Friday, December 12, 2008

Vatican issues new document on biotechnology: The Bullet Points

John Allen, National Catholic Reporter: I
n a resounding confirmation that the Catholic church's pro-life concern extends to the brave new world of biotechnology, the Vatican today issued a tough document condemning the freezing of human embryos, genetic engineering, human cloning, animal/human genetic hybrids, and a number of other procedures described as affronts to human dignity. The document also reiterates existing bans on embryonic stem cell research, in-vitro fertilization, and the "morning after pill."

In places, Vatican rhetoric is biting. The document charges that human cloning risks "biological slavery," that some biotech procedures reflect a "shameful and utterly reprehensible … eugenic mentality," and that widespread practice of IVF, which typically involves the destruction of unused embryos, implies "blithe acceptance" of an "enormous number of abortions." Its concern is not merely laying out moral teaching but also shaping social and political debates, citing an "urgent need to mobilize consciences in favor of life."

Titled Dignitas Personae, the document was issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with the approval of Pope Benedict XVI. It was presented this morning in a Vatican news conference.

Underlying its conclusions are several core principles, addressed not just to Catholics but "to all who seek the truth":

  • "The human embryo has, from the very beginning, the dignity proper to a person." (Vatican officials said this marks something of an advance beyond previous church documents, which were more circumspect in referring to the embryo as a “person.”)
  • "Human life is always a good" and therefore "must be fully respected," irrespective of such considerations as "intelligence, beauty, health, youth and integrity."
  • The origin of human life must be in "marriage and the family," including natural sexual intercourse, "which expresses the reciprocal love between a man and a woman."

At a tighter level of magnification, however, the document contains several points likely to raise eyebrows in Catholic moral theology. Most cut in the direction of a restrictive posture on previously open questions, though they generally stop short of outright prohibitions. They include:

  • A critical view of "embryo adoption," meaning allowing women and couples to bring someone else's frozen embryos to term.
  • Caution about "Altered Nuclear Transfer," touted as a way of obtaining embryonic stem cells without creating an embryo.
  • Potentially ambiguous language about the "morning after pill," which could affect the practice in Catholic hospitals of offering emergency contraception to rape victims – though a spokesperson for the U.S. bishops' conference told NCR that the document is not intended to address that question.
  • Raising the bar on the morality of research involving biological materials obtained from aborted fetuses or human embryos.
  • A more negative view of genetic interventions passed on to subsequent generations than was offered in a 1983 speech by John Paul II, which hinted that such therapy could, at least in theory, be justified.


Even within the cluster of beginning-of-life issues, there are a couple of notable absences:

  • Dignitas Personae approves research with adult stem cells, but does not mention "induced pluripotent stem cells," a means of reprogramming adult skin cells into the equivalent of embryonic stem cells. The technique has been hailed as a scientific end-run around the debate over embryonic cells.
  • It also does not address a means of assisted reproduction known as GIFT, or "gamete intra-fallopian transfer." Catholic moralists are divided over GIFT, which involves removing eggs from a woman and mixing them with the man's sperm, then reinserting them in the fallopian tube. Many experts regard it as the best example of a question left hanging by Donum Vitae.

Experts predict that initial reaction to Dignitas Personae will swirl around four points:

  • Embryo adoption
  • Altered nuclear transfer (ANT)
  • The "morning after pill"
  • The use of "illicitly obtained" biological materials

Statement | Vatican Summary | News Release | Q and A

Dignitatis Personae document

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