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Vatican Updates Code on Birth Technologies

Francis X. Rocca | Religion News Service | Monday, December 15, 2008

Vatican Updates Code on Birth Technologies

December 15, 2008

VATICAN CITY (RNS) -- The Vatican's highest doctrinal body on Friday (Dec.12) condemned advanced infertility treatments and contraception technologies and reaffirmed its strong prohibition of embryonic stem cell research.

The long-awaited document, "Dignitas personae" ("The dignity of a person"), was released by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with the approval of Pope Benedict XVI.

Church officials said the document was meant as an update to a 1987 statement under Pope John Paul II. While the two documents are complementary, the newer one covers 21st-centry medical advances that were not even on the horizon 20 years ago.

Like the 1987 document, the new 36-page statement condemns in-vitro fertilization (IVF) and all other techniques that involve "replacement of the conjugal act by a technical procedure."

Vatican officials know from long experience that their pronouncements on sexual and medical ethics are bound to generate controversy and resistance, and the response from the liberal wing of the U.S. church was swift and strong.

" There is little new in the statement, but 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,'' said Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, which supports abortion rights and access to contraceptives.

Cardinal William Levada, the former archbishop of San Francisco who now heads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was not present at a press conference to announce the release of the document.

At the press conference, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, acknowledged that the document would encounter a variety of reactions, including indifference, ridicule, and accusations of "dark obscurantism that impedes progress and free research."

In the document, church officials attempted to cast ethical and scientific debates in starkly human terms. An embryo is referred to as a "human being in his or her embryonic state,'' not a cluster of cells that is subject to "manipulation'' or "utilitarian treatment'' in a laboratory.

Moreover, the Vatican strongly states that reproductive technologies that may appear to be life-giving or life-affirming, such as IVF for infertile couples or stem cell research from discarded embryos, are actually destructive to the most nascent of human lives.

The Vatican appeared to give its blessing to treatments like Viagra and other measures that "assist the conjugal act, either in order to facilitate its performance or in order to enable it to achieve its objective once it has been normally performed.''

But included on the Vatican's prohibited list:

-- Newer forms of birth control, including the "morning after" pill (which prevents implantation of a fertilized egg) and RU-486 (which eliminates an already implanted embryo). Both "fall within the sin of abortion and are gravely immoral." Those who seek or prescribe such methods "generally intend abortion,'' the document said.

-- Genetic testing of embryos before their implantation through IVF, which the Vatican called tantamount to abortion and an "expression of a eugenic mentality."

-- Research that uses stem cells derived from embryos because the removal of those cells "invariably causes the death of the embryo."

-- Fertility treatments that involve the creation of multiple embryos that may or may not be used in seeking pregnancy. The "number of embryos sacrificed, even in the most technically advanced centers of artificial fertilization, hovers above 80 percent," the document said.

Yet on the delicate question of what should happen to those unused embryos, the document offers few clear answers. So-called "prenatal adoptions,'' in which one couple would "adopt'' another couple's excess embryos, is unacceptable because it would involve unnatural procedures, the congregation concludes. The Bush administration has supported such efforts.

"Abandoned embryos represent a situation of injustice which in fact cannot be resolved," the document states, quoting a statement by John Paul II that "there seems to be no morally licit solution" to the problem.

The Rev. Robert A. Gahl Jr., an American who teaches ethics at Rome's Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, said the church is still debating the proper response to excess embryos.

His own proposal is to "release them from their frozen captivity," so that they can be cared for by their natural or adoptive parents until their natural deaths a few days after thawing.

Yet at the end of the day, Gahl said one of the document's most significant contributions is its definition of a human embryo as possessing the "dignity proper to a person."

"This is an even more forceful rejection of the arguments that (Vice President-elect Joe) Biden and (Speaker of the House Nancy) Pelosi were making this summer, that the church is undecided about the status of the fetus," Gahl said.

"From now on, those sorts of opinions are off the map."

Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. Used by permission. All rights reserved.