'Dignitas Personae': Equal Human Dignity

Christopher Kaczor
December 19, 2008
Reproduced with Permission

The Vatican's Instruction on bioethics, titled "Dignitas Personae" or "The Dignity of the Person," treats contemporary questions in bioethics, condemning practices widely accepted in our society including vitro fertilization and some forms of stem cell research. Paradoxically, the Instruction is based on a principle that also is widely accepted in our society, the principle of equal human dignity.

According to Dignitas Personae, all human beings - regardless of race, religion, economic status, or any other condition - enjoy equal basic dignity and should be accorded basic human rights. In the words of the instruction, "every human being must be fully respected. The introduction of discrimination with regard to human dignity based on biological, psychological, or educational development, or based on health-related criteria, must be excluded." Both faith and reason support this perspective.

The Instruction appeals first to a theological foundation for equal human dignity. The Vatican as well as many other persons of faith hold that human beings are endowed by God with an inherent dignity in virtue of being created by God, redeemed by God, and destined for a relationship with God. The words and deeds of Jesus imply a radically inclusively love for all human beings, especially those who are unwanted or socially excluded.

Equal human dignity is a widely acknowledged principle, but one often violated in practice. Dignitas Personae calls us to consistency.

The second foundation noted by the Instruction for equal human dignity comes from secular reason. The ancient Stoics, Immanuel Kant, and the American political tradition endorse the principle of basic human dignity. The Declaration of Independence declares, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Dignitas Personae defends this view, indeed a view even more inclusive than the Framers of the Declaration originally intended. Human dignity is not limited to white, male, adult, landowners, but extends unconditionally to all human beings unconditionally. As stated in the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights, "recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world."

The ascription of basic rights on account of properties that are unequally shared by persons - such as conscious reasoning, sentience or moral achievement - cannot secure equal human rights for all persons. To be consistent, we must either concede that all human beings have equal basic rights or come to the conclusion that there is no basis in reality for recognizing equal rights.

If the principle of equal human dignity is accepted, then it becomes easier to see why the Vatican reaches negative conclusions about the practice of in vitro fertilization (IVF), cloning and some forms of stem cell research. The current practice of IVF involves creating numerous "surplus" human embryos that never are put in utero but rather end up being killed in stem cell research, frozen indefinitely, or allowed to die.

On December 4, The New York Times ran a story entitled, "Parents Torn Over Extra Frozen Embryos from Fertility Procedures." A survey cited by the article indicates discontent, mixed feelings and conflict between spouses about what to do with frozen, "spare" embryos. Some parents want to donate their embryos for research purposes, but other parents compared the freezer storing the embryos to an "orphanage." Some parents simply stop paying to freeze the embryos.

"They would rather have you pull the trigger on the embryos," said Dr. Mark V Sauer, director of the Center for Women's Reproductive Care at Columbia University Medical Center. "It's like, 'I don't want another baby, but I don't have it in me; I have too much guilt to tell you what to do, to have them discarded." Practices such as killing, abandoning or freezing human embryos violate the principle of equal human dignity.

Cloning offends human dignity as well. Reproductive cloning seeks to produce a human baby substantially identical genetically with the clone's donor. We have no knowledge of the long term effects of this process upon the human clone, and so thereby risk endangering a human subject without informed consent. Reproductive cloning also treats a human being as a product to be manufactured by technicians, rather than as a person to be conceived by parents.

Therapeutic cloning seeks to produce a human embryo with the intention of experimenting upon and eventually killing that embryo. If human beings are endowed with equal basic dignity, then human beings in the first stages of their development should not be used simply as a means to (possibly) benefit others.

This same difficulty arises with lethal embryonic stem cell research performed upon "spare" IFV human embryos. The Instruction notes that embryonic stem cell research that does not involve killing human beings in the embryonic stage of development is not only morally acceptable, but should be pursed actively. But scientific research that makes use of human beings as if they were things to be experimented upon and even killed for the possible benefit of others violates the principle of basic human dignity.

Equal human dignity is a widely acknowledged principle, but one often violated in practice. Dignitas Personae calls us to consistency.