5 December 1982

To the members of the Pro-life Movement participating in a Medical Congress

Representatives of the “Pro-life Movement” from many countries in the world, in Rome to participate in the First International Medical Congress organized by the Movement on the theme “Pre-natal Diagnosis and Surgical Treatment of Congenital Malformations” were received in audience by the Holy Father on the morning of Sunday, 5 December, in the Clementine Hall.  The group was led by the President of the Pro-life Movement, Prof. Migliori.  The Pope delivered the following address to the group.

Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen:

1. It is with great joy that I address my cordial welcome to you, receiving you in this special audience at the conclusion of your International Congress on “Pre-natal Diagnosis and Surgical Treatment of Congenital Malformations”.  I greet and thank Prof. Bompiani, who kindly informed me of the conclusions reached during the course of your work and, along with him, I also greet those who have made a scientific contribution to the more thorough investigation of such a new and promising subject.

I also extend my greeting to the organizers of the congress, that is, to the members of that “Pro-life Movement” who generously work so hard in the search for every way useful to the safeguarding and protection this fundamental value of the human person.  I gladly take this opportunity to express to the leaders of the Movement and to those who support its initiatives my sincere appreciation, exhorting them not to allow themselves to be deterred in their commitment in the service of such a noble cause by difficulties and obstacles which they may encounter along their path.

Finally, I would like to reserve a word of greeting to the directors of the Federazione Casse Rurali ed Artigiane (Federation of Rural and Artisan Banks), who by their generous contribution made the Congress possible.  The social aims which inspire the action of their institutes can be well expressed in initiatives, like the present one, directed toward the promotion of life, inasmuch as every other human achievement rests upon this value.

Need for precaution

2. The subject treated opens very important perspectives about means of healing unknown to the medicine and surgery of the past, and which modern scientific progress makes possible today or promises to make possible in the near future.  The Christian, just as, for that matter, every person of good will, cannot but be happy about the progress that science is making along the path opened toward always faster and effective therapies:  even in the most delicate and crucial areas.  In recognizing with joy the result achieved up to the present, the Church is very happy to encourage those who put the talents of their intelligence to use in that most important sector of medical research, the first months of life of the human being.

Moreover, there is no one who is not aware of the risks there are in every type of therapy used on a being who, having just begun life, is especially frail and exposed, more than in later months, to fatal results or irreversible damage.  Mindful of the precept of ancient wisdom, primum non nocere (do no harm in the beginning), the man of science will therefore take every precaution not to damage that life which he intends to save and improve, basing his decisions on the maximum prudence and caution.

In this regard, it is meanwhile fitting to reiterate that many congenital malformations, being of an hereditary nature, can be appropriately prevented during marriage counselling, keeping in mind the always valid guidelines concerning this subject set out by Pope Pius XII (cf. Discourse to VII International Congress on Haematology, 12 Sept. 1958, AAS 50, 1958, 732-40).  The discoveries of Father Gregory Mendel, and of genetics which began with him, permit the assessment of the risk of hereditary diseases.  The task of the doctor in charge is therefore that of evaluating, in the vast range of possible malformations, those which are probable on the basis of a careful study of the genealogical tree of the persons interested in calling a new being to life.

Fundamental values

3. The special object of your reflections during the course of this congress has been the malformations already existing at the moment of conception and the various techniques to which possible recourse can be had to discover them and remedy them in time.

It is pressing upon me here to recall some fundamental moral values to which we must constantly refer if we wish to prevent progress in the scientific sphere from becoming instead terrible regressions in the human sphere.

In this perspective, it is necessary above all to reaffirm the sacredness of the procreative function in which man and woman collaborate with God with regard to the propagation of human life according to the plans of his transcendent economy.  It is not necessary to repeat here what I wrote in this regard in the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio. However, I cannot fail to reiterate the severe condemnation, rooted in natural law itself, of every direct attack on the lives of the innocent; the human being which is developing in the mother’s womb is the innocent being par excellence.

Therefore, it is clear that endouterine research tending to the early identification of defective embryos or fetuses in order to eliminate them quickly through abortion are to be considered corrupt at their origin and, as such, morally inadmissible.  Equally unacceptable is every form of experimentation on the fetus which may damage its integrity or worsen its condition, unless it is a matter of a last resource attempt to save it from certain death, since the general principle which forbids the exploitation of a human being for the benefit of science or the well-being of others is valid for it.

Rights of patient

4. Therefore, what are the criteria which will inspire the physician desiring to conform his own behaviour to the fundamental values of the moral norm?  Above all, he must carefully evaluate the possible negative consequences which the necessary use of a particular investigative technique may have upon the unborn child, and avoid recourse to diagnostic procedures which do not offer sufficient guarantees of their honest purpose and substantial harmlessness.  And if, as often happens in human choices, a degree of risk must be undertaken, he will take care to assure that it is compensated by a truly urgent need for the diagnosis and by the importance of the results that can be achieved by it to the benefit of the unborn child itself.

Then, when the presence of a malformation has been verified, the physician will not fail to treat it with all the safe therapeutic means which are available at the present stage of research: not only, therefore, medical therapies in use for some time, but also, obviously when his professional preparation permits it, those recent surgical operations which, on the basis of the information made known also during your congress, are producing results of surprising import.  The decision concerning recourse to surgical treatment or the rejection of it, and the eventual choice of the type of intervention, just as of the actual technique that could be used in it, are questions which the physician himself must resolve according to science and conscience, taking care to ascertain that the operation is truly necessary, freely agreed to by the parents and that it offers, usually, probabilities of success clearly higher than those of failure.

Unfortunately, there are malformations, often deriving from chromosomal defects, which cannot be resolved by therapeutic means, at least at the present time.  Even in these cases medicine must do all in its power to alleviate the symptoms of the illness, but will scrupulously refrain from any kind of treatment which could be considered a disguised form of induced abortion.  The bearer of such defect indeed does not for this reason lose the rights proper to a human being, to whom must be given the respect to which every patient has a right.

Priority of ethics

5. Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, the moral principles recalled here do not constitute – as you know – obstacles to a scientific progress which also intends to be the progress of man viewed in the highest dignity of his transcendent destiny.  One of the gravest risks to which this era of ours is exposed is, in fact, the separation between science and morality, between the possibilities offered by a technology projected toward always more amazing goals and the ethical norms arising from an evermore disregarded nature.  It is necessary for all responsible persons to be in agreement in reaffirming the priority of ethics over technology, the primacy of the person over things, the superiority of the spirit over matter.  Only under these conditions will scientific progress, as much as its many aspects, excite us not be transformed into a kind of modern Moloch who devours his careless followers.

“Man infinitely surpasses mankind”, wrote Pascal (Pensées, 434). This insight, which reason can reach through its own means, is strengthened by the faith it demonstrates in man, the masterpiece of the Creator, renewed in the blood of Christ and called to enter into the family of the children of God for eternity.

May these profound truths of reason and faith, dear physicians and surgeons, always enlighten your noble activity, directing it toward effective choices which will never offend the supreme value of the dignity of the human person.

Wish this wish, I impart my heartfelt Apostolic Blessing, in intercession for every desired heavenly grace, to you and to all present as well as to your loved ones.

John Paul II