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A human embryo is a human person

Bishop Robert Francis Vasa
Bishop of Baker, Oregon

Column for January 26, 2009

BEND — “The dignity of a person must be recognized in every human being from conception to natural death.”

So begins the Sept. 8, 2008 Instruction from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the dignity of the human person. This instruction is a follow-up and updating of a previous instruction from the same Congregation titled, Donum Vitae (The gift of life). The new instruction is not long and I would certainly encourage that it be read. It can be found on the Vatican website (http://www.vatican.va/) under “Latest Updates.” There are a few areas which Dignitas Personae, as the instruction is titled in Latin, tackles which bear repeating and comment upon here.

“The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life.” (DP, 4)

Like Donum Vitae, this instruction bases its teaching on that which is scientifically verifiable. At the same time this instruction strengthens the position of its predecessor. If Donum Vitae, in order to avoid a statement of an explicitly philosophical nature, did not define the embryo as a person, it nonetheless did indicate that there is an intrinsic connection between the ontological dimension and the specific value of every human life. Although the presence of the spiritual soul cannot be observed experimentally, the conclusions of science regarding the human embryo give “a valuable indication for discerning by the use of reason a personal presence at the moment of the first appearance of a human life: how could a human individual not be a human person?” [DV,8]

“Indeed, the reality of the human being for the entire span of life, both before and after birth, does not allow us to posit either a change in nature or a gradation in moral value, since it possesses full anthropological and ethical status. The human embryo has, therefore, from the very beginning, the dignity proper to a person.” (DP, 5)

While the document does not make an explicit statement affirming the personhood of the human embryo, I think it would be fair to create our own little syllogism. We start with a premise: That which has the dignity proper to a human person is a human person. We continue with an affirmation of this document: A human embryo, from the earliest stage of its existence, has the dignity proper to a human person. If the premise is true, as I would assert that it is, however unverifiable such a premise might be from a purely scientific point of view because the soul cannot be seen or measured, then the necessary conclusion follows: Therefore, a human embryo, from the earliest stage of its existence is a human person.

This is not something new. Most Catholics believe that the human embryo from its earliest stages is a human person and yet we often speak in terms of a human being because it is possible to prove scientifically that one embryo is of human origin (a human being) and that another is not (i.e. an animal). For a Pro-Life Advocate to defend innocent human life on the grounds that the Pre-Born child is a human person opens the door to the challenge to “prove” that the Pre-Born child is a “person.” Such a challenge is not possible when we defend innocent human life on the grounds that he or she is a human “being.” This is not at all a denial of the personhood of the innocent Pre-Born child, it is rather the use of an argument which might be more compelling in our excessively scientific / rationalistic age.

There are a number of issues which flow from this reaffirmation that the “dignity of a person must be recognized in every human being from conception to natural death.” The instruction gives moral direction for us and specifically mentions a number of more recent scientific advancements for which this reaffirmation has serious ramifications.

A majority of these have to do with the scientific manipulation of human genetic material or with the scientific utilitarian utilization of human embryonic “biological material.” These are generally seen as attempts to improve the health and well being of persons or as means to assist in the achieving of a pregnancy. These include in vitro fertilization, embryo adoption, cryopreservation, embryonic stem cell research, cloning and vaccines derived from embryonic tissue.

At the same time the instruction reiterates and strengthens the Church’s constant teaching about the serious sinfulness of contraceptives, interceptives and contragestatives used to prevent pregnancy, implantation or birth.

These are all areas which touch in a very direct way the mandate, which we all have, to recognize and respect the dignity of a person in every human being from conception to natural death.

Next week, and possibly beyond that, I will spend some time discussing these issues in greater detail. In the meantime, I think the conclusion of the Congregation might spur us on to study these matters with greater diligence.

“In virtue of the Church’s doctrinal and pastoral mission, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has felt obliged to reiterate both the dignity and the fundamental and inalienable rights of every human being, including those in the initial stages of their existence, and to state explicitly the need for protection and respect which this dignity requires of everyone.

“The fulfillment of this duty implies courageous opposition to all those practices which result in grave and unjust discrimination against unborn human beings, who have the dignity of a person, created like others in the image of God. Behind every “no” in the difficult task of discerning between good and evil, there shines a great “yes” to the recognition of the dignity and inalienable value of every single and unique human being called into existence.

“The Christian faithful will commit themselves to the energetic promotion of a new culture of life by receiving the contents of this instruction with the religious assent of their spirit, knowing that God always gives the grace necessary to observe his commandments and that, in every human being, above all in the least among us, one meets Christ himself (cf. Mt 25:40).” (DP, 37) 

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