VATICAN CITY - The Vatican hardened its opposition yesterday to using embryos for stem-cell research, cloning and in-vitro fertilization. But in the first authoritative statement on reproductive science in more than 20 years, it showed flexibility on some forms of gene therapy and left open questions surrounding embryo adoption.
The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued "The Dignity of a Person" to help answer bioethical questions that have emerged in the last two decades.
The Vatican's overall position stems from its belief that human life begins at conception and must be given the consequent respect and dignity from that moment on. The Vatican also holds that human life should be created through intercourse between husband and wife, not in a petri dish.
As a result, the Vatican said it opposed in-vitro fertilization and related technologies because it involved separating conception from the "conjugal act" and often results in the destruction of embryos.
It stopped short of issuing an explicit no to "embryo adoption," whereby infertile couples adopt embryos that were frozen during in-vitro techniques and subsequently abandoned. It said that while the intent was "praiseworthy," the result posed legal, medical and psychological problems.
Edmund Pellegrino, emeritus professor of medical ethics at Georgetown University and chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, said that vagueness indicated the question of embryo adoption "is still a little bit open."
He said the document was valuable not because it contained any new pronouncements, but because it made explicit, and in one authoritative place, Vatican positions on issues that have emerged since the last such document, "Gift of Life," in 1987. "The important thing is the linking [of the scientific advances] with the dignity of the human person," he said.
The Vatican said it opposed the morning-after pill, even if it does not cause an abortion, because an abortion was intended. That could complicate the situation of some Catholic hospitals in the United States that offer the morning-after pill to rape victims.
The Vatican did show flexibility in saying that parents could in good conscience use vaccines for their children that were prepared using cell lines derived from an "illicit origin," such as aborted fetuses.
"Grave reasons may be morally proportionate to justify the use of such 'biological material,' " the instruction said, but parents must make known their disagreement with the way the vaccines were developed.
The document said gene therapy on regular cells in the body other than reproductive ones was in principle morally acceptable.
But cell therapy that seeks to correct genetic defects with the aim of transmitting the therapy to offspring is more problematic, it said. "Because the risks connected to any genetic manipulation are considerable and as yet not fully controllable . . . it is not morally permissible," the document said.
The Vatican repeated that it supported research involving adult stem cells, but it said obtaining them from a living embryo was "gravely illicit."
The document also repeated its opposition to human cloning for both medical therapies and reproduction. Such techniques could result in an individual being subjected to a form of "biological slavery from which it would be difficult to free himself."
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