THE PONTIFICAL COUNCIL FOR THE FAMILY
IN THE SERVICE OF LIFE
A SUMMIT MEETING OF EXPERTS ON HUMAN LIFE
Rome, April 20-22, 1991
Libreria EDITRICE Vaticana
00120 VATICAN CITY STATE
I. The scientific and technical aspect
II. The doctrinal aspect
III. The cultural aspect
IV. The legislative aspect
V. The political and institutional aspect
We have been called together by the Pontifical Council for the Family,
founded on May 9th, 1981 by the Holy Father John Paul II who had
wished to announce it himself on May 13th, the day of the attempt on his life.
Among the principal tasks entrusted to it by the Apostolic Constitution
Pastor Bonus, the Council "sustains and co-ordinates initiatives for the protection
of human life from its conception" (cf. Article 141, 3).
Our meeting took place after the Extraordinary Consistory of Cardinals (April
4-6, 1991), convened by the Holy Father John Paul II, the strenuous defender of
human dignity and life, above all of the weakest ones. The theme of the
Consistory was: "The problem of threats to human life".
Our three days' intensive work concentrated on procured abortion, a
terrifying phenomenon, a real massacre every year wiping out more than forty
million human beings, (1) taking into account only legalized abortions. In fact, this
phenomenon is much more widespread and difficult to quantify.
The purpose of our work is more vigorous support for the family, "the
sanctuary of life" (Centesimus Annus, n. 39). Today the rights of
infants, especially the unborn, and the rights of the family are at stake.
Faithful to the Magisterium of the Church, in our different fields of work as
scientists, biologists, physicians, philosophers, moralists, jurists,
politicians and theologians, convinced of the intimate connection between the
truth of Revelation and science, we have reflected on the following aspects of
I. scientific and technical
V. political and institutional.
In the midst of such a difficult and complex question, we have tried to
present certain issues, in our opinion the most burning ones, which we wish to
put forward in a fraternal way, in a spirit of sharing, as an instrument for
work, dialogue and research in the context of the pastoral care of the gift of
life. Therefore we offer these considerations to those who are working, like
ourselves, in a variety of fields, at the service of God, man and society. We
wish to be faithful to the truth, which has been battered about so many times.
In a world overwhelmed by a kind of "culture of death", as John Paul II
describes it in the encyclical Centesimus Annus, n. 39, the evil of
abortion is like an avalanche sweeping away even those who are not fully aware
of it. Nevertheless, today there are many people who with faith and courage give
witness in serving the culture of life. The Pope calls us to this "Paressia"
(2) in the New Evangelization (cf. Redemptoris Missio, n. 45), to
proclaim the Gospel of life.
During our work, documents and studies were collected, which we presented or
received according to our respective specializations, and which obviously we
cannot present now in this short statement. Nevertheless, we intend to publish
this material soon in a separate volume, dedicated to the same theme on which we
Encouraged by the Lord of life, we present concerns, information and
prospects, which we place in the hands of those who should strive to see that we
may have life and life in abundance (cf. John 10: 10). These are your
hands, professors, physicians, researchers in laboratories, teachers in
universities, men and women who work in the law, politicians and those
responsible for public affairs and the movements for life.
As we plan to take this type of reflection further, we will be pleased to
receive any valid contributions in order to study these important and urgent
themes in greater depth.
Above all, we are inspired by being able to use our work and our consciences
for the good of humanity, in passing on these reflections, to those who share
our Christian vision of man and to those who are deeply concerned about the
defense of human life in this world.
1. THE SCIENTIFIC AND TECHNICAL ASPECT
At the level of medical science in recent years, two facts stand out in
particular, both connected with the mentality and the practice of abortion.
The first fact is based on the increasingly closer connection which has
developed between contraception and abortion. Today, as well as devices (such as
the IUD), chemical compounds are under experimentation and in use which are at
the same time contraceptive and abortifacient, or which have been manufactured
and put into research as abortifacients pure and simple.
Until now, the connection between contraception and abortion has been mainly
psychological and sociological, whereas today the connection has become
biological and functional in nature. At times women and, in the case of some
compounds, even doctors are unaware of this. The same lack of adequate knowledge
can often be verified in the case of intrauterine devices. The support given to
spreading abroad these substances and devices neither takes account of moral
values nor of frequently damaging effects on the health of women.
As well as this disinformation, which is at times deliberate, another reality
must be denounced today. Especially in the practice of artificial procreation,
there is an attempt to justify the loss of embryos by arguing that spontaneous
abortions also happen naturally. In this regard, it is necessary to state
clearly, before the consciences of researchers, doctors and women, that these
two phenomena have a different and opposite moral qualification (cf. Instruction
of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on Respect for Human Life in
Its Origin and the Dignity of Procreation, Donum Vitae, 1987,
Part II, premise).
The second fact is the denial, on the part of some sectors of the scientific
and cultural world, of the full value of the human being from the first moment
of fertilization. To further this end, subjective concepts and purely external
data are introduced. Therefore, it is necessary to reaffirm the full
anthropological value of the human individual from the moment of fertilization
(cf. Donum Vitae, Part 1, n. 1).
The first moments of the beginning of human life are fundamental in
determining the development which follows. It is not possible to conceive of the
physiognomy and the characterization of individual human persons without going
back to the first events of their life from the point of fertilization. In fact,
what we are today is really the continuation and the development of what we were
from the moment of fertilization. We should remember that at the moment of the
union of the male and female gametes, all the characteristics of the new human
being, including gender, are defined.
Today doctors should feel further committed to carry out an honest educative
role among patients and the public concerning the damaging effects of
contraceptives and abortifacients and how they work. To hide the truth is indeed
an abuse and a grave omission which prevents women from exercising
responsibility. It is very important to emphasize how, over the years, there has
been, just as there is now, a culpable silence about the physical and
psychological risks of abortion, both surgical abortion or the recently
introduced chemical method. This silence is in stark contrast with the
obligation for informed consent which must accompany any medical procedure.
Scientists and researchers, moreover, should be encouraged to draw up new
preventive and therapeutic strategies and to make use of all available knowledge
to overcome the causes of sterility, with methods which are compatible with
respect for life and the dignity of procreation, according to the guidelines of
Donum Vitae (cf. Part II n. 8 and Conclusion).
II. THE DOCTRINAL ASPECT
The Church has the duty, given by her Lord, to support and enlighten people
of good-will in defense of life, especially the weakest and most defenseless
life (cf. Familiaris Consortio, n. 30; Charter of the Rights of the
Family, Article 4).
All human values find their fullness in the Good News, therefore, in a
special way, Christians are aware of the duty to promote and witness to the
inviolability of fundamental human rights, of which the first is the right to
life (cf. Humanae Vitae, n. 14; Familiaris Consortio, n. 30;
Charter of the Rights of the Family, Article 4).
Life must be protected by the upright conscience of individuals, by the care
of doctors as the servants of life and health, and by the legal systems of
States, which in their constitutions set out to guarantee the rights of the
The truth concerning the human person and his or her dignity is often
obscured in our day. Different factors are at work: philosophical subjectivism,
moral utilitarianism and legal positivism, which in many countries attempt to
justify laws which concede to the strongest the possibility of deciding about
the life of the weakest.
This phenomenon would not have been possible without the cooperation, or at
least the failure to act, of some scientists, jurists, moralists and even
theologians. In the name of pluralism, of the numerical majority and of respect
for opinions, the dignity of the person is in fact trampled under foot.
However, we should also indicate a comforting reality. Today an awareness of
the eminent value of the life of the human person - created in the image and
likeness of God, redeemed by the Word made flesh and sanctified by the Holy
Spirit - promotes among Christians many initiatives of service, giving and
solidarity towards the weakest, those rejected, especially by the affluent
society, as unworthy to live. The words of Christ can been applied to the
unborn, the most needy and defenseless of human beings: "Inasmuch as you have
done this to the least of my brethren you have done it to Me" (Matthew
III. THE CULTURAL ASPECT
In society today, a vision of life prevails permeated with secularism, in
which the sense of God, and hence a sense of sin, is lacking. Therefore the
meaning of life itself is no longer grasped. In such an environment, the
so-called "anti-life" mentality has been able to develop, that is a mentality
set against human life. The ultimate reason for this mentality is "the absence
in people's hearts of God, whose love alone is stronger than all the world's
fears and can conquer them". (Familiaris Consortio, n. 30).
The serious loss of hope which characterizes today's widespread "culture of
death", should arouse deep disquiet in consciences, which, however, seem dulled
to the point of suffocating in each soul that inborn instinct to love and serve
human life. It is evident that forces, structures and programs exist --
supported by centers of ideological, political and economic power -- which feed
a culture of death. But no one wants to be considered a member of this culture.
The commitment required to oppose this dramatic human condition must be
expressed in a broad and organic strategy of education. To further this end, it
is useful to promote a courageous effort to discern what elements still survive
in consciences in favor of the human person, expressed in the form of deep
concerns. This educative strategy could lead to an authentic civilization of
love, where the human person will be respected in his psycho-physical and
spiritual unity, in truth, through a renewed commitment to the New
Evangelization and through working for a culture of life, to which we are called
by the Holy Father (cf. Christifideles Laici, n. 38; Centesimus Annus,
Guided by the word of God and listening to the authentic aspirations of the
heart, the Church, as defender of the human person and "expert in humanity",
will know how to find ways to speak to reason and conscience. Each person is
aware that the life of every human being is certainly a biological reality, but
it is not reduced to that. It is of much greater value.
A deep yearning for a better "quality of life" is present in our society.
Often this desire does not only concern peripheral aspects of health or
well-being, but genuine states of physical or psychological difficulty. Now, if
the parameters of the value of human life remain at the level of physical
efficiency or consumerist criteria, one could easily draw conclusions concerning
the uselessness of some human lives, or at least of those who have reached a
completely irreversible situation. But the central criterion for the value of
life is of the spiritual, moral and religious order, that is of the very dignity
of the person.
In spite of the fact that the value of human life and its inviolability may
be evident through right reason and conscience, unfortunately in our day it is
the object of many attacks, above all at the beginning and at the end of life
itself or in situations of weakness and suffering. We understand the difficulty
in which people who suffer in these situations find themselves and the
temptation which perhaps they undergo. But one cannot forget that life belongs
to God alone and that the mystery of suffering confronts us with the mystery of
the person, which in turn reflects the very mystery of God.
On the other hand, while the desire for motherhood or fatherhood in itself
arouses a spontaneous solidarity, it should not open the door to research for
the "child at any cost". With the practices of artificial procreation and
genetic manipulation or alteration, with the "waste" and the destruction of
embryos or experiments on them, the unborn child is reduced to a "product" of
technology, and his or her life and personal dignity are harmed. Thus ever wider
openings are made for man's domination over man and for his desire to become his
own "creator" (cf. Donum Vitae, Part 1, n. 5, Part 11, premise).
One outstanding aspect of the "quality of life" concerns the instrumentalized
and depersonalized way of understanding sexuality and corporality. Some of the
effects of an illusory sexual "freedom" are the break up of the family, adultery
and divorce, the spread of abortion, contraception and sterilization.
Pornography, in is various forms, is another powerful factor spreading morally
irresponsible behavior and also various forms of sexual perversion.
The contraceptive mentality causes the will to become detached from its
tendency towards the good and therefore towards true love. Thus sexuality and
corporality become trivialized; their links with transcendence and the mystery
at the origin of human life are overlooked or rejected. In consequence, human
values such as chastity, fidelity, fertility, the gift of self, come to be
despised and are not rightly understood. The unborn child itself comes to be
thought of in an instrumental way as only the "inconvenient and unwanted fruit
of sexual activity". The unborn is not welcomed in his truth, dignity and value
as a human person destined to love and be loved. All this opens the way
to the tragedy of abortion.
It is certainly no accident that the forces which promote abortion are the
same as those spreading contraception. In fact, the connection between the two
phenomena, at first above all psychological and sociological, is always effected
and made concrete through so-called contraceptives that also have an
This mentality also strikes at a woman's dignity, often entailing her being
used as an instrument, conditioning her to live in situations which are not
fully in accord with her will and which contradict her deep yearning for
motherhood (cf. Mulieris Dignitatem, n. 18).
To overcome the culture of death a change of mentality is necessary and
urgent. We need to rediscover the deep meaning and value of each human being and
to teach respect for his or her right to life, from conception until natural
death -- that is, to find once more the significance of each human person.
Furthermore, there is an urgent need to put forward a healthy conception of
sexuality, of self-respect as a person (so as also to teach respect for others),
of chastity before marriage and conjugal fidelity, as well as educating the
conscience in the deeper value of fertility. Teaching the methods for the
natural regulation of fertility should be included in this context.
Some of the fields in which such educative work is most urgently needed are:
first of all the family, because of its primary task of education; the school in
collaboration with the family; Christian communities, above all the parish and
youth associations; areas of social work and health care; the mass media.
The irreplaceable contribution of women should be recognized and emphasized
much more in education for life and in the formation of a culture of acceptance
and love, whether in civil society or in the Church herself (cf. Familiaris
Consortio, n. 23).
IV. THE LEGISLATIVE ASPECT
The first task of the legislator is to strive to make the legal system
protect human life from the moment of fertilization The law negates
itself, or becomes only a force imposed on those who are weaker by whoever has
power, if it does not protect human dignity, of which the right to life is the
first and most elementary expression.
It should be stated clearly that the unborn "must be respected and treated as
a human person" (4) and that his or her rights constitute the
real reason for the obligation of protection which is incumbent on States.
Because the purpose of all law is the promotion of human dignity ("hominum causa
omne jus constitutum est"), the iniquity of pro-abortion laws is not only
derived from their consequences,
(5) but also from the destruction of the very concept of law.
Therefore it is necessary to denounce vigorously and decisively the injustice of
It should also be emphasized that in some juridical interpretations the
concept of "person" has come to be used in a discriminatory way: some are
recognized as persons, others however are not considered as such and so the way
is opened for their legal elimination.
Nevertheless, the concept of "person" should serve to distinguish each human
being from any other created entity. In other words, each man or woman is a
person: the word indicates his or her transcendence with respect to the rest of
In some forms of legislation the obligation on the part of the State to
protect embryos is affirmed, but this is not enough. In fact such an obligation
could even be justified only for reason of collective interest (for example, to
increase the population), whereas the reason for the obligation of protection is
based on the value and rights of each human being. Moreover, any legislation
consistent with these principles must put this protection into practice.
Therefore the duty of legislators to serve life is essential and central. It
is necessary not only to avoid the death of so many innocent ones, but also to
prevent democracy from being turned into totalitarianism (6)
and liberty into egotistical license. The foundation of democracy is the
affirmation of the equality of every man and woman, exclusively by virtue of his
or her humanity, not on account of what he or she possesses or is capable of
doing. When States take to themselves the right to distinguish between human
lives which may have value and human lives which may not have value, we have
started to travel along the totalitarian road. If it is licit to kill innocent
ones in the name of freedom, in that case freedom has changed its meaning and
become an expression of selfishness, not a means of solidarity and love.
Finally, the many pacifist movements, which exist also in a Catholic context,
ought to be reminded that pro-abortion laws do not contribute to true peace.
Therefore, these movements, especially the Catholic ones, should be called again
to the duty to commit themselves also to defend life at its origins.
The question of laws which fully respect the right to life must be addressed
to all legislators as such, whatever their religion or political position may
be. It must be reaffirmed that the principles written into international
declarations and the constitutions of modern States point out respect for human
dignity and human rights as one of the essential duties of States. Does not
denying the significance of the human being in the womb perhaps represent the
betrayal of these principles and the acceptance of a criterion of discrimination
Christian legislators in particular have a very serious duty with regard to
life, whether in States which already have pro-abortion laws, or in those which
do not have them. In the case of the latter, we speak of preventing any damage
to the principle of respect for life and of promoting norms to remove the
causes, which in practice could lead to abortion. But also in States where
permissive laws have already been approved, Christian legislators must consider
the changing of these laws as an essential and central duty in their mission.
Legislators cannot be indifferent to their electors' discernment regarding their
consistent attitude to these issues.
Certainly the real difficulties are well-known when it comes to obtaining
majorities fully respectful of the right to life in Parliaments. Nevertheless,
this is no excuse for not decisively aiming at overturning pro-abortion laws,
moving towards full respect for the right to life from conception. To this end,
believers in God the Creator and Christ the Redeemer must realize that their
participation in the exercise of power is incompatible with a lack of commitment
to the tenacious and daily effort to change laws and administrative practices.
V. THE POLITICAL AND INSTITUTIONAL ASPECT
True democracy is founded on a conception of human dignity based on the
fundamental right to life -- from conception until natural death -- a right for
all and to be recognized by all. Therefore the promotion and defense of life is
the pre-requisite for the struggle for the fundamental liberties which are the
basis of democracy.
Today, after the recent fall of a totalitarian system (cf. Centesimus
Annus, n. 22ss), there is the threat
of a new, subtle totalitarianism, based on the false judgement according to
which every opinion has equal validity; in consequence there is the danger that
the strongest may prevail. A democratic State worthy of the name cannot renounce
the protection of every human life.
During the last twenty-five years -- after the approval of the abortion law
by the English parliament (1967) -- strong movements in support of abortion have
developed. Today these movements have become a powerful politico-economic
structure which demands or defends abortion as a legal possibility, as a woman's
right and even as an obligation which the State could impose.
At the international level, abortion movements receive huge sums of money
(7). The funds for promoting abortion as a method of birth control are
raised by some international institutions, governments of economically developed
countries and by private foundations and companies. Moreover, some of the
profits of the contraceptive industry and the activities of clinics are often
fed back into further promotion of abortion. However, some government policies
are well-known which deny funding to programs which support abortion in other
Even in the field of education, some organizations exercise influence over
children and young people, aimed at changing the mentality of new generations,
destroying family values. In this way the anti-life mentality becomes ever
stronger and more widespread (cf.
Familiaris Consortio, n. 30). These organizations also provide increasingly for the training
of doctors in developing countries, so that they will be disposed to favor
abortion in these nations.
In the struggle for the defense of life we must constantly analyze the
economic and political components which make up the anti-life structures, so as
to define the crucial points on which to concentrate our activity.
It is important also to be aware of family social policy, because in many
countries public structures have operated not only in terms of favoring
abortion, but also in creating obstacles to procreation. There are for example
so-called housing policies which impede the growth of the family. There is a
lack of real social security, of distributive justice, furthermore there are
taxation policies and work legislation which impose serious difficulties on the
family. All this naturally contributes to a rejection of life.
These are some aspects of our reflections, which, as was stated at the
beginning, we want to share with all who will receive this document.
It is a particular pleasure for us to present the results of our work at the
time when we celebrate the ten years which have passed since the founding of the
Pontifical Council for the Family, created by the Holy Father, and when we also
are about to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Apostolic Exhortation
This document has been received by the Pontifical Council for the Family as a
working instrument and is published to promote the pastoral care of the family
as the "sanctuary of life".
Alfonso Cardinal Lopez TRUJILLO
Pontifical Council for the Family
[Return to top of page]
1 Cf. The address of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the
Consistory of Cardinals on "Threats to Life" (April 4-7, 1991) and
also Francesco Introna e Paolo Moreni, 'L'aborto nel mondo: legislazione
statistiche e tipologia", in Rivista Italiana di Medicina Legale, n.
9, 1987, pp. 825-838.
2 A Greek term which means an attitude of "candour and
3 In this future publication, various articles will be
included on modern techniques of abortion such as the use of RU 486, death for
the unborn and full of dangers for the lives of women, likewise the subcutaneous
implant and other products, presented as contraceptives but which have an
abortive effect. As well as the moral evil involved, these methods also present
both physical and psychological risks for the mother. All this must be
emphasized because, with obscure and ambiguous language, the propaganda tends to
minimize the gravity of this crime and its inhuman nature.
4 We reproduce the central ideas in the Instruction Donum
(1, 1), quoted by Cardinal Ratzinger at the Consistory of Cardinals, April 4-6,
1991: "... modern genetics shows that 'from the time that the ovum is
fertilized, a new life is begun which is neither that of the father nor the
mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth'. Science
has shown 'that from the first instant, the program is fixed as to what this
living being will be; a man, this individual-man with his characteristic aspects
already well determined. Right from fertilization is begun the adventure of a
human life, and each of its great capacities require time to develop, and to be
in a position to act'. The recent discoveries of human biology recognize that
'In the zygote resulting from fertilization the biological identity of the new
human individual is already constituted'. Certainly no experimental datum can be
in itself sufficient to bring us to the recognition of a spiritual soul;
nevertheless, the conclusions of science regarding the human embryo provide 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? Regarding this question, if the Magisterium has not
expressed itself in a binding way by a philosophical affirmation, it has still
taught constantly that from the first moment of its existence, as the product of
human generation, the embryo must be guaranteed the unconditional respect which
is morally due to a human being in his spiritual and bodily totality. 'The human
being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of
Note: At the time our declaration was being sent to be published, the Holy
Father visited Poland, where the defense of life had an important place in his
catechesis. In this context, using these words, he said: "First the attitude to
the newly conceived child must change. He is never an intruder or an aggressor,
even if one assumes that he has arrived unexpectedly. He is a human person,
(jest ludzka osoba), and therefore has the right to receive from his parents the
unstinting gift of themselves, even if that would require
particular sacrifice on their part". Homily at the Mass for the faithful of
Kielce, n. 7.
5 One could enumerate problems such as the following: the
increase in the number of abortions, the corruption of consciences, the
degradation of the medical profession, the authoritarian punishment of
6 Cf. MICHEL SCHOOYANS, L'avortement enjeux politiques,
Editions du Preambule, le Quebec, 1990, pp. 157ss.
7 At the international level, the pro-abortion movement is
based above all on the activity of the International Planned Parenthood
Federation (IPPF) and on other organizations which operate within the
perspective of neo-malthusian demographic control, achieved even through the
promotion of abortion. This contradicts Recommendation 18 of the
Report of the International Conference on Population, 1984 (United
Nations) which urges governments: "To take appropriate steps to help women avoid
abortion, which in no case should be promoted as a method of family planning..."
However, even organizations in the United Nations' ambit are involved in
research on the abortion pill RU 486. The promoters of abortion also work
through various groups: medical and legal professional associations, social
welfare bodies, political lobbies at the national and international level and
often through centers of power and the mass media.
Teachings of the Magisterium on Life