New Vatican directives on bioethics uphold bans on harming embryos and on conception outside of marital intercourse, but they are cautiously open to some controversial research, including at least one way to produce embryonic stem cells.
Dignitas Personae, "The Dignity of a Person," was issued yesterday by the Vatican's doctrinal office and approved by Pope Benedict XVI. It applies old principles to new issues.
"The dignity of a person must be recognized in every human being from conception to natural death. This fundamental principle expresses a great 'yes' to human life and must be at the center of ethical reflection on biomedical research," it said.
"The body of a human being, from the very first stages of its existence, can never be reduced merely to a group of cells."
Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., said it would provide needed guidance.
"Given the complexity of technology today, especially in the area of reproduction, it is not surprising that many Catholics may have confusion about the morality of a particular technology. This document provides the context for us to strengthen our teaching in this area," he said.
It calls for the benefits of biomedical research to be made available to the world's poor. And it says it is morally acceptable for parents to allow their children to be vaccinated with serum made from cell lines from fetuses aborted decades ago, but that the parents also have a duty to urge the medical community to find alternate sources.
As in the past, it rejects in-vitro fertilization, which it says treats babies as consumer commodities and leads to the deliberate destruction of embryos. It forbids the freezing of embryos, experiments on embryos and any act intended to prevent implantation of a fertilized egg or to end gestation.
Gene therapy intended to cure an individual is approved. But it takes a cautious approach to efforts to halt the passing of defective embryonic genes to future generations and to some attempts to produce embryonic-type stem cells without harming embryos. It discourages, but does not flatly prohibit, "embryo adoption," in which couples seek to rescue someone else's embryo from a fertility clinic freezer.
"There are some issues where the document is not saying 'absolutely not,' but it is saying that there are concerns here that have not been resolved and that nobody should assume this is OK, given what we know now," said Richard Doerflinger, associate director for the U.S. bishops' Secretariat for Pro-life Activities.
One of the most controversial bioethical issues is human embryonic stem cells, which advocates say have unique potential for curing some illnesses and disabilities.
The document forbids any procedure that harms or kills embryos to obtain such cells, but gives consideration to proposed methods of creating them from so-called "artificial embryos" that proponents say can't develop into real embryos.
The Rev. Ronald Cole-Turner, who teaches bioethics at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, was disappointed that the document did not embrace proposed "germ line cell therapy" in which embryonic genes could be altered to prevent disease from passing to future generations.
In 2002, he said, the Vatican even proposed a morally acceptable way to proceed. But the document says current proposals require in-vitro fertilization and pose uncontrollable risks to future generations. "[I]n its current state, germ line cell therapy in all its forms is morally illicit," it said.
Based only on a brief summary he heard, "this document may be discouraging to scientists who take their faith seriously and have tried to work out morally acceptable alternatives to some of these procedures," said Dr. Cole-Turner, a minister of the United Church of Christ. He differs with Catholic teaching on the status of the embryo but said the Vatican does careful research that is widely respected.
Gerard Magill, a professor of bioethics at Duquesne University, said the document leaves the door open for germ line therapy. "It is quite optimistic in the sense that things might change in the future," said Dr. Magill, who had heard only a short summary.
He has researched induced pluripotent stem cells and believes the Vatican should have addressed the technique's potential to create human embryos. Bishop Lori said he didn't believe that was necessary because the use of those stem cells "would fall under already existing principles."
The document uses the term eugenics -- a "good breeding" movement in the 1930s that produced medical murder in Nazi Germany and involuntary sterilizations of black Americans -- to describe genetic engineering for reasons other than medical treatment. It warned that altering embryos to improve intelligence, strength or other qualities would violate "the fundamental truth of the equality of all human beings" and "harm peaceful coexistence among individuals."
The document is online at www.usccb.org/comm/Dignitaspersonae.
Ann Rodgers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416.