VATICAN CITY — The Vatican raised its opposition to embryonic stem cell research, the morning-after pill, in vitro fertilization and human cloning to a new level Friday in a major new document on bioethics.
But in the document, the Vatican also said it approved of some forms of gene therapy and encouraged stem cell research using adult cells. And it said parents could in good conscience inoculate their children with vaccines produced with cells derived from aborted fetuses.
The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued "The Dignity of a Person" to answer bioethical questions that have emerged in the two decades since its last such document was published.
With it, the Vatican has essentially confirmed in a single, authoritative instruction the opinions of the Pontifical Academy for Life, a Vatican advisory body that has debated these issues for years.
The Vatican's overall position is formed by its belief that human life begins at conception, and must be afforded all 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 the morning-after pill, even if it doesn't cause an abortion, because an abortion was "intended." In the use of drugs such as RU-486, which causes the elimination of the embryo once it is implanted, the "sin of abortion" is committed; their use is thus "gravely immoral."
The Vatican also said it opposed in vitro fertilization because it involves separating conception from the "conjugal act" and often results in the destruction of embryos. The Vatican supports, however, techniques that help couples overcome obstacles to getting pregnant.
In the document, the Vatican elaborated on a host of issues surrounding assisted fertility, saying it:
- Opposed the selective reduction of embryos often used in in vitro procedures since it essentially is abortion.
- Opposed pre-implantation diagnosis of embryos since it may be followed by the destruction of those embryos deemed defective or otherwise undesirable.
- Opposed freezing embryos, since it is "incompatible with the respect owed to human embryos" and also means they were created in vitro.
It said that, while freezing eggs is not in itself immoral, it becomes unacceptable when it occurs for the sake of artificial procreation.
The Vatican lauded as "praiseworthy" the suggestion by some to let infertile couples "adopt" the thousands of frozen embryos that have been produced in vitro over the years. But it said such adoptions present a host of medical, psychological and legal problems.
The instruction also weighed in on research involving stem cells, cloning and gene therapy.
The Vatican stressed that it fully supported research involving adult stem cells. But it said obtaining stem cells from a living embryo, even for the sake of effective therapies, was "gravely illicit."
It said gene therapy on regular cells in the body other than reproductive ones was in principle morally licit since it sought to "restore the normal genetic configuration of the patient or to counter damage caused by genetic anomalies."
But it said that cell therapy which seeks to correct genetic defects with the aim of transmitting the therapy onto offspring was more problematic.
"Because the risks connected to any genetic manipulation are considerable and as yet not fully controllable, in the present state of research, it is not morally permissible to act in a way that may cause harm to the resulting progeny," the document said.
In the document, the Vatican 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."
- Said parents could in good conscience use a vaccine for their children that was developed using cell lines from an "illicit origin." Religious groups in the United States have pressed the Vatican to issue a statement concerning the morality of using vaccines developed using cell lines derived from aborted fetuses.
"Grave reasons may be morally proportionate to justify the use of such 'biological material,'" the instruction said, adding that the parents would have to make known their disagreement with the way the vaccines were developed and press for alternatives.
But the document was very strong in stressing that researchers using such material were in a different position and had a greater degree of responsibility. It said they had a moral duty to remove themselves from the "evil aspects" of the original, illicit act — even if they and their institutions had nothing to do with it.