HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Friday, December 12, 2008

New Statement from Vatican on Reproductive Technologies

Vatican The Washington Post reports today on the Vatican's new statement on various reproductive technologies.  Michelle Boorstein and Rob Stein state in their article,

The Vatican, in its first authoritative statement on reproductive science in more than 20 years, today condemned human cloning, designer babies, embryonic stem cell research that destroys human embryos and a host of techniques widely used to help infertile couples.  The sweeping 32-page document, which comes from the Catholic Church's highest rule-making authority and has the approval of Pope Benedict, warns about the moral dangers of a variety of procedures, including the freezing of unfertilized eggs and embryos, the injection of sperm directly into eggs, and the genetic testing of embryos to identify those with defects.

Although many of the arguments in "Dignitas Personae" -- Latin for "the dignity of a person" -- have been made before by Benedict and his predecessor, Pope John Paul, in public comments or writings, a church "instruction" from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is far more authoritative. It reflects the Vatican's desire to focus attention on ethical questions raised by technologies that are becoming increasingly commonplace in the United States and elsewhere.

In addition to influencing Catholic doctors, patients and researchers, the document could spur debate among non-Catholics and possibly play a role in current political debates. Barack Obama, for example, has promised to end restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, and the Bush administration is finalizing a broad new federal regulation designed to protect health-care workers who object to providing therapies or care they find morally objectionable. The document does not address either of those issues directly but provides ethical guidance on both.

"It makes very clear that the church is very closely watching scientific progress and favors that progress but wants ethics to be part of that," said Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "The whole subject of misuse of technology to demean human dignity is a major concern." . . . .

Only a handful of Catholic experts were allowed to preview the document, and it was difficult to immediately gauge what impact it will have. Many non-Catholic bioethicists are also focused on technologies mentioned in the document, but the Catholic Church is historically a leader in the field of bioethics and is the world's largest Christian denomination.

Dignitas Personae, which is being released at an afternoon news conference in Rome, seeks to update "Donum Vitae," which came out in 1987 and focused on in-vitro fertilization. That was written by Pope Benedict -- then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- who was then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and has shaped its work and views.

Experts who had seen the document predicted it would trigger intense debate about embryo adoption as well as about alternative methods that have been proposed for obtaining embryonic stem cells. Those cells can be turned into any cell in the body and scientists hope to use them to treat a host of diseases. Alternative methods, which involve, for example, cells that have been altered so they could never develop into a viable embryo, deserve further research in animals, the document said . . . .

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