Designer babies, human/animal hybrids, cloning, stem cell research and a whole range of common biomedical innovations are forbidden, the Vatican said Friday in a document about procreation and genetic technologies.
But gene therapies, some fertility treatments and possibly embryo “adoption” are allowed, according to Dignitatis Personae, a 32-page document. It was penned by Cardinal William J. Levada, the American who heads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s doctrinal arm, and his staff.
The title, which means “the dignity of a person” in Latin, stresses repeatedly why an embryo must be treated as a person even before implantation on the uterine wall. It merits “unconditional respect” from the moment of conception, which occurs as soon as an egg is fertilized, thus creating a genetically distinct individual.
Dignitatis Personae updates a 1987 Vatican document, Donum Vitae, addressing biological innovations almost unknown 21 years ago: gene therapy, cloning, embryonic stem cell lines and the commercialization of frozen embryos. The document was released Friday morning; a copy was obtained by The Washington Times.
It also criticizes the “eugenic perspective” of many medical researchers, saying these scientists commit “injustice” by freezing or destroying a helpless embryo.
“It says, ‘This is a person from the first moment,’” said the Rev. J. Daniel Mindling, a moral theologian at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md. “In pro-abortion rhetoric, people wanted to say the embryo only had rights at some later point because it was not a person yet.”
Basic to the Catholic Church’s concept of the individual is that the sexual act between a married couple brings that person into existence. The new person must be a “fruit of the conjugal act”; hence any fertility technologies that substitute for that - such as artificial insemination, surrogate motherhood and intracytoplasmic sperm injection - are forbidden, the document said.
In-vitro fertilization, during which multiple eggs are taken from a woman’s ovaries, fertilized, then frozen until implantation in the womb - got specific condemnation, even though the document recognized that one-third of all women who try the procedure succeed in conceiving.
“Given the proportion between total number of embryos produced and those eventually born, the number of embryos sacrificed is extremely high,” the document said. Roughly 90 percent of all frozen embryos are discarded or die.
Each of these embryos is “deserving of full respect,” it said, and not to be put in a freezer and withdrawn whenever a couple decides to have more children.
“In any other area of medicine, ordinary professional ethics and the healthcare authorities themselves would never allow a medical procedure which involved such a high number of failures and fatalities,” the document said.
Freezing of fertilized embryos also was declared forbidden because of the high mortality rate of embryos that do not survive the freezing or thawing process. The Catholic Church considers these embryos to be human beings.
Use of these embryos for research is “unacceptable” because they are treated as “mere biological material” fit only for destruction, the document says.
The United States leads the world in stockpiling fertilized embryos. Based on a 2002 study by the Rand Corp., the number of frozen embryos in American fertility banks is estimated at 500,000. A 2005 study by the University of California at San Francisco says the average couple has seven remaining embryos left after a successful fertilization.
The answer to this, the Vatican says, is not to freeze embryos at all, as they deserve “to be protected by law as human persons.”