Vatican condemns IVF, other infertility treatments

Pope Benedict XVI Pope Benedict XVI
(Dec. 12, 2008)   The Catholic Church today condemned many of the techniques infertile couples use to get pregnant.

The Vatican issued a 35-page document, "Dignitas Personae, an Instruction of Certain Bioethical Questions", which was approved by Pope Benedict XVI.

In condemning in-vitro fertilization and other artificial reproductive technologies (ART), the document said the techniques "proceed as if the human embryo were simply a mass of cells to be used, selected and discarded".

In his Dec. 12, 2008 article "Vatican condemns embryo stem cell research, cloning" Philip Pullella of Reuters summarized the main points of the document:

  • Life is sacred from the moment of conception. The human embryo has from the start the dignity proper to a person. It deserves respect from the start of its existence and can never be reduced merely to a group of cells.
  • Artificial fertilization and other techniques used by many couples are condemned because "they substitute for the conjugal act ... which alone is truly worthy of responsible procreation".
  • Classed as immoral are the freezing of eggs and embryos, the injection of sperm directly into eggs, human cloning, and the genetic testing of embryos to identify those with defects (Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis). PGD, which aims at ensuring that only embryos free from defects or having the desired sex or other qualities are transferred to a woman's womb, was "shameful and utterly reprehensible".
  • Research on embryonic stem cells was immoral because it involved the destruction of embryos. Only adult stem cell research was moral.

The latter stance could spur political debate. (Barack Obama has promised to end restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.)

In the Dec. 12, 2008 Washington Post article "Vatican Ethics Guide Triggers Debate" journalists Michelle Boorstein and Rob Stein quote Kathleen Raviele, president of the Catholic Medical Association: "I hope it will make Catholics more aware that they should not be cooperating with these technologies. None of this respects the dignity of the human person."

The church objects to ART because life begins at conception, so anything resulting in the destruction of an embryo is considered immoral. The church also objects to any technology separating procreation from sex between a married heterosexual couple, which makes many infertility therapies "illicit."

Glenn McGee, editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Bioethics, said PGD is extremely common in Catholic hospitals and that Catholics make up a huge percentage of in-vitro fertilization patients.

The chairman of the ethics committee for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine defended infertility treatment. "It has contributed to the quality of life of patients and families through the improved ability to have children, which clearly is a worthwhile goal and a focus of many couples in their life goals," said Robert G. Brzyski. Over 50,000 babies are born using IVF each year in the U.S., he said.

Is it moral for people to "adopt" embryos which were unused by the parents who had them created? Catholic News Service said Dec. 12, 2008 that the Vatican document did not resolve the debate over "the morality of adopting abandoned embryos and having them implanted in a woman's womb with the hope of bringing them to term and welcoming the child into a loving family." It didn't rule out adopting frozen embryos, but did say that it raises serious ethical concerns. The document said the only completely moral way of acting is to stop creating and freezing embryos, which have the dignity of human beings.

According to the "Snowflakes Embryo Adoptions Fact Sheet" by the California adoption agency Nightlight Christian Adoptions, "There are over 400,000 frozen embryos in cryo-banks in the U.S. These are pre-born children waiting for a chance at life." The agency said that since 1997 185 children have been born from its embryo adoption program.

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