The Catholic Church has released a new document, "Instructions Dignitas Personae on Certain Bioethical Questions," that applies to a broad range of topics:
There is much here to think about, but I want to focus for a moment on the opening line of the Instructions:
The dignity of a person must be recognized in every human being from conception to
I think a modern Confucianist perspective would reject this statement. Most fundamentally, "life," for a Confucian, is not simply a biological process, it is a social practice. We gain our humanity, the unique quality of human life (as opposed to other sorts of biological entities), through our interactions with others. We might call this "sociality" - the social quality of human life. For a Confucian, then, the key ethical question would not be when biological life begins but when social life begins.
As a first consideration, sociality would seem to begin at birth, the moment when the new-born is brought out of the womb and placed in the arms of her mother. Obviously, social interaction is involved in that moment.
However, we could also say that the anticipation of birth also creates a certain sociality. This is especially true now with the introduction of various forms of technology. How many of us put that first hazy sonogram on the refrigerator door in anticipation of a new child? Thus, it could be said that at some point before birth, perhaps when a pregnancy is made known, sociality begins.
But there is a catch here, for a Confucian, I believe. What if the parents of a child-to-be truly believe that the introduction of a new person into the family will limit their abilities to carry out their obligations to already present living members of the family? If there were a genuine conflict of obligations, a Confucian would likely prioritize the duties we have toward the living over the duties we might have toward the not-yet-born. Think about passage 11.12 from the Analects:
“Might I ask about death?”
“You don’t understand life,” the Master replied, “so how could you understand death?”
The key here is the notion of “serving the living,” which implies daily commitment to cultivating social relationships, starting first with family and moving then to friends and acquaintances and even strangers. “Life,” is the process of serving the living. Our duties toward those now living around us are more important than worries about death. Although we have obligations to remember the dead, to venerate the ancestors, we do so because they have already lived and provided for us the social interactions that nurtured our Humanity. This is different from the not yet living, who have not begun humanizing themselves by adding to the humanization of others around them.
This, then, would limit the absolute statement that begins "Dignitas Personae." There could be cases, from a Confucian perspective, where an embryo should not be recognized as morally equivalent to a living person.
There are a variety of further qualifications we could consider here (this is a good portion of chapter 2 of the book I am writing), but let me close with one other point.
Confucianism would also resist an absolutist application of a universal statement. It is impossible to know how the particular circumstances of any given set of parents-to-be might create moral conflicts. A Confucian would, rather, propound a general guideline in favor of carrying a pregnancy to term, but would not demand that each and every pregnancy be treated in the same manner. There may be situations where duties toward the living must take precedence over duties to the not yet born. As Confucius said:
To be "all-encompassing" requires a certain sensitivity to context and circumstance, especially when that means action that might contradict a broader doctrine.