Some biotech advances playing God, Vatican says

By  John Thavis, Catholic News Service
  • December 16, 2008
{mosimage}VATICAN CITY - A new Vatican document warned that certain recent developments in stem-cell research, gene therapy and embryonic experimentation violate moral principles and reflect an attempt by man to “take the place of his Creator.”

The latest advances raise serious questions of moral complicity for researchers and other biotech professionals, who have a duty to refuse to use biological material obtained by unethical means, the document said.

The 32-page instruction, titled Dignitas Personae (The Dignity of a Person), was issued Dec. 12 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Pope Benedict XVI personally approved the text and ordered its publication.

The document represented an updating of the congregation’s 1987 instruction, Donum Vitae (The Gift of Life), which rejected in vitro fertilization, human cloning, surrogate motherhood and non-therapeutic experiments with human embryos.

The new instruction expanded on those teachings or presented new ones in the following areas:

  • Stem-cell research. The document recognized that stem cells have opened new prospects in regenerative medicine. It said it is morally acceptable to take stem cells when they do no serious harm to the subject, as is generally the case when tissues are taken from an adult organism, from the umbilical cord at the time of birth or from fetuses that have died from natural causes.

    On the other hand, it said, it is always “gravely illicit” to take stem cells from a living human embryo, because it invariably causes the death of the embryo.
  • The morning-after pill and other anti-implantation methods. The document said an embryo is constituted after fertilization of the egg, and drugs and techniques that prevent its implantation in the uterine wall are morally illicit because they intend to cause an abortion — even if they don’t actually cause an abortion every time they are used.

    Anyone who seeks to prevent the implantation of an embryo that may have been conceived, and who therefore requests or prescribes such a drug, generally intends abortion, it said. The use of such anti-implantation methods “falls within the sin of abortion” and is gravely immoral; when there is certainty that an abortion has resulted, there also are serious canon law penalties, it said.
  • Gene therapy. It said genetic engineering that aims to correct genetic defects by intervening on non-reproductive cells, a process called somatic-cell gene therapy, is in principle morally acceptable. The effects in this case are limited to a single person.

    But is it not permissible to make genetic modifications that seek to transmit the effects to the subject’s offspring, called germ-line cell therapy, because of potential harm to the progeny, the document said. It said that “in the present state of research” germ-line cell therapy in all its forms is morally illicit.
  • Embryo manipulation and “adoption.” The document repeated earlier condemnations of the in vitro creation of human embryos, a technique often used in fertility treatment, first because it separates procreation from the conjugal act in marriage, and second because in practice unused embryos are often discarded, thus violating the principle that “the human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception.”

    Freezing such embryos is itself a violation of ethics, because it exposes them to a serious risk of death or harm, the document said. Most of such embryos remain “orphans,” it said. Despite the good intentions of people who have suggested a form of “prenatal adoption” to allow unused frozen embryos to be born, such a proposal would be subject to medical, psychological and legal problems, it said.
  • Freezing of human eggs. The freezing of oocytes, immature human egg cells, has been introduced as part of an in vitro fertilization technique, in which only those eggs to be transferred to the mother’s body are fertilized. The document said the freezing of oocytes for this purpose is morally unacceptable.
  • Human-animal hybrid cloning. The document rejected as immoral recent efforts to use animal eggs to reprogram human cells in order to extract embryonic stem cells from the resulting embryos. These efforts represent a grave offense against human dignity by mixing animal and human genetic elements capable of “disrupting the specific identity of man,” it said. In addition, use of the resulting stem cells would expose humans to unacceptable risks, it said.

In a section titled “The use of human ‘biological material’ of illicit origin,” the document examined the ethical questions posed for people who, in research or the production of vaccines or other products, deal with cell lines that are the result of a procedure the church considers immoral. In cases where there is a direct connection, such as embryonic experimentation that inevitably involves the killing of the human embryos, such acts “always constitute a grave moral disorder,” it said.

It said the situation was more complex when a researcher works with cell lines produced apart from his research centre or obtained commercially. The document rejected the “criterion of independence,” as formulated by some ethics committees, which argues that using such biological material would be ethically permissible as long as there is a clear separation between those causing the death of embryos, for example, and those doing the research.

The document said it was necessary to distance oneself in one’s ordinary professional activities from the injustice perpetrated by others, even when immoral actions are legal, in order not to give the impression of “tacit acceptance of actions which are gravely unjust.”

“Therefore, it needs to be stated that there is a duty to refuse to use such ‘biological material’ even when there is no close connection between the researcher and the actions of those who performed the artificial fertilization or the abortion, or when there was not prior agreement with the centres in which the artificial fertilization took place,” it said.

In the wider framework, it added, there are differing degrees of responsibility, and grave reasons may in some cases justify the use of such “biological material.” For example, it said, the danger to the health of children could permit parents to legitimately use a vaccine that was developed using cell lines obtained illicitly. In such a case, it noted, the parents have no voice in the decision over how the vaccines are made. At the same time, it said, everyone should ask their health care system to make other types of vaccines available.

The instruction repeated earlier Vatican condemnations of human cloning, whether done to produce embryos for stem cells or to define the genetic identity of an individual person, which the document called “a form of biological slavery.”

The document said couples need to be aware that techniques such as pre-implantation diagnosis, which is used in artificial fertilization and leads to the destruction of embryos suspected of defects, reflects a growing “eugenic mentality.” It cited an increasing number of cases in which couples with no fertility problems are using artificial means of procreation in order to engage in the genetic selection of their offspring.

The document closed with an appeal to view the church’s teachings not as a series of “no’s” but as an effort to protect society’s weakest and most defenseless against forms of unjust discrimination and oppression.

Dignitas Personae drew on a number of sources, in particular Donum Vitae and Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical,”Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life.) It also cited the teachings of Pope Benedict XVI, notably his address on stem cells to the Pontifical Academy for Life in 2006.

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