- The Washington Times - Friday, December 12, 2008

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.”

The Vatican also addresses “selective reduction,” whereby multiple embryos are placed in a woman’s uterus in the hopes of at least one pregnancy. Often a woman becomes pregnant with multiple fetuses and aborts, or “reduces,” one or more to make room for others in the womb.

This, the Vatican says, is still a condemned abortion, even if the goal is to raise the chances of viability for the remaining children.

“It is never permitted to do anything which is intrinsically illicit,” the document said, “not even in view of a good result. The end does not justify the means.”

Preimplantation diagnosis, whereby a fertilized embryo is searched for genetic defects before implantation in the womb, is also wrong, the Vatican said, because eliminating embryos with genetic defects, or simply being an unwanted sex, also constitutes abortion.

The Vatican had especially scathing language for people who tried this route, saying such diagnoses are part of a “eugenic mentality” that uses abortion to prevent the births of children with various anomalies.

“Such an attitude is shameful and utterly reprehensible,” it said, “it is presumes to measure the value of a human life only within the parameters of ‘normality’ or physical well-being, thus opening the way to legitimizing infanticide and euthanasia as well.”

The document also condemned human cloning, because it bypasses the sex act in creating a human being, including therapeutic cloning, which requires the destruction of human embryos.

“To create embryos with the intention of destroying them, even with the intention of helping the sick, is completely incompatible with human dignity,” the document said, “because it makes the existence of a human being at the embryonic stage nothing more than a means to be used and destroyed.”

It also tells Catholics not to use vaccines made from such stem cells or fetal tissue. Some of the popular vaccines for rubella, mumps and measles use material from abortions.

“They must be respected just as the remains of other human beings,” the document said.

“They’re saying we should raise a voice against society relying on tissue from aborted children for research and vaccines,” said Richard Doerflinger, associate director for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops secretariat of pro-life activities. “Some of the tissues from these vaccines are from an abortion that was procured 30 years ago.”

The document did approve the therapeutic use of stem cells from adults, umbilical cord blood and children who have died in the womb of natural causes - but not from living embryos.

But aids to fertility - such as hormonal treatments, surgery on blocked fallopian tubes or for endometriosis - are licit. The document also approves gene therapies that seek to correct genetic defects, such as cystic fibrosis or Tay Sachs disease, so as not to transmit disease to one’s offspring.

But it forbids manipulating genes in an embryos, ovum or sperm to improve the gene pool, thus creating a “designer” child or a super race.

“Such manipulation would promote a eugenic mentality and would lead to indirect social stigma with regard to people who lack certain qualities,” it said, “while privileging qualities that happen to be appreciated by a certain culture or society.”

Left intentionally vague, some scholars said, is the question of embryo “adoption” for infertile couples.

The church frowns on the procedure, because the child came from in-vitro fertilization.

“It is a bit ambiguous,” said Steve Bozza, who counsels such couples for the Diocese of Camden, N.J. “We need to get some bishops here to help us on this.

“I know of many good theologians who would say you’re giving these embryos a chance for life. Others would argue against this. The document is probably leaving open the idea we can go this route. If they say no to it now, it will be difficult to change that.”

Father Mindling said the document used the term “prenatal adoption” for these frozen embryos, putting the matter in terms of “rescuing” a doomed human being.

“The fact that this [document] does not explicitly rule out the option of prenatal adoption, but uses language that is ambiguous, does sound like it’s inviting ethical speculation,” he said. “Here are human persons who have rights and should be protected by law but are in this terrible situation.”

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