the document tackles are the following: What is the relationship between science and ethics? Must the embryo be treated as a person? Is every human being a human person? Is pre-natal diagnosis morally acceptable? Is experimentation on human embryos and fetuses morally acceptable? What is the Church’s objection to in-vitro fertilization and surrogate motherhood? May embryos be frozen? How does the Church look upon infertile couples? In what way may medical science assist the act of procreation? What is the responsibility of lawmakers toward the human embryo?
The document does not simply lay down “dos and don’ts,” and it is not a condemnation. Rather, it places these teachings in the context of our personal relationship with God, who loves us. Donum Vitae says, “It is out of goodness -- in order to indicate the path of life -- that God gives human beings His commandments and the grace to observe them: and it is likewise out of goodness -- in order to help them persevere along the same path -- that God always offers to everyone His forgiveness. Christ has compassion on our weaknesses: He is our Creator and Redeemer.”
The document reminds us that every human being, from fertilization, must be treated as a person both inside and outside the womb. “How could a human individual not be a human person?” the document asks. Even “human embryos obtained in vitro are human beings and subjects with rights.” And in regard to the Church’s absolute prohibition on procured abortion, Donum Vitae declares, “This teaching has not been changed and is unchangeable.”
In short, children are a gift, and therefore can neither be discarded nor demanded. They are persons, not products. Let’s learn anew the message of Donum Vitae!
The full text of Donum Vitae is available at www.priestsforlife.org/magisterium/donumvitae.htm