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.

John Thavis of Catholic News Service has a useful “Vatican bioethics document at a glance” and John Allen has a detailed analysis at “Vatican issues new document on biotechnology.”

One interesting angle is the argument in the conclusion that modern societies have already banned other practices that violate human dignity such as “racism, slavery, unjust discrimination and marginalization of women, children, and ill and disabled people.:” It encourages Catholics to show “courageous opposition to all those practices which result in grave and unjust discrimination against unborn human beings, who have the dignity of a person, created like others in the image of God.”

Will science solve an ethical problem it helped create?

Cloning specialist Prof. Ian Wilmut, 2005The Daily Telegraph had a fascinating scoop over the weekend — Professor Ian Wilmut, the creator of Dolly the cloned sheep, has abandoned the therapeutic cloning method for a new way to create stem cells without an embryo. In classic Fleet Street style, the London daily announced in the second paragraph that the decision “will send shockwaves through the scientific establishment.” It took another 16 paras to get to other constituencies for this story, who are mentioned in passing in the line that “there is an intense search for alternatives because of pressure from the pro-life lobby, the opposition of President George W Bush and ever present concerns about cloning babies.

That doesn’t take away from their scoop in any way — it is primarily a science story, written by their science editor Roger Highfield, and it’s a good one. But this second angle is of enormous importance to many readers out there who have moral scruples about embryonic stem cell research.

Dolly the cloned sheep, 2002I was intrigued by a line high up saying: “Most of his motivation is practical but he admits the Japanese approach is also “easier to accept socially.” If I read that correctly, it means that science — which helped create this moral dilemma by developing the embryonic stem cell technique — may solve it eventually with another breakthrough that looks equally (or more) interesting to the scientist. That could take care of this issue, but others are bound to pop up that cannot be solved with a technical fix. Wilmot discusses this on a linked page publishing an extract from a book that he and Highfield wrote called After Dolly: The Uses and Misuses of Human Cloning. He believes an embryo cannot be considered a person until it is about 14 days old because it has no nervous system. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, counts personhood from the moment of conception, since it considers the potential in the embryo just as important as the cells that are already there. It’s hard to see how a technical breakthrough can bridge that gap.