In the News 2008

Vatican Ethics Guide Stirs Controversy: Church Decries Stem Cell Research, Infertility Treatments


The Vatican’s first authoritative statement on reproductive science in 21 years triggered intense debate yesterday about some of the most contentious issues in modern biological research, including stem cells, designer babies, cloning, and a host of techniques widely used to prevent pregnancy and to help infertile couples have children.

The broad 32-page document, from the Catholic Church’s highest rule-making authority, condemns as immoral the destruction of human embryos to obtain stem cells or treat infertility, and denounces any attempts at more futuristic possibilities such as cloning people or using gene therapy to enhance the human race.

But the church also decries procedures already commonly used to help couples have children, such as the freezing of unfertilized eggs and embryos, the injection of sperm into eggs, and genetic testing of embryos to identify those with defects. In addition, the document condemns the morning-after pill and the RU-486 abortion pill.

While many of the arguments in “Dignitas Personae” — Latin for “the dignity of a person” — have been made before by Pope Benedict XVI and his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, a church “instruction” from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is far more authoritative and made a number of new declarations. It reflects the Vatican’s desire to focus attention on ethical questions raised by a new generation of technologies that are becoming increasingly common in the United States and elsewhere.

“This is significant in the sense that the church has now laid down a marker on these important issues,” said Thomas H. Murray of the Hastings Center, a bioethics think tank. “The church has now dug in and committed itself to an official position.”

Catholic and non-Catholic scholars were scouring the document — which influences Catholic doctors, patients and researchers and guides priests on how to counsel the 67 million U.S. Catholics — for any subtle changes in church positions or insights into its theological reasoning. While many U.S. Catholics do not follow many of the church’s teachings, the church’s pronouncements have spurred years of ethical and philosophical debate.

“Even in the secular world we take a very careful look at the religious writings in this field,” said Mark A. Rothstein, who directs the bioethics institute at the University of Louisville School of Medicine.

The document could also play a role in current political debates. President-elect Barack Obama, for example, has promised to end restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, just as the Bush administration is finalizing a broad new federal regulation designed to protect health-care workers who object to providing therapy or care they find morally objectionable. The document does not address either of those issues directly but provides guidance on both.

“It makes very clear that the church is very closely watching scientific progress and favors that progress but wants ethics to be part of that,” said Richard M. Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “The whole subject of misuse of technology to demean human dignity is a major concern.”

The document will be distributed to bishops around the world, studied in seminaries, Catholic schools and hospitals, and provide the basis for a pamphlet that priests will use to counsel couples before they get married and if they are struggling with infertility, he said.

Some Catholic scholars, however, worry about the church being out of step with many parishioners, who commonly use forbidden birth control and infertility treatments.

“The argument that all technological interventions are illicit strikes me as an overreaction,” said Rev. John J. Paris of Boston College.

The church objects to such technologies for many reasons. Perhaps most important, it argues that life begins at conception, and so anything that results in the destruction of an embryo is immoral. The church also objects to any technology that separates procreation from sex between a married heterosexual couple, which makes many modern infertility therapies, such as in vitro fertilization, “illicit.” Other types of infertility treatments are permitted, such as surgery to open blocked fallopian tubes.

The document also for the first time raises questions about whether it is moral for people to “adopt” embryos left over from IVF — a practice President Bush highlighted when he restricted federal funding of stem cell research. While the practice may be “praiseworthy” in some ways, the Vatican document warns that it could help perpetuate the creation of more embryos.

Megan Corcoran of the Snowflakes Frozen Embryo Adoption Program of Nightlight Christian Adoptions in Fullerton, Calif., which has arranged for 371 embryos to be adopted since 1998, was disappointed. “Each life that God has created should have a chance to be born,” she said.

The church endorsed research using cells from umbilical cord blood and adult stem cells, and for the first time encouraged research of alternative methods that have been proposed for obtaining embryonic stem cells, such as from cells altered so they could never become embryos.

The document also for the first time said vaccines that originally may have been developed using cells from aborted fetuses are acceptable.

“That may settle the question for a lot of people to not refrain from getting their children vaccinated because of the source of the vaccine,” said Kathleen Raviele, president of the Catholic Medical Association.

Cristina L.H. Traina, who studies Catholic ethics at Northwestern University, said she saw several “major departures” in the document.

A ban on freezing eggs, for example, did not explicitly mention the freezing of ovaries for women who have cancer and want the organs preserved so they might be able to have children. “It leaves that possibility open.”

Traina also called it potentially a “major departure” to see the Vatican ban genetic alterations that would be passed on to generations specifically “in the present state of research,” leaving an opening to more advanced technologies that are safer.

But futuristic possibilities such as cloning and genetic engineering allowing parents to select the traits they want in their babies, in the church’s view, in essence would put humans perilously close to playing the role of God.

The document, however, drew criticism from many groups.

“The Vatican’s statement on bioethics shows that it is once again on the wrong side of science and the needs of contemporary society,” said Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice.

Infertility doctors and stem cell researchers defended their efforts.

“It has contributed to the quality of life of patients and families through the improved ability to have children, which clearly is a worthwhile goal and a focus of many couples in their life goals,” said Robert G. Brzyski of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.

Said George Daley of the International Society for Stem Cell Research: “Cells are not people and embryos are not people, and my first responsibility as a physician is to patients — not cells in a petri dish.”

This article originally appeared in The Washington Post.

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