The recent document from the Holy See (CDF) on Reproductive Technologies has received an interesting review in the popular WIRED magazine‘s blog. Congratulations to the folks at CDF for a job well done. This is exactly what the Church can and must do. People don’t have to agree with our positions, but the Church’s position must be presented in a respectful, well-reasoned and responsible manner. This one’s a keeper. Key to the Holy See’s concern is that human sexuality and reproduction not be separated and the production of human becomes a commodity… a commercial product!
Vatican Goes 21st Century With Biotech Advice
By Brandon Keim, December 12, 2008 in WIRED
In its first comprehensive evaluation of modern biotechnologies, the Vatican has denounced most forms of embryonic stem cell research, artificial reproduction and genetic enhancement.
The statement, issued today by the Vatican’s doctrinal arm, is not uniformly opposed to human biotechnology: a few of its recommendations, especially those concerning genetic engineering, are surprisingly liberal.
By insisting that embryos deserve humane treatment from the moment of conception, the Vatican’s views still amount – from the perspective of their critics – to sacrificing full-grown people in order to save a few cells.
But even opponents acknowledge that the arguments are carefully reasoned and well-intentioned.
“It’s well-written and well-argued,” said University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Art Caplan. “There’s a lot I disagree with, but I like the fact that they’re taking on the latest technologies and trying to wrestle with them. They’re at least trying to get to the 21st century here.”
The theoretical underpinnings of the statement, entitled Dignitas Personae, were laid out in Pope John Paul II’s 1987 encyclical Donum Vitae, or “The Gift of Life.” It re-articulated Catholic doctrine for a biotechnological age: life begins at conception, and embryos should be protected as humans.
That concept is reflected in today’s document. “The body of a human being, from the very first stages of its existence, can never be reduced to a group of cells,” it reads. “The fruit of human generation … from the moment the zygote has formed, demands the unconditional respect that is morally due to the human being.”
This position leaves little room for many of the latest reproductive and therapeutic biotechnologies.
Forms of assisted reproduction that produce leftover embryos, including in-vitro fertilization, are denounced. Prenatal genetic diagnosis, in which embryos are scanned for defects before being implanted, is similarly unacceptable.
These prohibitions, said Caplan, are the least-logical arguments in Dignitas Personae: Natural reproduction already involves embryo loss, and many sterile Catholic couples use assisted reproduction to conceive.
More logical are the implications of embryo personhood for most embryonic stem cell research, in which the harvest of tissue-regenerating cells involves embryo destruction. This is unacceptable, says the Vatican, though a few alternative forms of production might be permissible.
One of these is Altered Nuclear Transfer, in which embryos are engineered to be incapable of further development: if they can’t ever become people, then they’re not considered fully human. Another alternative is stem cells taken from eggs that divide without fertilization, a process known as parthenogenesis. Left unmentioned is a technique invented by Robert Lanza of Advanced Cell Technologies, in which a few cells are taken from an embryo without harming it.
These methods are still highly-experimental and may never be developed. The Obama administration is expected to lift President Bush’s limitations on embryonic stem cell research, eliminating the need for tricky hacks.
But one alternative that will flourish is induced pluripotency, in which adult cells – even a flake of skin – are coaxed into a near-embryonic state. Pioneered by Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease researcher Shinya Yamanaka – himself troubled by embryo destruction – induced pluripotency is both scientifically promising and ethically uncontroversial.
Stem cell experts say that both embryonic and reprogrammed stem cells are required, but the latter will at least provide an outlet for Catholic researchers heedful of the Vatican’s position. And Dignitas Personae, though it condemns researchers who use unethically harvested stem cells, allows people to use life-saving treatments if ethical alternatives don’t exist.
Dignitas Personae also strikes a compromise with gene therapy, which is approved for treating diseases, though not for non-therapeutic uses, such as making people smarter or stronger. Even permanent genetic modifications that can be passed to children are acceptable, as long as it’s safe.
“That was the most surprising thing in the document,” said Caplan. “That commitment to healing is noble.”
The least-controversial part of Dignitas Personae may be its introduction, in which researchers and the public are encouraged to ensure that first-world therapies “be made available in areas of the world that are poor and afflicted by disease, so that those who are most in need will receive humanitarian assistance.”
This point is often overlooked in moral battles over biotechnology: everyone deserves access. And that’s something we can all agree on, Catholic or not.