Vatican's New Bioethics Rules Grapple With 21st Century Medical Advances

By Eliza Strickland | December 15, 2008 10:31 am

VaticanThe Vatican has issued new ethical guidelines in response to the biomedical advances of the last 20 years, and has come down hard on assisted reproduction technologies and genetic engineering. The document, Dignitas Personae (which translates as “human dignity”), reaffirm the church’s opposition to in vitro fertilization. It also tells Catholics that the church also doesn’t condone “adopting” leftover fertilized embryos from fertility clinics, and frowns upon the genetic testing of embryos before implantation, which could lead to the embryo being discarded. The Vatican says these techniques violate the principles that every human life — even an embryo — is sacred, and that babies should be conceived only through intercourse by a married couple [The New York Times].

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 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” [Scientific American]. The guidelines may come as a surprise to many Catholics who don’t realize that the church takes such a strict stance on medical technologies like in vitro fertilization that are often seen as routine and beneficial.

The document also for the first time raises questions about whether it is moral for people to “adopt” embryos left over from IVF — a practice President Bush highlighted when he restricted federal funding of stem cell research. While the practice may be “praiseworthy” in some ways, the Vatican document warns that it could help perpetuate the creation of more embryos [Washington Post]. A recent study found that there are currently more than 400,000 leftover fertilized embryos chilling in the freezers of fertility clinics around the country, which pose an ethical dilemma for the patients who created them.

The document also objects to embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, and certain types of genetic engineering. But it states that the church has no problem with research on adult stem cells that are removed from an adult donor without causing any harm. Dignitas Personae also strikes a compromise with gene therapy, which is approved for treating diseases, though not for non-therapeutic uses, such as making people smarter or stronger. Even permanent genetic modifications that can be passed to children are acceptable, as long as it’s safe [Wired News].

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Image: flickr / MAMJODH

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Larian LeQuella

    Dark Age beliefs for a Bronze-Age ethos?

  • Catholic physician

    I am very, very pleasantly suprised to read such a description of Dignitas Personae on a science blog. It was neither laudatory nor polemical, and simply states the basic facts accurately.

    One question: why not cite from the document directly? Or from the summary and Q&A provided by the Vatican? That would seem to be even better reporting rather than using indirect sources, even if they are generally reliable sources.

    Last thing: other than some updates to talk about new technologies like “embryo adoption”, none of this is new. Informed Catholics already knew the Church’s teaching on IVF, for example.

  • Jeffery Lowers

    It is illogical to state that “every human life is sacred” and then deny the scientifically derived techniques that have actually created and enhanced human life. There is a small but growing population of “test tube” babies who are fully functional humans. The article here denies these people the right to catholic approval, which is wrong and actually impossible by the tenets of the religious practice.

  • Mike

    The Catholic Church is more concerned about clusters of undifferentiated cells than it is about fully grown adults, to wit its policies on condom usage as protection against sexually transmitted diseases, even having its African bishops spreading falsehoods about condoms being precontaminated with HIV by Europeans ( I guess that includes the Vatican) trying to wipe out Africans.

  • JP

    Jeffery, the whole point of the document is to say that -all- human beings are equal in human dignity. The Catholic Church does say that rape, extramarital relationships, and IVF are not the right way to conceive children. But at the same time, it says we must treat all people with dignity regardless of how they were conceived. Moreover, we must treat all people with dignity regardless of whether they are “fully functional”, “healthy enough”, “the right age”, “the right race”, or any other form of discrimination we might think up.

  • Mike

    “it says we must treat all people with dignity regardless of how they were conceived. ” but will not condemn states that hang and torture homosexuals, nor support UN declarations of rights in such cases.

    No, the Catholic Church is still promulgating the mindset of a primitive desert religion.

  • JP

    Mike, the Holy See is only an observer at the UN. Nonetheless, it has repeatedly used the UN as a forum to condemn any capital punishment that is not strictly necessary (i.e. nearly all) and every kind of torture. The sexual orientation of the victims is beside the point. Torture is torture, and capital punishment is capital punishment.

    You might wish to read this UN document:
    Compare the number of reservations held by the US to the complete lack of reservations in the Holy See’s signing.

    More on topic, I find it encouraging that the CDF is considering here both the good and bad uses of these biotechnologies. The conclusion (part 36) of Dignitas Personae seems particularly hopeful when it compares movements like the one for “the full recognition and protection of disabled or ill people” to fights where great progress has already been made, like worker’s rights.

  • Mike

    Good to know that the Holy See is only a moral authority *relative* to the United States.

  • Bystander

    I vote that we completely ignore, ‘Thats so inhumane and against God” people and implement and practice our struggling new technologies anyway. It’s not like we would force them to use it. That way everyone wins ^_^.. imo. I can gain access to incredible life saving/altering medical advances and be happy while they sit back whining about things like ‘blacks’ and ‘gays’ and ‘educa…’ and how immoral it all is.

    Ps: Why are all hospitals named after religious figures?

  • Stella

    Please see the link >

    Assisted reproduction lets down those it was intended for.


  • Freeman Jackson

    I salute the Dignitas Personae but what next? Will the Catholic Church
    go so far as to protect/help those who have been victimized by this?
    Up until now we have had no voice.

    Over 3,000,000 IVFs have been performed but the amount of IVF Fraud
    Cases have not being properly recorded and reported. I know because it
    happened to me.

    Please sign my petition and pass it on.


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