In the News 2008

Vatican Issues Instruction on Bioethics


The Vatican on Friday issued the most authoritative and sweeping document on bioethical issues in more than 20 years, taking into account recent developments in biomedical technology and reinforcing the Roman Catholic church’s opposition to in vitro fertilization, human cloning, genetic testing on embryos before implantation and embryonic stem cell research.

The Vatican document says that these techniques violate the principles that every human life – even an embryo – is sacred and that children should be conceived only through intercourse by a married couple.

The 32-page instruction, titled “Dignitas Personae,” or “The Dignity of the Person,” was issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog, and carries the approval and the authority of Pope Benedict XVI. It was developed to provide moral responses to bioethical questions that have been raised in the 21 years since the congregation last issued instructions.

The document also bans the morning-after pill; intrauterine devices and the pill known as RU486, saying these can result in what amounts to abortions. The church also said it objects to freezing embryos because they are exposed to damage and manipulation and it raised the issue of what to do with frozen embryos that are not implanted.

“There is no morally licit way to get out of the blind alley created by the thousands of frozen embryos already in existence,” Monsignor Elio Sgreccia, president emeritus of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said at a news conference Friday in Rome.

The Vatican’s intended audience for the document includes individual Roman Catholics as well as doctors, scientists, medical researchers and legislators who might consider regulating new developments in biomedical technology.

In the United States, President-elect Barack Obama has said that he will end the restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research that were instituted by President George W. Bush.

The Vatican document reiterates that the church is opposed to research on stem cells derived from embryos. But it does not oppose research on stem cells derived from adults, blood from umbilical cords or from fetuses “who have died of natural causes.”

One new development addressed in the document is the attempt by researchers to create alternative techniques of producing stem cells for medical treatments without involving human embryos, said Reverend Thomas Berg, executive director of The Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person, a Catholic ethics research group in New York state.

Berg said that one particularly promising technique, called altered nuclear transfer, would “allow us to get past this cultural divide on stem cell research.” He said he was pleased to see that the Vatican document did not prohibit such techniques, although it cautions that there must be absolute assurance that human embryos are not destroyed in the process.

“The document is neither accepting or rejecting, simply raising a caution,” Berg said, adding that he finds it a “very positive, very forward-looking” position.

Some were also hoping that the Vatican would clarify its position on whether couples could “adopt” surplus embryos that have been frozen and abandoned by couples undergoing in vitro fertilization. Such “prenatal adoption,” although rare, has been taken up as a cause among some Catholics and evangelical Christians.

But the Vatican did not issue a clear or definitive ruling in this document, saying that while “prenatal adoption” is “praiseworthy,” it presents ethical problems similar to certain types of in vitro fertilization and, in particular, surrogate motherhood, which the church prohibits.

“I see the church recognizing that there are strong opinions on both sides, and they have not wanted to make a pronouncement,” Berg said.

Experts responded Friday by saying that there was little new in this document but that it might still come as a surprise to many Catholics who are unaware that the church bans most in vitro fertilization methods.

Kathleen Raviele, an obstetrician and gynecologist in Georgia who is president of the Catholic Medical Association, the largest group of Catholic physicians in the United States, said that she tells her patients: “God creates through an act of love, and that’s not what’s happening in the laboratory. It’s the technician who’s creating. What in vitro does is it separates the creation of a child from the marital act.”

Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, a group based in Washington that contradicts church teaching on abortion and sexuality, issued a statement on Friday saying, “It remains difficult to reconcile the Vatican’s self-avowed pro-life approach with the rejection of in-vitro fertilization and embryo freezing, not to mention the condemnation of the potential of stem-cell research.”

Archbishop Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said at the news conference Friday that because the document excludes a number of biomedical technologies as unethical, “it will likely be accused of containing too many bans.”

Nonetheless, the Church “feels the duty to give voice to those who have no voice,” he said, referring to the unborn.

This article originally appeared in The International Herald Tribune.

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