About Bioethical Challenges Facing Catholics


“At the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man” (Gen 9,5)

1. The essence of threats for human life in the pre-natal phase

 Human life is a fundamental value and unalienable good. It requires unconditional protection, that is regardless of the period and quality of human life. Undermining this imperative leads to gradual weakening of protection of the unborn children, the incurably ill or elderly. It also distorts reality, relativizing the value of life and making it dependent on whether the birth has already occurred or whether the person has the ability to decide about himself or herself. Nevertheless life either is there or it is not – its value does not have to be justified but it needs to be explained and one has to arouse sensitivity to this value, both in oneself and in the others.

Today radical change of the parenthood perception is underway and there is a lack of sensitivity to the exceptional individuality and value of every single human being. Such attitude results from excessive emphasizing the rights of an individual in the spheres traditionally reserved for universally valid laws conforming to the nature and dignity of a human being. In practice these rights take the form of domination of the stronger over the weaker, the adult over the unborn, the healthy over the sick.

Relativism consists in opening to debate fundamental terms: dignity, life, health and the humanity itself. And yet these terms in our civilization – with roots in Greek, Roman and Christian culture – have universal meaning. Thus the success of relativism lies in the fact that we are required to justify their meaning and finally even defend the binding power of fundamental moral rules. However, one should remember that the legitimacy of these terms is comprehensible for every person of good will, listening to the voice of their conscience –and as such they do not require elaborating and constant justification.

In the contemporary catalogue of human rights for some time there has appeared the concept of so called reproductive rights enjoyed by everybody. They mean recognizing as something fundamental the right of every couple and person to access contraceptives, medicaments inducing early pregnancy termination and to abortion in order to freely decide about the number, time intervals and the moment of children being born, as well as the right to information about these means. Formulated in a similar spirit, there are opinions which draw attention to the suffering of infertile couples or to numerous cases of personal tragedies of women who become mothers of sick or disabled children and do not receive support from their relatives and the state. An argument is made that “forcing” these women to give birth to the child is demanding heroism from them and nobody has the right to do so – additionally this would be inhumane and devoid of sensitivity. From this follows the justification of the supposed right to have a child conceived through artificial methods or – conversely – to terminate pregnancy in the case of serious illness, development risk or genetic defect of the child conceived but not yet born.

In the ethical and legal debate the problem comes down to whether the conceived baby should be treated in subject categories: as every other human being who has their own rights or subject-like, that is only as some valuable thing which should be cared for only within certain boundaries. If we take the latter approach then in the case of a choice between the interests of mother (eg. her physical or mental health) and continuing the pregnancy – always the need of the woman will prevail. If, however, we treat the conceived baby as a subject – then it will not be possible to negate his or her interests in such situations.

There also appears the tendency to relativize the value of life.  An inept person or one with intellectual or physical disability or simply with low quality of life arouses emotions and pity. They are often expressed in the belief that it would be better for this person not to be born. It is said that until this child’s parents live, he or she will be under appropriate care. But after their death the same child will experience neglect and seclusion. Sometimes even believers cannot realize that such people are in fact a particular gift – for in them life as such is revealed and because of it they should be accepted and respected and not just because of professional or social achievements that they will enjoy. At the same time the experience of close relatives of such people shows that they receive from them selfless love, huge empathy and they have particularly deep bond with them. Such persons are for us witnesses of the value of human existence and the presence of Christ in the other human being. Indifference to their situation, leaving them without adequate care and support burden, in part, the conscience of each of us.

From the presented moral confusion results a commonly accepted belief about the permissible means to solve the situation of unwanted pregnancy or a conceived child with disability, which is: alleged right to abortion (called the right to termination of pregnancy) or the right to access cheap contraceptives and anti-implantation/contragestative medicaments (post-coital contraception, emergency contraception). In turn, for childless couples it is permissible, as an alternative to further attempts to have a baby, the procedure commonly known as in vitro. This procedure, once established for animal reproduction, was introduced to medicine, even though it is not a therapeutic procedure. Its aim is to create a human being in the laboratory and to transfer it mechanically to the mother’s organism. In this procedure multiple embryos are created, which then undergo selection. Some of them are remorselessly left to be destroyed or frozen. In order to increase the chance of the surgery, several embryos are transferred to the mother’s womb. After some time their development is examined and usually only one is left, the most promising one. The others are aborted in order to reduce the risk of multiple pregnancy. Taking into account the great popularity of this method of dealing with infertility in some circles it is surprising that the success rate of the in vitro method, counted as the number of births to the number of fertilization attempts is only a few per cent.

In the ethical evaluation of the in vitro method one should not overlook health hazards. Genetic information determining the developmental possibilities of a human being is defined already at conception. It decides about individual features of a person, as well as the belonging to the human species. First days of embryonic life of a human involve processes of the newly appearing organism adapting to the needs of further existence. Artificial insemination methods disturb this process  – due to different environmental conditions in which gametes are joined in the laboratory glass, compared to the natural conditions of mother’s organism.

Hormones administered to woman in order to obtain several egg cells simultaneously (for their in vitro fertilization) influence both the genetic makeup of these cells and the health of the woman. Sometimes a so called ovary hyperstimulation syndrome occurs, with possible thrombosis, swelling, depression syndrome, and even life threatening state.

The lack of natural biological barrier which prevents joining immature or genetically damaged cells additionally facilitates further disorders in the child. This frequently involves the necessity of repair processes in the form of various expensive therapies, whose cost is borne by the whole society, not by the centres responsible for the results of fertilization procedures. What can be observed in the case of these procedures is an increased number of spontaneous miscarriages and genetic changes, as well as more frequent births of children with development defects.

These threats require the usage of pre-implantation diagnostics, consisting in detecting genetic changes of the embryo created in vitro. As a consequence a selection of human beings in the embryo stage is made: noticed genetic changes are the basis of a decision to destroy the life of the child – as unwanted exactly because of genetic disorders. Doctors with upright conscience, who do not want to participate in this procedure, are publicly stigmatized or unjustly punished. Frequently children are rejected at this stage of development because they are of sex not wanted by their parents.  So the in vitro method is another way of experimenting on man. This is man-manufacturing, being in fact a form of appropriating human life.

Surplus embryos are frozen in order to be preserved and possibly used in further attempts at pregnancy if earlier attempts prove ineffective. Even this process itself affronts  human dignity. As a matter of fact most frozen and unfrozen embryos die in this process or became unable to develop further. Each one becomes a helpless member of the human family, whose dignity and rights were ruthlessly trodden.


2. The truth about human sexuality and responsibility for a child


Human sexuality defines human identity and shapes all the person’s life. It does not only concern the capability of biological procreation, but also the character of the relationship between woman and man. But in order for the human sexuality, directed by love and responsibility, to bear full fruit, it should be adapted to its natural goal. And this goal is fertility and openness to life. The in vitro technique does contrast with this context of human procreation, since there this unity and unification of the spouses are torn: the sperm cells are obtained from the father in the act of masturbation, the mother’s organism is manipulated many times and the child becomes a product.

Having in mind the proper understanding of the nature of relationship between spouses, it should be stated, in accordance with the Vatican II concept, that marriage and marital love are out of their nature directed at the good of the spouses and at conceiving, delivering and raising children. Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute very substantially to the welfare of their parents. Hence, while not making the other purposes of matrimony of less account, the true practice of conjugal love, and the whole meaning of the family life which results from it, have this aim: that the couple be ready with stout hearts to cooperate with the love of the Creator and the Saviour, who through them will enlarge and enrich His own family day by day. Christian spouses in their conduct should be aware that they cannot proceed arbitrarily, but must always be governed according to a conscience dutifully conformed to the divine law itself.  Deciding to have a greater number of children and refining in themselves the spirit of sacrifice, they develop generous human and Christian sense of responsibility and also strengthen their magnanimity (Gaudium et spes 50).

This exposition of God’s concept of human sexuality was overshadowed, also among the people of the Church, by ever-increasing blatant contraceptive mentality. Through its influence even Catholics lose their willingness to be the parents of more children, they seal themselves against life – through immoral contraceptive or contra-gestative means – or simply surrender to the “temptation of having only one child.” In this way they not only contribute to the increasing demographic crisis, but also limit their spiritual and moral development, forget about the future of their own family and risk spending their old age in loneliness.

Opposition to the contraceptive mentality, which distorts the truth about human sexuality, requires above all deep personal conversion. It involves rejecting the dominating in contemporary culture way of thinking about the child as a threat and unnecessary burden, and starting to think about the child as an opportunity and priceless gift. Opening oneself to life may, in fact, involve experiencing the Cross, personal and financial sacrifices – however, without this it is difficult to speak about truly Christian conduct.

Not only contraception, but also demanding the right to abortion are an expression of the same mentality which incites in a man the feeling that he or she can freely manipulate their own body as if it did not participate in the dignity of their person and decide about the results of one’s fertility in a way different than cooperating with the natural order of woman’s menstrual cycle and taking care of temporary continence. Contraception and abortion are two extremes of the same attitude, expressed shortly in the statement: “I do not want to have a baby.” Another expression of the same attitude is choosing the in vitro method as a way of conception. This time the demand is “I want to have a baby” – even at the price of it being called to life by strange people in the laboratory conditions. Let us notice the very construction of the quoted statements: they express a wrongly understood sense of parenthood – as a law to decide about their child, as a law to treat her or him as an object of peculiar possession.

Particularly dangerous is formulating a right to abortion because of a developmental defect of the child. Such child has an unconditional right to be born, to love and be loved. Demanding the right to abortion is an expression of highly despicable behaviour, even if its source should be the anxiety or a sense of badly understood responsibility for the child, expressed in the words, “I cannot cope with this burden.”

In both situations – in the distress of infertility, in the anxiety connected with pregnancy – the Church is on the side of the human person. She does not condemn anybody, she tries to suggest good solutions, including real treatment of the causes of infertility and to arouse in the consciences the awareness of human life dignity in every phase of its development. The Church understands yearnings and anxieties, but also reminds that good can never be achieved through evil means and that there are moral rules whose binding character can never be suspended.


3. “A man of good will” facing the civilization of death and choosing the culture of life.


The right to life is the fundamental human right, on which all the other human rights are based. It is the base for all other goods which are the lot of a man. In this matter the spectrum of approaches is vastly different, which means that the first task of a Christian is to form one’s conscience in accordance with the teaching of the Church and to acquire correct and solid knowledge about the first stages of human life. One must not draw one’s knowledge from simplified media information. Honesty and prudence – indispensable for answering the most fundamental questions – are built on moral sensitivity and knowledge. This sensitivity is gained through deepening the religious life in the communion with God. Conversely, knowledge does not have a purely religious character, but in its starting point is based on scientific findings. Therefore in the Doctrine of Faith Congregation’s declaration Quaestio de abortu procurato and later in the encyclical Evangelium vitae it was reminded: “from the time that the ovum is fertilized, a 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. It would never be made human if it were not human already. To this perpetual evidence (…) modern genetic science brings valuable confirmation. It has demonstrated that from the first instant the living creature has an established structure, that is genetic information [M1] (…) Right from fertilization the adventure of a human life begins, and each of its capacities requires time-a rather lengthy time-to find its place and to be in a position to act” (Quaestio 12–13; cf. also EV 60).

Opinions of extreme subjective character are in stark contradiction to the above-mentioned statements. They suggest that human life only begins at some stage of its development. However, even biological sciences make it possible to find out that in the human development there are no abrupt and qualitative changes. The whole development occurs in a continuous manner. It is also not possible to find any period more important than the other ones. Each moment in this development assumes the previous one, while the current one is an indispensable condition for the next. Yet, the only event of its kind is precisely the conception of a human being. All the following moments of his or her life are the consequence of this first, the most important one. Last, all doubts as to the existence of a human being should be resolved in favour of life and one should adamantly oppose actions endangering the human being. John Paul II formulates this norm unambiguously: “the mere probability that a human person is involved would suffice to justify an absolutely clear prohibition of any intervention aimed at killing a human embryo.” (EV 60).

For a believer the fundamental directive comes from the unconditional God’s precept expressed in the Fifth Commandment: “thou shall not kill” (Ex 20:13), which finds its justification in the truth that “human life from its inception reveals the act of God the Creator” (Mater et Magistra encyclical, 194) and belongs solely to God as well as in the most important commandment of the love of God and one’s neighbour (cf. Matt 22:36-40). So whoever destroys human life, stands against God and his laws. This is the ground for God’s admonition directed at the very beginning of the Bible to persons destroying human life: “at the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man” (Gen 9:5). Also John Paul II through his apostolic power emphasized that “direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being” (EV 62). The Pope added then: “This evaluation of the morality of abortion is to be applied also to the recent forms of intervention on human embryos which, although carried out for purposes legitimate in themselves, inevitably involve the killing of those embryos” (EV 63). The Holy Father meant here: experiments on embryos, their use as “biological material”, as providers of organs or tissue for transplants in the treatment of certain diseases, prenatal diagnostic techniques if they are motivated by eugenic reasons (EV 63).

Objection to all the practices aimed against human life is first of all expressed in an unambiguous standing up for life. This means a ban on passivity, not taking a clear stand. It is necessary to be involved in active defence of human life from the inception. This approach is expressed in practice by sensitizing human consciences to the right to live of every human being, regardless of the quality of his/her life, helping pregnant mothers who are in difficult life situation and particularly those who are encouraged to abort their baby; running the “windows of life”; spiritual adoption of an unborn baby; prayer for the development of culture of life in the modern world, starting from our mother country. Indifference to the fate of endangered children is not the right attitude for a Christian because it leaves the helpless in the hand of those who have consciences insensitive to their right to life. On the other hand, a definite attitude of respecting and protecting every human life, also the sick and weak one, has the quality of Christian testimony – love for life, love for the neighbour and above all, love for God, the giver and “lover of life” (Wis 11:26).

It is not right to limit oneself to spoken declarations. Many Christians face dramatic decisions concerning taking away the unborn child’s life. It is necessary to unambiguously repeat: it is not permissible to do wrong in order to achieve good. No action which leads to endangering human life (also in the early stages of development) or directly to manslaughter, can be justified by even the most noble goal. Badly executed desire to become parents – with the consent to “sacrifice” for that purpose several subsequent human beings (the surplus children, children with “defects”, the ones removed because they were too many after implantation in the uterus) – burdens the conscience with the blame for their death.

Christians must care for the truth. Therefore their task is also to expose lies, among which particularly great damage is done by the suggestions that extrauterine (in vitro) conception is the treatment of infertility. It does not treat anything – the infertile remain infertile, they just entrust the producing of a baby to the others.


4. Catholics’ involvement in public life


Lay Catholics cannot fail to be involved in public life: in the care about a widely understood common good, in participating in the elections, in actively supporting those law-making and social solutions which agree with Christian conscience. Their task is to “infuse the temporal order with Christian values”, being aware that it is directed by its own rules (cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding The Participation of Catholics in Political Life, n.1, further: “Note”). This task includes also the defence of human life. It is particularly important now, when the view is being imposed that there are no unchangeable universal values, the law should only be the expression of the will of the majority, open to worldview, cultural and political pluralism. In the name of erroneously understood tolerance it is expected or even demanded from Catholics that they should resign from contributing to social and political life what they, according to their faith, take as true and just. Experience shows that the beliefs of Catholics are currently pushed beyond the margin of social debates, labelled as outdated. Catholics are hardly allowed to publicly oppose proclaiming the right to decide about parenthood. This concerns, in particular, issues connected with the evil of contraception, abortion, gender ideology, institutionalization of homosexual unions, promotion of social behaviour patterns which are in contradiction with the traditional model of family. However, Catholics should be proud of their beliefs, since in the centre of their faith there is not only the universal fatherhood of God, the Creator and Redeemer of man, but also personal dignity of every man, without exception and the dignity of his or her conscience, which resounds with a canon of universal and unchangeable values, in particular: truth, love, justice and solidarity.

A duty of every Catholic taking part in public life is fidelity to the teaching of the Catholic Church and to Christ himself. There is no possibility of any compromise in the matters of faith and morality. The basic duty of a person involved in acting for common good is taking care of clarity so their attitude must be clear for the others. In every context the Catholic needs to be a Christ’s witness. This can involve for him or her great social responsibility, personal sacrifices, being a subject of public criticism, experiencing marginalization or even rejection. For a Catholic dualism in attitudes is unacceptable, that is professing in private life values different from those in public involvement and supporting solutions contrary to the professed faith. Within boundaries set by Christian prudence it is possible to use a “diplomatic procedure,” understood as a skill of wise life conduct which recognizes the rules of democratic institutions and enables to responsibly participate in social or political debate. So a reasonable involvement of a Catholic in the public life means prudence and righteousness in reaching goals. One of them is to build honest authority and be present in the places decisive for law making and applying. Therefore it seems necessary to assume a strategy of conduct in the case where it is not possible to achieve the most desirable solutions. John Paul II, in relation to a situation in which it would not be possible to reject or completely abolish the law permitting abortion – when it has already come into force or has been put to a vote, showed that “an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality” (EV 73). Therefore participation in political compromise is possible, but only when it aims at achieving a greater good and not as a method of solving ethical problems or setting the criteria of good. In the case of abortion the final solution is, among others, a law not permitting eugenic indications to kill a baby and in the case of in vitro – rejecting this procedure as a threat to the dignity and life or health of the child in an early stage of development.

A huge danger to the Catholics involved in shaping the public life, both in the nationwide dimension and in local governments or non-government activity seems to be their alienation. It often happens that they do not even get adequate spiritual support, aid in forming their consciences and hints for conduct agreeing with the Catholic faith. In the public assessment of their political activity there sometimes appears a natural tendency to criticism and distrust from the other members of the Church. Accusations of lacking radicalism can be heard or of participating in decision-making groups which are not fully accepted by some Catholics. But it is necessary to remember that the fundamental task of believers is – let us repeat it – to be present in the world of politics. Their cooperation in achieving political compromises should ensure the best possible protection of values dictated by Christian conscience – in the concrete conditions and circumstances of their activity. The Church and every believer is responsible for the right formation of conscience. It is necessary to know and understand the conditions of action in the public sphere, which pose constant threat to being faithful in one’s moral choices.


On behalf of the bioethical experts team

of the Polish Bishops Conference

(-) Abp Henryk Hoser SAC

 [M1]Angielskie tłumaczenie w EV odbiega tu od polskiego, jest nieprecyzyjne: „here is established the program of what this living being will be”