Vatican Speaks Out On Bioethics
Special Report - December 17, 2008
The Roman Catholic Church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith released a new document on December 12 aimed at addressing some of the tough bioethical questions related to biomedical technology that have arisen over the past 20 years. The document, entitled Dignitas Personae (The Dignity of a Person): On Certain Bioethical Questions, updates the Roman Catholic Church’s previous instruction on reproductive issues, Donum Vitae, which was published in 1987. The new instruction, which was approved by Pope Benedict XVI and is issued under his authority, begins by emphasizing that “the dignity of a person must be recognized in every human being from conception until natural death. This fundamental principle expresses a great ‘yes’ to human life and must be at the center of ethical reflection on biomedical research, which has an ever greater importance in today’s world.”
The Vatican document specifically addresses the issue of assisted reproductive technologiesincluding in vitro fertilization (IVF), artificial insemination, and embryo transferand stem cell research. According to the Vatican, assisted reproductive technologies are morally permissible if they respect: 1) “the right to life and to physical integrity of every human being from conception to natural death,” 2) “the unity of marriage, which means reciprocal respect for the right within marriage to become a father and a mother only together with the other spouse,” and 3) “the specifically human values of sexuality which require ‘that the procreation of a human person be brought about as the fruit of the conjugal act specific to the love between spouses.’” It notes that, “techniques which act as an aid to the conjugal act and its fertility are permitted,” such as hormonal treatments for infertility, unblocking of fallopian tubes, or surgery for endometriosis. “All these techniques may be considered authentic treatments because once the problem causing the infertility has been resolved, the married couple is able to engage in conjugal acts resulting in procreation, without the physician’s action directly interfering in that act itself,” the document explains. “None of these treatments replaces the conjugal act, which alone is worthy of truly responsible procreation.”
The Vatican identifies as impermissible “all techniques of heterologous artificial fertilization” (defined as: “techniques used to obtain a human conception artificially by the use of gametes coming from at least one donor other than the spouses”), and “techniques involving homologous artificial fertilization which substitute for the conjugal act” (defined as: “the technique used to obtain a human conception using the gametes of the two spouses joined in marriage”).
On the issue of IVF, the Catholic Church retains its long-standing prohibition on the practice, noting that despite advances in the technology over the past 20 years, the procedure “very frequently involves the deliberate destruction of embryos.” The Vatican document notes that, “all techniques of in vitro fertilization proceed as if the human embryo were simply a mass of cells to be used, selected and discarded.” The Vatican equates the process of IVF with abortion, stating: “The blithe acceptance of the enormous number of abortions involved in the process of in vitro fertilization vividly illustrates how the replacement of the conjugal act by a technical procedure in addition to being in contradiction with the respect that is due to procreation as something that cannot be reduced to mere reproduction leads to a weakening of the respect owed to every human being.”
In addition to IVF, the Vatican document also discusses a number of popular assisted reproductive technology procedures, including:
- Preimplantation diagnosis (i.e., where IVF embryos undergo genetic diagnosis to determine that only the healthiest embryos are transferred), which it says is “directed towards the qualitative selection and subsequent destruction of embryos, which constitutes an act of abortion;”
- Embryo reduction (i.e., where human embryos are destroyed as part of an IVF procedure), which the Vatican document calls “intentional selective abortion;”
- Cryopreservation, or the freezing of embryos for later use, which it argues is “incompatible with the respect owed to human embryos;”
Although the Vatican document does not specifically prohibit embryo adoption (where leftover or unwanted embryos from IVF procedures are adopted by infertile couples and transferred into the adoptive mother’s uterus), it does raise questions about the procedure, such as potential medical and legal problems that could arise. It also states that the thousands of frozen embryos at IVF clinics “represent a situation of injustice which in fact cannot be resolved,” calling for a halt to the production of human embryos worldwide.
In addition, the document discusses new technological methods of contraception, such as emergency contraception (EC), “which act after fertilization when the embryo is already constituted” and can either interfere with the implantation of the embryo or destroy the embryo after implantation. According to the Vatican, these methods fall “within the sin of abortion.” The Vatican notes that while “there is not always complete knowledge of the way that different pharmaceuticals operate…scientific studies indicate that the effect of inhibiting implantation is certainly present...anyone who seeks to prevent the implantation of an embryo which may possibly have been conceived and who therefore either requests or prescribes such a pharmaceutical, generally intends abortion.”
The Vatican also addresses the issue of stem cell research in the document, endorsing as acceptable “methods which do not cause serious harm to the subject from whom the stem cells are taken,” specifically stem cell tissue obtained from: adults, umbilical cords at birth, and babies that have died from natural causes. Deriving stem cells from living human embryos is “gravely illicit,” according to the Vatican, because this “invariably” causes the death of the embryo.
“We applaud developments which advance medical progress with respect for the sanctity of human life from the moment of conception,” said Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a statement released December 12. “We oppose discarding or manipulating innocent lives to benefit future generations, or promoting the creation of new human life in depersonalized ways that substitute for the loving union between a husband and wife.”
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