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ยท A headline on a Dec. 13 Page One article said that a Vatican statement decried stem cell research. The document from the Roman Catholic Church condemned such research when it involves the destruction of human embryos but endorsed research using cells from umbilical cord blood and adult stem cells, as well as the possibility of alternative methods for obtaining embryonic stem cells, such as from cells altered so they could never become embryos.

Vatican Ethics Guide Stirs Controversy

Monsignor Elio Sgreccia, the Vatican's top official on bioethics questions, and Maria Luisa Di Pietro, of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Rome, attend a news conference on bioethics at the Vatican.
Monsignor Elio Sgreccia, the Vatican's top official on bioethics questions, and Maria Luisa Di Pietro, of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Rome, attend a news conference on bioethics at the Vatican. (By Riccardo De Luca -- Associated Press)

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By Rob Stein and Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Vatican's first authoritative statement on reproductive science in 21 years triggered intense debate yesterday about some of the most contentious issues in modern biological research, including stem cells, designer babies, cloning, and a host of techniques widely used to prevent pregnancy and to help infertile couples have children.

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The broad 32-page document, from the Catholic Church's highest rule-making authority, condemns as immoral the destruction of human embryos to obtain stem cells or treat infertility, and denounces any attempts at more futuristic possibilities such as cloning people or using gene therapy to enhance the human race.

But the church also decries procedures already commonly used to help couples have children, such as the freezing of unfertilized eggs and embryos, the injection of sperm into eggs, and genetic testing of embryos to identify those with defects. In addition, the document condemns the morning-after pill and the RU-486 abortion pill.

While many of the arguments in "Dignitas Personae" -- Latin for "the dignity of a person" -- have been made before by Pope Benedict XVI and his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, a church "instruction" from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is far more authoritative and made a number of new declarations. It reflects the Vatican's desire to focus attention on ethical questions raised by a new generation of technologies that are becoming increasingly common in the United States and elsewhere.

"This is significant in the sense that the church has now laid down a marker on these important issues," said Thomas H. Murray of the Hastings Center, a bioethics think tank. "The church has now dug in and committed itself to an official position."

Catholic and non-Catholic scholars were scouring the document -- which influences Catholic doctors, patients and researchers and guides priests on how to counsel the 67 million U.S. Catholics -- for any subtle changes in church positions or insights into its theological reasoning. While many U.S. Catholics do not follow many of the church's teachings, the church's pronouncements have spurred years of ethical and philosophical debate.

"Even in the secular world we take a very careful look at the religious writings in this field," said Mark A. Rothstein, who directs the bioethics institute at the University of Louisville School of Medicine.

The document could also play a role in current political debates. President-elect Barack Obama, for example, has promised to end restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, just as the Bush administration is finalizing a broad new federal regulation designed to protect health-care workers who object to providing therapy or care they find morally objectionable. The document does not address either of those issues directly but provides guidance on both.

"It makes very clear that the church is very closely watching scientific progress and favors that progress but wants ethics to be part of that," said Richard M. Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "The whole subject of misuse of technology to demean human dignity is a major concern."

The document will be distributed to bishops around the world, studied in seminaries, Catholic schools and hospitals, and provide the basis for a pamphlet that priests will use to counsel couples before they get married and if they are struggling with infertility, he said.

Some Catholic scholars, however, worry about the church being out of step with many parishioners, who commonly use forbidden birth control and infertility treatments.

"The argument that all technological interventions are illicit strikes me as an overreaction," said Rev. John J. Paris of Boston College.


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