Saturday, 6 December 2008

Vatican Instruction on Bioethics

UK and US may feel heat of new Vatican instruction
Robert Mickens 6 December 2008

Britain and the United States are likely to be among the countries that will be implicitly criticised in a soon-to-be-released Vatican document on bioethics. The document will address such controversial bioethical issues as embryonic stem-cell research and human cloning.

The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) said it would unveil its new instruction - "Dignitatis Personae: on some bioethical questions" - at a press conference on Friday. It is anticipated that the new text will unequivocally oppose principles such as those contained in Britain's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act (HFE) and those that lie behind undertakings by US President-elect Barack Obama to fund federally embryonic stem-cell research.

The new CDF text, which has been under elaboration for a number of years, will be the first Vatican document to address bioethical issues since Pope John Paul II's 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae. Archbishop Angelo Amato, who served as CDF secretary until July, had already indicated nearly two years ago that the new document was being prepared and was intended to update a similar CDF instruction on bioethical themes, "Donum Vitae", published in 1987.

Pope Benedict XVI hinted several months ago that the major purpose of the new document would be to protect the "concept of human dignity" in the face of scientific innovations. In an address at the CDF plenary assembly in January, he said the instruction would look at "new problems" in bioethics that have arisen in the past two decades. Among them he cited the freezing of human embryos, embryonic reduction (selective abortion of medically implanted embryos), pre-implantation diagnosis, research on embryonic stem cells and attempts at human cloning.

The Pope hinted that in dealing with these "difficult and complex issues" the new document would be based on two fundamental criteria for moral discernment: "unconditional respect for the human being from conception to natural death" and "respect for the originality of the transmission of human life through acts proper to spouses".

During January's meeting with members of the Vatican's doctrinal office which he led for more than two decades, Pope Benedict said the Church "appreciates and encourages the progress of bio-medical science that leads to possible cures unknown until now". He specifically mentioned the use of somatic, or adult, stem cells, treatment that aims to restore fertility, and cures for genetic diseases. The Pope said the Church's Magisterium could not address every scientific innovation, but had to reaffirm the important values at stake and offer ethical and moral principles and guidelines for new and important issues.

Archbishop Luis Ladaria, the current CDF secretary, will lead the four-person panel that will present "Dignitatis Personae" to journalists next week. Joining him will be Archbishop Rino Fisichella, a noted theologian who heads the Pontifical Academy for Life, and Bishop Elio Sgreccia, president-emeritus of the academy. Maria Luisa Di Pietro, a university bioethics professor and president of the Italian pro-life movement Scienza e Vita (Science and Life), will also be part of the Vatican panel.