Interview of Dr. Timothy Lau, the President of the Federation, with the CMAJ
1) Why was the Dignitas Personae created?
Biomedical research has advanced opening new possibilities for the treatment of
infertility and potentially other disorders. This has given rise to serious ethical
questions not previously addressed in the last instructional document Donum vitae
(22 Feb 1987) from the Church. Dignitas personae was written to help contribute to
informed conscience and encourage biomedical research that is respectful of the
dignity of every human being and of procreation.
2) As a medical doctor and a catholic, do you agree/disagree? Why?
As medical doctors we believe that respect for the dignity of human life in its origin
and end is fundamental to the practice of medicine. It affirms the value of human
life, not because of what we can do but because of who we are. Our shared
humanity is based upon the equal value of persons regardless of their capabilities.
Disabled people, ill people, young people, very old people, persons of different races,
and gender have the same fundamental value. As Pope Benedict said in his address
to the UN 19 April 2008, reflecting on human rights, not only are human rights
universal but so too is the human personhood, subject of those rights.
As Catholics, we believe that, while in creation, man is given dominion over nature,
man is the only creature willed by God for his/her own sake (Gaudium et spes). The
area of research and medicine that focuses on the experimentation with human
embryos can lead to a weakening of the respect owed to each human being. We run
the risk of thinking we have dominion over other human beings, as we manipulate
“laboratory material” and discard embryos as waste by-products. In essence we end
up treating subjects as objects, or commodities. The recent movie, the Island
(2005), with Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson, illustrates how human clones
may become objects at the service of others, a type of biological slavery.
The instruction is basically the application of the Hippocratic Oath to this area of
research and medical practice. It affirms that we should protect and promote human
dignity. We are more than just cells. Research should be at the service of humanity
not the other way around. In other words, our humanity should never be the cost of
a misguided application of science, that is, unethical methods of human
experimentation to obtain knowledge.
3) How does this document affect you and your patients?
The document, in a way, protects our patients. What it affirms and promotes, is the
great and inseparable dignity of the human person. When we treat patients with
end-stage Dementia, or patients with illness or disability we can see the loss of prior
capabilities makes us no less human. This document helps confirm that from the
very young to the very old or infirmed, without exception, everyone should be
treated with equal respect and dignity. This represents a humanity we all share and
should value greatly.