Friday, December 12, 2008

Scientist reacts to Vatican bioethics paper

Scientific research and medical applications arising from such research should be guided by a moral framework that both values human life and protects the dignity of individuals. Dignitas Personae, the new Vatican bioethics document issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with the approval of Pope Benedict XVI, aims to do this. As such, it deserves thoughtful consideration by scientists who develop reproductive and therapeutic technologies, by physicians who apply them, and by the people who benefit from them.

Dignitas Personae catalogues the consequences of actions derived from a moral framework based on a point of view about personhood — a view that is not shared by all. This point of view accords the dignity of a person to the first cell that results from fertilization of an egg by a sperm. If this premise is accepted, all the consequences detailed in Dignitas Personae logically follow.

These consequences include the condemnation of any pharmacological intervention that prevents the products of fertilization from implanting in a womb (the document says anyone using such a pill “intends abortion”). It censures the use of in vitro fertilization (IVF), a process that has helped bring to birth 3.5 million children of infertile parents. It denounces the adoption of already-produced IVF embryos that will otherwise be discarded, even when these IVF embryos could enable infertile couples to bear children. Not surprisingly, it proscribes seeking cures to diseases through research with embryonic stem cells.

Christians, of whom this writer is one, can find scant guidance on when personhood begins by reading the Bible. Some cite Jeremiah 1:5 (“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations”), but many readers find this to be a statement of Jeremiah’s preordination, not the inception of his personhood. Other find Ecclesiastes 11:5 more relevant (“As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things”).

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Contributed by:
Margaret Rose Tollerton Columbia Regional Organizer
Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures
The following is another commentary contributed by the person above:

Statement on Dignitas Personae
by Jon O'Brien, President of Catholics for Choice

"The Vatican's new document on bioethics, Dignitas Personae, shows that the Catholic hierarchy is once again on the wrong side of science and the needs of contemporary society. There is little new in the statement, but it remains difficult to reconcile the Vatican's self-avowed prolife approach with the rejection of in-vitro fertilization and embryo freezing, not to mention the condemnation of the potential of stem-cell research. As our scientists use ground-breaking technology to find treatments to diseases that have endured for centuries, they need our support, not condemnation.

"Catholics are as likely to suffer from fertility problems as is the rest of the population. Catholics also understand the potential of embryonic stem-cell research, and support it in large numbers. A poll we carried out during the summer found that almost seven in ten Catholics in the US favor stem-cell research with early human embryos (69 percent). A similar number support decoupling science from religion, rejecting the Catholic hierarchy's attempts to influence scientific endeavor. An even larger proportion (73 percent) says they believe Catholic politicians are under no religious obligation to vote on issues the way the bishops recommend. This may be an issue during the coming administration if Congress is asked to vote on whether to extend federal funding for such vital research.

"The Catholic hierarchy has had a long and public battle with science and scientists over the centuries. What's perhaps less well known is the fact that despite these battles, various elements of the Catholic church have a long and well respected reputation for supporting scientific endeavor. We need that aspect of the church to step forward now, and show the world that Catholicism and scientific progress can work in harmony to help develop the cures we need to cure disease and infertility.

"A famous Catholic scientist, John Rock, had some sage words for the Catholic bishops. Rock, who was the co-inventor of the contraceptive pill, received a letter from an angry conservative. "You should be afraid to meet your Maker," she wrote soon after the pill was approved. "My dear madam," Rock replied, "in my faith, we are taught that the Lord is with us always. When my time comes, there will be no need for introductions." Rock was also a pioneer in in-vitro fertilization and the freezing of sperm cells, and was the first to extract an intact fertilized egg. Here clearly was a man who did much to promote life and the dignity of the individual. Now that is something that all good Catholics can support."

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