FaithWorld

France to renew tight bioethics limits, critics hit Catholic lobbying

ivf

(An in-vitro fertilization (IVF) procedure in Warsaw, October 26, 2010/Kacper Pempel )

France’s parliament opened debate on revising its bioethics laws on Tuesday amid protests that Roman Catholic Church lobbying had thwarted plans to ease the existing curbs on embryonic stem cell research. The bill, originally meant to update a 2004 law in light of rapid advances in the science of procreation, would also uphold bans on surrogate motherhood and assisted procreation for gays.

The debate coincided with news of France’s first “saviour sibling,” a designer baby conceived in vitro to provide stem cells to treat a sibling suffering from a severe blood disorder.

Critics of the bill said last-minute changes by deputies of the governing conservative UMP party meant the revision would hardly change the restrictive law currently on the books. The text retains tight limits for research on embryonic stem cells, a technology the Church vigourously opposes because the in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) method used to produce them creates extra embryos that are later discarded.

“The Catholics have succeeded in imposing their view on embryos and seem to be succeeding in their attack on this method,” said François Olivennes, a leading fertility expert, told Europe 1 radio. “We already have a very retrograde law compared to those in Spain, Britain, Belgium, Netherlands and all of Scandinavia. Nothing is advancing.”

Polish bishops call IVF “younger sister of eugenics”

cloneBishops of Poland’s influential Roman Catholic Church have branded in vitro fertilization (IVF) “the younger sister of eugenics” in a letter aimed at swaying lawmakers ahead of a parliamentary debate.

Their intervention, two weeks after the Vatican condemned the awarding of the 2010 Nobel Prize for medicine to IVF pioneer Robert Edwards, triggered an unusually sharp response from lawmakers who say the clergy should not meddle in politics. (Photo: A cloned human embryo, created at the Centre for Life in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, 19 May 2005/handout)

“The in vitro method comes at great human cost. To give birth to one child … many humans suffer death at different stages of the medical process,” said the letter, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters on Tuesday.

Obama’s stem cell switch another setback for U.S. conservatives

It’s another day in the life of the busy Obama administration.  In this case, it means another day of despair for America’s social and religious conservatives.

STEMCELLS/USA

President Barack Obama lifted restrictions on federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research on Monday, angering abortion opponents but cheering those who believe further scientific investigations could lead to breakthrough treatments for many diseases. You can see our report here.

Since taking office on Jan. 20, Obama has also lifted a ban on funding for overseas groups or clinics that provide or counsel on abortion services, rescinded a Bush administration rule to protect health workers who refuse to provide services and information on moral grounds, and publicly backed the constitutional separation between church and state which he said America’s founding fathers “wisely drew.”

Italy’s “Terry Schiavo case” even more like its U.S. precedent

UPDATE: Eluana Englaro died on Monday Feb. 9.

What’s been called “Italy’s Terry Schiavo case” is starting to resemble its U.S. precedent in more ways than one. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi ordered doctors on Friday not to disconnect the feeding tubes that the country’s top appeals court had ruled could be removed. Doctors had began withdrawing them on Friday before the order came from Rome.

Eluana Englaro, 38, has been in a vegetative state since a car crash in 1992. Her  case has looked much like that of Schiavo, the American who spent 15 years in a vegetative state and was allowed to die in 2005 after a long court battle. (Photo:Eluana Englaro in an undated family photo)

“Until we have a law about end-of-life issues, nutrition and hydration, because they are a form of vital life sustenance, cannot be suspended under any circumstances by those who are care-givers of people who are not self-sufficient,” Berlusconi said after making the case resemble the Schiavo drama even more by intervening to stop Englaro’s tubes from being removed. In the Schiavo case, President George Bush also stepped in at a late stage to try to block a court decision to disconnect her.

Vatican daily says pill pollutes, causes male infertility

The Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano published an article over the weekend claiming that the contraceptive pill pollutes the environment massively, contributes to male infertility and causes abortions. Those claims, if true, hit lots of hot buttons about science, ethics, faith and government policy. They should make headlines around the world. But apart from the Italian press, for which this is a home game, they haven’t. Why not? (Photo: Japanese contraceptive pills, 26 Aug 1999/Kimimasa Mayama)

It’s probably because the article also sets off lots of red lights for anyone trying to assess the validity of its claims. Its author Pedro José Maria Simón Castellví, head of the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations, makes several scientific-sounding claims but basically asks the reader to accept them on faith. Castellví says his article is based on a 100-page report by a Swiss doctor, Rudolf Ehmann, but doesn’t quote directly from it or say where it can be found.  This can’t be for lack of space, because he fills several lines with florid praise for the report with comments such as: “The original German text is beautifully written … it is written with all the scientific requirements, without any inferiority complex toward any discussion of obstetrics and gynaecology…”

The article’s headline — “Humanae Vitae – A Scientific Prophesy” — also hints its purpose is probably more religious than scientific. Humanae Vitae is the 1968 encyclical that reaffirmed the Church ban on artificial birth control. Its 40th anniversary last July prompted a series of Catholic statements, articles and conferences defending what was probably the most controversial encyclical of the 20th century. The major bioethics paper put out by the Vatican last month made several references to Humanae Vitae to bolster its argument.

Vatican reaffirms stand against IVF, designer babies, cloning

The Vatican issued a major document on bioethics today, “Instruction Dignitas Personae on Certain Bioethical Questions,” that outlines Roman Catholic teaching on the latest procedures concerning human reproduction. This is the third major Vatican document on bioethics in recent years after Donum Vitae (Gift of Life) in 1987 — issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), like today’s document — and Pope John Paul’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae (Gospel of Life) in 1995. (Photo:Pope kisses baby at Vatican, 8 Oct 2008/Max Rossi)

Our news story on the document is here, accompanied by a list of procedures it declared morally unacceptable and acceptable and selected quotes from the text. The full text in English is here. The Vatican also has comments from the news conference presenting the document (here all in Italian).

Much of this is a restatement and updating of known Vatican positions. The wording is in places quite strong and sound-bite-like, which may mean those passages could be intended for use in national political debates about bioethics. There is too much to comment on individually here, so go to the links for details.

Court allows cut-off in Italy’s “Terry Schiavo case”

Italy’s “Terry Schiavo case” has ended with the country’s top appeals court allowing a father to disconnect the feeding tube that has kept his comatose daughter alive for 16 years. Eluana Englaro, now 37, has been in a vegetative state at a hospital in northern Italy since a 1992 car crash. The Englaro case has been compared to that of American Terri Schiavo, who spent 15 years in a vegetative state before a long and very public dispute ended in 2005 with a court decision allowing her husband to have her feeding tube disconnected.

As in the Schiavo case, the Milan court that ruled on the case said it was convinced Englaro would prefer to die rather than be kept alive artificially. State prosecutors appealed that decision to the Cassation Court, the highest appeals court in Italy, and it was the Cassation Court’s decision on Nov. 13 that definitively settled the case. (Photo:Eluana Englaro in an undated family photo)

This was the first time such a ruling has been made and upheld in Italy, where the influential Roman Catholic Church is implacably opposed to ending feeding and hydrating of patients in a vegetative state. Vatican Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan called the decision a “monstrous and inhuman murder” .

Vatican denies it’s trying to redefine death

L’Osservatore Romano with death article (right column), 3 Sept 2008 The Vatican has caused a stir by appearing to want to redefine death and then denying any such thing. If where there’s smoke, there’s fire, we haven’t heard the end of this yet.

It all started with a front-page article in the Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano challenging the widely-accepted concept that brain death — the irreversible end of all brain activity — is the right standard for determining that someone has died. The article argued that doctors developed that standard 40 years ago to enable them to harvest organs for transplantation. The article by Lucetta Scaraffia, an Italian history professor and bioethicist, argued:

“The scientific justification of (the brain death standard) rests on a peculiar definition of the nervous system that is now being questioned by new research, which casts doubt on the fact that brain death leads to the disintegration of the body … The idea that the human person ceases to exist when the brain no longer functions, while the body is kept alive thanks to artificial respiration, implies an identification of the person with brain activity alone. This contradicts the concept of the person according to Catholic doctrine and thus contradicts the directives of the Church in the case of patients in a persistent coma.”

Paris archdiocese restores medieval college as faith forum

Main hall of the College des Bernardins in Paris, 1 Sept 2008/Charles PlatiauOne of the largest medieval buildings in Paris reopens this week as a forum for discussion about faith in the modern world after more than two centuries being used mostly as a fire station and police training centre. The Collège des Bernardins was founded in 1247 by the English Cistercian monk Stephen of Lexington as a residential college for the order’s monks. After the French Revolution, it was taken over by the city.

The Roman Catholic archdiocese of Paris bought the building and spent five years renovating it to house its theology school and host debates, conferences, art exhibitions and evenings of film and music. Its first major event will be a speech on faith and culture by Pope Benedict, who will address an audience of 700 personalities from the world of French culture on the first day of his Sept. 12-15 visit to France.

The college, whose name comes from its original designation as St. Bernard’s College, stands on the Left Bank just off the Boulevard Saint Germain. The five-year restoration highlighted the building’s simple Gothic architecture while adding modern comforts such as heating, air conditioning and WiFi (see video). The college aims “to serve mankind in all its dimensions — its emotions, its intelligence, its liberty, its relations and its faith”.

Dutch play probes “mercy killing” as euthanasia deaths fall

Alzheimer’s patient in Dutch nursing home, 7 May 2008/Michael Kooren“The Good Death,” a play about euthanasia, has brought the issue of “mercy killing” to Dutch theatres at a time when such deaths are falling. They dropped to 2,325, or 1.7 percent of all deaths in 2005, from 2.6 percent in 2001. Playing to packed houses throughout the Netherlands, which legalised euthanasia in 2002, the play shows the law has not removed the moral dilemma for many involved.

In fact, part of the reason for the drop in euthanasia deaths could be that agonised doctors are opting to give patients heavy sedation until they die, rather than putting an end to their lives. Even some patients who have asked for euthanasia are given continuous deep sedation instead. This feature by our Netherlands chief correspondent Emma Thomasson looks at the issues involved.

This raises the question of whether deep sedation, while being presented as palliative care that is ethically acceptable for many faiths, is not in fact “euthanasia lite.” Or at least whether it is being used as such. The British Medical Journal has suggested this in a report that prompted an editorial and a lively reader discussion. “Although the exact cause of this trend is unclear, there are indications that continuous deep sedation may in some cases be being used as a substitute for euthanasia,” a report in Science Daily said.