Vatican affirms 'dignity of human embryo'
by Martine Nouaille Martine Nouaille
VATICAN CITY (AFP) – The Vatican on Friday reopened ethical questions surrounding stem cell research and techniques such as cloning with a document affirming the "dignity of the human embryo."
"Dignitas Personae" (Dignity of the Person), the first "instruction" on reproductive technology in more than 20 years, comes as countries including the United States and France prepare to review policies in the controversial field.
The sweeping instruction lists biomedical techniques considered "illicit" by the Roman Catholic Church such as in vitro fertilisation, cloning, the therapeutic use of stem cells, producing vaccines from embryo cells and the use of the "morning-after" contraceptive pill.
Such practices go against the "fundamental principle" that the dignity of the person must be recognised from conception until natural death, it says.
Issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog, the 33-page instruction updates a 1987 document, "Donum Vitae" (The Gift of Life), which asserted the integrity of the human embryo.
The new instruction virtually enshrines the embryo not only as a human being but also as a whole "person" with all the philosophical and legal consequences that such recognition might entail, according to Bishop Rino Fisichella, secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
"The recognition is implicit, but we don't get involved in the philosophical debate," Fisichella said as he presented the document.
The document, approved by Pope Benedict XVI, also reprises the Church's condemnation of in vitro fertilisation, while decrying methods that prevent implantation of the embryo or cause its elimination as "falling within the sin of abortion".
"The blithe acceptance of the enormous number of abortions involved in the process of in vitro fertilisation vividly illustrates how the replacement of the conjugal act by a technical procedure ... leads to a weakening of the respect owed to every human being," the document says.
The text also warns against a "eugenic mentality" arising from advances in genetic engineering, saying: "In the attempt to create a new type of human being, one can recognise an ideological element in which man tries to take the place of his Creator."
Catholics are called to abide by such "instructions," which have had practical consequences across the centuries.
The 1987 instruction, focussing on in vitro fertilisation, was signed by the pope, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, during his 24-year tenure at the head of the Vatican's highest rule-making authority.
It had important consequences for Catholic hospitals around the world as they scrapped programmes to help infertile couples, and it affected funding for certain medical research.
While the techniques condemned by the Church are legal in many countries and widely practised, the new document says Catholic researchers have the duty to distance themselves from a "gravely unjust legal situation and to affirm with clarity the value of human life".
US president-elect Barack Obama, who is to take office on January 20, is expected to act quickly to reverse an executive order by President George W. Bush banning embryonic stem cell research.
Also, French bioethics law is set for review next year.
The Holy See is aware that it is challenging cutting-edge technology, led notably by British embryo researchers, and expects "a variety of reactions," Fisichella said.
"Some will prefer to ignore (the instruction), others will take the easier route of deriding it, and still others will file these pages away as a manifestation of obscurantism blocking progress and free research, but many others will share our concern and our analysis," he said.