The Fetus as Patient  and Pope John Paul II


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        In recent decades, when the sense of the humanity of the fetus has been undermined or distorted by reductive understandings of the human person and by laws which introduce scientifically unfounded qualitative stages in the development of conceived life, the Church has repeatedly affirmed and defended the human dignity of the fetus. By this we mean that "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" (Instruction Donum vitae, I, 1; cf. Encyclical Letter Evangelium vitae, n. 60).
         The fetal therapies now emerging in the medical, surgical and genetic fields offer new hope of saving the lives of those suffering from pathologies which are either incurable or very difficult to treat after birth. They thus confirm the teaching, which the Church has upheld on the basis of both philosophy and theology. Faith in fact does not diminish the value and validity of reason; on the contrary, faith sustains and illuminates reason, especially when human weakness or negative psychosocial influences lessen its perspicacity.
          In my Encyclical Letter Evangelium vitae, I noted that the various techniques of artificial reproduction, apparently at the service of life, actually open the door to new attacks on life. Apart from the fact that they are morally unacceptable, since they separate procreation from the fully human context of the conjugal act, these techniques have a high rate of failure. And not just failure in relation to fertilization, but failure affecting the subsequent development of the embryo, which is exposed to the risk of death, generally within a very short space of time (cf. Evangelium vitae, n. 14).

          A case of special moral gravity, often deriving from these illicit procedures, is so-called "embryonic reduction", or the elimination of some fetuses when multiple conceptions take place at the one time. Such a procedure is gravely illicit when multiple conceptions occur in the normal course of marital relations, but it is doubly reprehensible when they are the result of artificial procreation.

          Those who resort to artificial methods must be held responsible for illicit conception, but whatever the mode of conception - once it happens - the child conceived must be absolutely respected. The life of the fetus must be protected, defended and nurtured in the mother's womb because of its inherent dignity, a dignity which belongs to the embryo and is not something conferred or granted by others, whether the genetic parents, the medical personnel or the State.

           The Catholic moral teaching strengthens and supports a natural ethic, based upon respect for the inviolability of every human life. Catholic moral teaching sheds a guiding light on questions connected with the delicate process of life's dawning, so full of hope and rich in promise for later life, and a field now ripe for the marvelous discoveries of medical science.

Condensed from L’Osservatore Romano, 5 April 200, at


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