The following is an essay by Richard Doerflinger, Associate Director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:
When Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II in October 1978, the first “test-tube baby” was three months old. Researchers had learned how to produce human life by joining sperm and egg in the laboratory without sexual union (in vitro fertilization). As we proceed through a new century, such technologies have led to debates about human embryo research, adoption of frozen embryos, human cloning, and genetic engineering of offspring.
The more than 26 years of John Paul II’s pontificate therefore coincided with a new age in mankind’s power over human life at its foundations. And beginning with his first encyclical in 1979, Redemptor Hominis (Redeemer of Man), he called for careful assessment of such developments in light of the inherent dignity of the human person, insisting on the priority of “ethics over technology” (n. 16).
In a series of talks in the 1980s, the Holy Father surprised many with his basically positive judgments about the medical promise of genetics. As always, however, he distinguished valid use from dangerous abuse: Genetic engineering may bring cures and relieve human suffering, but must not be used to manipulate human life or to try to manufacture the “superior” human being.
In 1987, John Paul II approved a Vatican document reaffirming the Church’s rejection of in vitro fertilization -- and of human cloning, then only a speculation. The new document, Donum vitae (Gift of Life), warned prophetically against mistreating human embryos as mere objects of experimentation. But it left the door open to technologies that may help couples have children without reducing procreation to a laboratory procedure.
In Veritatis splendor (Splendor of the Truth) in 1993, John Paul II offered a profound critique of moral relativism and utilitarian thinking, which end by enslaving the vulnerable to the interests and whims of the strong. And in Evangelium Vitae (1995), he solemnly reaffirmed Church teaching against abortion, euthanasia and other attacks on human life, placing the defense of life at the center of the Church’s witness: The “gospel of life” was an integral part of the Gospel.
Finally, by establishing the Pontifical Academy of Life in 1994, Pope John Paul II ensured that the Church would keep studying new developments in human cloning, stem cell research, care of the dying, and many other issues in bioethics. In 2008 his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, approved the document Dignitas personae (The Dignity of the Person) to reaffirm the principles of Donum vitae and apply them to even newer ways to manipulate human life. His lasting legacy is a Church unafraid to confront such issues, confident that it can make a distinctive contribution on behalf of the dignity of each and every human being.