Modern bioethics is assumed to be secular, but many societal norms and bioethical perspectives in our society are still intertwined with religion. It is difficult to separate the two, especially with Catholicism as it intends to use universal philosophical and natural law arguments so that even those who are not Catholic should be able to agree with their claims. However, in Donum Vitae, which is the “Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation” and addresses biomedical issues from the Roman Catholic Church’s perspective, some of the arguments presented seem subjective based on the evidence presented and could use further explanation, especially to appeal to those who are not Catholic.
For example, Donum Vitae uses a quote from Pope John Paul II (1980) to argue that reproductive technologies tempt man “to go beyond the limits of a reasonable dominion over nature.” However, they also cite shortly after that God created male and female and gave them “dominion over the earth” (Gn. 1:28). This idea of a reasonable dominion over nature is not unjustified, but it does require further explanation about why we are limited in on our dominion and what objective line constitutes a reasonable dominion.
This is not the only time the evidence is not clear. Another example is also in reference to Genesis 1:28, which states that “God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it.” This indicates that we should reproduce. Given that we should have children and that we have at least some dominion over the earth, reproductive technologies do not seem to be an unreasonable method to use our dominion to reproduce. However, Donum Vitae and the Catholic Church do not believe that we are obligated to have children, but there is no explanation why the Catholic Church believes this. It does not seem to align with what I have read of the Book of Genesis, but I have not read the entire Book of Genesis. This is another example of an idea that may not be unreasonable but requires further explanation of how the Church came to this conclusion so that the readers, especially those who are not Catholic, can follow their arguments.
In “The Reemergence of Enlightenment Ideas in the 1994 French Bioethics Debates,” Ball discusses the history and current stance of artificial reproductive technologies (ART) in France as of 2000. Overall, the timeline of the legality and morality of ART in France is intriguing because they kept shifting their stance. In most of the 19th and 20th centuries, ART was seen as “repugnant to natural law” (Ball 548). It was banned in hospitals until the first government-sponsored sperm bank was established in 1973. Then in 1978, ART became completely covered by the national health insurance system with an infertility diagnosis, whereas other medical procedures are normally reimbursed up to 80%. However, the motive behind this was to increase births after decreasing birthrates during the 1970s. In the 1980s, public attention paid to controversial cases, which eventually led the French National Assembly to pass laws in 1994 that only sterile, heterosexual couples of procreative age can use artificial insemination and IVF procedures.
This decision had clear ethical motives: to protect the “traditional family structure.” They saw this imminent disruption of the typical family structure via the use of ART as bad for two reasons. However, similar to Donum Vitae, their justifications are not completely clear. First, they viewed a nation as a combination of several families and each individual family as the foundation of their society. As a result, they wanted to maintain the traditional family structure to keep a strong foundation of individual families to keep the nation stable. However, they do not give a clear reason why a non-traditional family structure would be destabilizing and from where this idea of the traditional family structure stems. Second, they thought that providing ART to those who were not heterosexual or who were not of reproductive age was unnatural because they cannot “naturally” have children. This is an attempt to use a secularized natural law argument. To counter this, Rosseau, as argued by Ball, questions what is natural; using ART for those who are not heterosexual or of reproductive age is only unnatural if the concept of nature is static. Rosseau argues that these static, “natural laws” may actually be reflexive laws “developed from observations of their own society” (Ball 579). As a result, these observations may not truly be universal as some in the Catholic Church believe. Therefore, these natural law arguments may be insufficient to prevent people from using ART.
A question I had when reading the Ball article was how much of an influence did Catholicism have in the formation of the concept of the “traditional family structure” in France? The importance of the family unit was also mentioned in Donum Vitae; it states on page 158 that “the vitality and stability of society require that children come into the world within a family and that the family be firmly based on marriage” and later adds that a family consists of a husband and wife. Since these two articles have similar views on the importance of this typical family structure, were these ideas shaped by the same ideas from the Catholic Church? Although the Church and State separated in France before 1994, religion could have still influenced societal norms, like it can today, which can then influence the laws put in place. Although France was secularized, was Catholicism still an important part of the culture? Did this idea of the “traditional family structure” persist from a time when France was not secularized? Or is the traditional family structure independent of religion altogether?
One question I had throughout both Donum Vitae and Ball’s article is why do we tend to view things as static and resist change, especially regarding bioethical issues? It seems reasonable that our understanding of what is natural and moral would evolve as our understanding of the world develops over time. Currently, we view nature as something that is dynamic, not static, and we use nature to talk about how things change. However, Donum Vitae and France’s view of ART ignore this and demonstrate an outdated static view of nature. They then rooted their values in this static view of nature, creating a dichotomy of licit and illicit based on the idea of dignity. However, dignity becomes more subjective when it is based in a dynamic system of nature, which allows us to leave the dichotomy of licit and illicit and realize that moral authority is not as obvious as Donum Vitae and France may make it seem.