Human Dignity and Human Rights

The dignity conferred on all human beings by their being created in the divine image provides the grounds for typically Catholic teaching on

231 In 1288 Folco Portinari, whose beautiful daughter Beatrice captivated Dante forever, opened in Florence the still existing hospital Santa Maria Nuova, which brought together religious women serving the sick, the first such nursing staff on record.

universal human rights and their correlative duties (e.g. Gaudium etSpes, 26). Pope John Paul II developed this theme in a December 1978 message to the Secretary General of the United Nations Organization, from which he quoted a month later in his address in Puebla to the Third General Assembly of Latin American Bishops in denouncing the sometimes massive increase of human rights violations in many parts of the world. Who can deny that today individual persons and civil powers violate basic rights of the human person with impunity: rights such as the right to be born, the right to life, the right to responsible procreation, to work, to peace, to freedom and social justice, the right to participate in the decisions that affect people and nations? And what can be said when we face the various forms of collective violence like discrimination against individuals and groups, the use of physical and psychological torture perpetrated against prisoners and political dissenters? .We cry once more: respect the human persons! They are the image of God! (ND 426)

Less than two months later the Pope's first encyclical Redemptor Hominis developed at length the unconditional dignity of human persons lovingly created by God and redeemed by Jesus Christ. He often had occasion to return to the themes of human dignity and basic rights, not least in his 1988 apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem ('The Dignity of Woman'), which expounded women's dignity and equality on the basis of women and men being created in the divine image and likeness.

In January 1979 John Paul II spoke to the Latin American bishops gathered in the Mexican city of Puebla. We have just quoted his words when writing this chapter shortly after the death of Digna Ochoa on 18 October 2001. One of Mexico's most prominent human rights lawyers, she often defended the defenceless, was repeatedly threatened for doing so, and was eventually shot dead in her law office in Mexico City. A devout Catholic, she put into practice her moral convictions about human rights and paid for that with her life. In Latin America and elsewhere champions of human rights have often suffered the same fate, not least the members of the Justice and Peace commissions that sprang up in many Catholic dioceses after the Second Vatican Council. Practical solidarity with those who are deprived and subjugated remains a dangerous commitment.

More than ever, as we move ahead in the third millennium, global economic development calls for human rights to be remembered and championed. The contemporary international financial system has spectacularly increased human wealth. But to what extent is that happening to the detriment of many human beings? We do not want to pretend that questions of the world economy are anything else than very complex. But we do strongly maintain that healthy ethical considerations must play a decisive part in policies involving such matters as the new biotechnology replacing conventional farming. Higher productivity by itself cannot be allowed to shape national and international decision-making. What health risks do genetically modified food crops pose to human beings? How will modern biotechnology affect the life, freedom, and basic rights of farming communities around the world?

Over fifty years ago Rachel Carson (1907—64) in her Silent Spring warned against the indiscriminate use of pesticides and weedkillers. Sadly governments and multinational corporations have continued to embrace new discoveries and adopt the related technologies, often with scarce attention paid to the ecological implications. Pollution and a reckless squandering of natural resources threaten everyone, perpetrators and victims alike. Our environment must be protected if it is to continue being a habitat for humanity.

At least as much in the field of bioethics, human values and well-based principles and standards about what contributes to the life and happiness of men and women must shape the new knowledge. Facile arguments about 'the need for research' or the 'proper progress of science' can notoriously cloak a hideous misuse of new medical knowledge and technology.232 Once again we recognize how complicated bioethical and medical questions can prove. But we insist that human dignity, rights, and basic values must inform all bioethical and medical decisions. Let us raise three questions, which concern the end of life (question 1) and the beginning of life (questions 2 and 3).

1. Remarkable and often costly medical advances prolong life for a wealthy minority of the world's population, while millions continue to lack basic medical services and even safe drinking water. Is such a

232 In 1987 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith commented wisely on the relationship between science and morality: 'It would on the one hand be illusory to claim that scientific research and its application are morally neutral; on the other hand one cannot derive criteria for guidance from mere technical efficiency, from research's possible usefulness to some at the expense of others, or, worse still, from prevailing ideologies. Thus science and technology require, for their own intrinsic meaning, an unconditional respect for the fundamental criteria of the moral law; that is to say, they must be at the service of human persons, of their inalienable rights, and their true and integral good according to the design and will of God' (Donum Vitae , intr. 2; ND 2072).

distribution of medical resources just, or does it embody a complicity in evil that ignores the fact that human beings form one family under God?

2. New gene therapy, which aims to remedy genetic defects, can happily bring about the birth and growth of healthy children. But it may also be used to enhance particular traits such as height and so improve the athletic performance of children to be born. Thus wealthy parents may buy desirable characteristics through gene enhancement and so produce children with a biologically higher potential for 'success'—what one might call, more 'marketable' offspring. A new social class could emerge, comprised of those whose wealthy parents can afford to buy superior genetic endowments. Biotechnology firms are already busy creating and cultivating a market for their products and services, which promise to turn human reproduction into commercial breeding.

3. Alongside new genetic engineering, old eugenics has appeared in fresh forms but with the original project of altering the human race by breeding for inherited characteristics deemed to be desirable and eliminating those deemed to be unwanted. For the 'greater good of humanity people who harbour 'dangerous' genes must be prevented from begetting children or the foetuses they produce must be aborted. Embryos are to be selected for implantation or destroyed because they display the 'right' or 'wrong' characteristics, respectively. By promoting on its own terms the 'needs' of society, the new eugenics makes the alleged 'greater good' of society dominate over the rights and dignity of individuals.

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