Image: Rino Fisichella, Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, Federico Lombardi, Monsignor Elio Sgreccia, Maria Luisa Di Pietro
Riccardo De Luca  /  AP
In it's first major bioethics document in 20 years, the Vatican renewed and clarified it's position on stem cell research, gene therapy and other issues. From left: Monsignor Rino Fisichella, Monsignor Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, Rev. Federico Lombardi , Monsignor Elio Sgreccia (speaking) and Professor Maria Luisa Di Pietro discuss the document at a press conference on Dec. 12, 2008 at the Vatican.
updated 12/12/2008 3:10:39 PM ET 2008-12-12T20:10:39

The Vatican hardened its opposition Friday to using embryos for stem cell research, cloning and in-vitro fertilization. But in a major new document on bioethics, it showed flexibility on some forms of gene therapy and left open questions surrounding embryo adoption.

The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued "The Dignity of a Person" to help answer bioethical questions that have emerged in the two decades since its last such document was published.

With it, the Vatican 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 stems from its belief that human life begins at conception and must be given 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 in vitro fertilization and related technologies because it involved separating conception from the "conjugal act" and often results in the destruction of embryos.

But it stopped short of issuing an explicit no to "embryo adoption," whereby infertile couples adopt embryos that were frozen during in vitro techniques and subsequently abandoned. It said that while the intent was "praiseworthy," the result posed legal, medical and psychological problems.

'Still a little bit open'
Dr. Edmund Pellegrino, emeritus professor of medicine and medical ethics at Georgetown University and the chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, said that vagueness indicated that the question of embryo adoption "is still a little bit open."

"That means we're not issuing dicta on things which may be questionable," he said in an interview from Washington.

He said the document was valuable not because it contained any new pronouncements, but because it made explicit, and in one authoritative place, Vatican positions on issues that have emerged since the last such document was published in 1987, "Donum Vitae," or "Gift of Life."

"The important thing is the linking (of the scientific advances) with the dignity of the human person, and the notion of the church's teaching on procreation," he said.

The Vatican said it opposed the morning-after pill, even if it doesn't cause an abortion, because an abortion was intended. That could complicate the situation of some Catholic hospitals in the United States that offer the morning-after pill to rape victims.

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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, the document said, thus their use is "gravely immoral."

The Vatican did show flexibility in saying that parents could in good conscience use vaccines for their children that were prepared using cell lines derived from an "illicit origin." Religious groups in the United States have pressed the Vatican to issue a statement concerning the morality of using vaccines prepared 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 strong in stressing that researchers using such material 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.

Flexibility on some gene therapy
The document 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 cell therapy that seeks to correct genetic defects with the aim of transmitting the therapy to 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 instruction, the Vatican repeated that it supported research involving adult stem cells. But it said obtaining stem cells from a living embryo was "gravely illicit."

It 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."

It noted therapeutic cloning techniques in which embryonic-type stem cells can be produced without destroying true embryos. The document didn't rule definitively on the technology, known as altered nuclear transfer, saying there were still questions about what was produced.

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