The Vatican issues bioethics document

This week, the Vatican issued a far-reaching document on bioethics that took issue with many common fertility treatments. The Scientific American offered this coverage:

The Vatican released a striking bioethics document today that condemns not only embryonic stem cell research, human-animal hybrids, and human cloning, but also the commonplace practice of in vitro fertilization that many couples depend on to have children.

The document, titled “The Dignity of the Person,” was released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is charged under Pope Benedict XVI to develop moral instructions for handling bioethical issues of the day. Few expected the instructions, whose official title is in Latin, to be forward-looking, but their striking position against in vitro fertilization (IVF) and surrogate motherhood may take many by surprise.

These instructions stem from two fundamental theological principles: that life begins at conception and that the origin of human life is the “fruit of marriage.”

The first principle is well known for driving opposition to abortion and embryonic stem cell research. The document now makes clear that the morning-after pill, RU-486, and intrauterine devices (IUDs), which either intercept the embryo before implantation or eliminate it after implantation, “fall within the sin of abortion.” While embryonic stem cell research is “a grave moral disorder,” the document notes that parents may make use of a “vaccine which was developed using cell lines of illicit origin” when the health of a child is at stake as long as they voice their disapproval and request alternatives. And while the document supports somatic cell gene therapy — that is, in cells other than reproductive cells — it comes down against genetic modifications of the reproductive cell lines “in the present state of research” because they are too risky and would be transmitted to potential offspring. Genetic engineering, it also warns, may promote a “eugenic mentality” which would contrast with the Vatican’s fundamental view of equality.

More difficult to grapple are the scientific and policy implications of that second principle, which links the creation of life to marriage and calls into question the morality of IVF.

Josephine Johnston, an expert on reproductive ethics at The Hastings Center in Garrison, New York, was interviewed in the article, and she expressed surprise at the judgments on fertility treatments:

The most difficult thing for me to understand was the judgments on assisted reproduction, particularly in vitro fertilization. The document also mischaracterizes in vitro fertilization in a number of ways.

The Vatican says that in vitro fertilization is wrong at its core because it involves conception outside of a woman’s body. Unblocking fallopian tubes, undoing a vasectomy, or giving fertility medicine that boosts egg production so the woman is more likely to conceive through intercourse is okay. But anything that involves conception happening in the lab: taking the eggs out of a woman, fertilizing the eggs with the sperm, and then putting one or two or three embryos back inside the woman. It is opposed to that for two reasons. It doesn’t like the embryo loss that is often involved. That I don’t agree with, but I understand the Vatican’s rationale. But it also opposes IVF even if it doesn’t involve embryo loss, because the Vatican is committed to conception that involves the conjugal act. This I don’t really understand.

Read it all here.

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