In its most authoritative declaration on bio-ethics for more than 20 years, the Vatican yesterday reinforced its hostility to a wide range of techniques and treatments that have become available in recent decades. They included IVF, embryonic stem cell research, the morning-after pill and the contraceptive drug mifepristone.
A 36-page document endorsed by Pope Benedict XVI stopped short of declaring that human embryos were people. The pope's chief adviser on bio-ethical issues, Monsignor Rino Fisichella, told a press conference that such a declaration would have embroiled the Vatican in a "very complex philosophical debate".
But he said, the document fully backed the idea that a human embryo had the "dignity typical of a person".
And he noted this was an "advance" on the position taken in the Vatican's last high-level pronouncement, its 1987 instruction entitled Donum Vitae (The Gift of Life).
The formulation in its latest document, Dignitas Personae (The Dignity of the Person), comes close to equating with murder such practices as the destruction of defective embryos in IVF.
On one issue - what to do with frozen, "orphan" embryos - the Vatican admitted it was flummoxed. Dignitas Personae rules out every apparent solution: their destruction, their donation to infertile couples and their use for therapeutic or experimental purposes.
It said that proposals for the adoption of unwanted embryos were "praiseworthy in intention", but fraught with problems.
Fisichella's predecessor as president of the Pontifical Pro-life Academy, Monsignor Elio Sgreccia, said: "Our basic advice is that the freezing [of the embryos] ought not to be done." It created "a blind alley"; a situation "the correction of which implies another mistake".
But neither he nor any of the other Vatican officials at the presentation would venture an opinion on what they considered the lesser evil.
The document otherwise restates the Catholic church's opposition to abortifacient forms of contraception, or those it regards as such. These include the world's most widely used method of reversible contraception, the intrauterine device (IUD) or coil.
Dignitas Personae said most forms of artificial fertilisation were "to be excluded" on the grounds that they replaced "the conjugal act" as a means of reproduction. And it said pre-implantation diagnosis during IVF, in which embryos are examined for defects or to determine gender or other characteristics, was "shameful and utterly reprehensible".
Saying life was sacred from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death, the document also defended the Catholic church's right to intervene on such matters.
It accepted, however, that Catholic parents, especially in the US, might have no alternative to having their children inoculated with vaccines produced with cells from aborted foetuses.
It also stressed that the Catholic church did not oppose the use by researchers of adult stem cells.