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Bioethical Issues

Rob Stein, Michelle Boorstein and Richard Doerflinger
Washington Post Staff Writers and the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops
Friday, December 12, 2008 11:00 AM

Richard Doerflinger of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and Washington Post reporters Rob Stein and Michelle Boorstein discuss the Vatican's first authoritative statement on reproductive science in more than 20 years.

They were online Friday, December 12 at 11 a.m. ET to take your questions and comments.

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Rob Stein: Hello everyone. Thanks for joining us today to discuss this new document released this morning by the Vatican. As you can see, the Catholic Church is weighing in on a host of controversial issues from the world of biomedical research, including cloning, stem cells and IVF. Joining me today is Richard Doerflinger from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and my colleague, Michelle Boorstein, who covers religion for the Post. I see there are already some questions waiting. So let's get started.

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Alexandria, Va.: Submitting early...Was there any discussion in the document about the status of children produced via IVF?

Richard Doerflinger: The document affirms that these children, from the very beginning, have the full dignity of a human person and deserve their parents' love and respect. The Catholic Church's objection to IVF is not that it succeeds in making the child into an object in the laboratory -- it is that, in the very act of generation, it treats AS a product or object someone who deserves to arise from his or her own parents' act of love. There is no question here that children conceived by IVF are fully human beings, are fit subjects for being baptized, etc.

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12th and Penn: Mr. Doerflinger, just a note: with the loss of Cardinal Dulles today, I am reminded of how blessed the American people have been throughout our history with magnificent bishops and priests. It is sad to lose such a man, particularly on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and we should all remember to pray for the repose of his soul, but there are few whose eternal rest has been so well-deserved. Who among the American hierarchy do you see taking his place?

Richard Doerflinger: This is very sad news. Cardinal Dulles was a former teacher of mine, a wonderful man who combined the gifts of a genial popular-level writer on religion, scholarly theologian and churchman. I think it may take a committee to replace him. A number of currently active bishops are also fine theologians and former professors of theology, perhaps most notably the U.S. bishops' president Cardinal Francis George. But given the burdens of running a huge archdiocese like Chicago, Cardinal George may feel that his days of writing scholarly books on a regular basis are at least temporarily behind him.

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Laurel: The Catholic Church finally let Galileo out of purgatory in 1990 for saying the earth revolves around the sun; which every educated person has known for 300 years. Why should we listen to them about the ethics of science?

Rob Stein: I just got off the phone with a secular bioethicist who made the point that even though scholars, scientists, policy makers and many ethicists may disagree with the church's statements, these documents do play a highly valuable, often influential role in debates over issues like these. Although this bioethicist personally disagreed with many of the positions in this document, he said he found it very helpful, if for no other reason than to provide a window into how the church comes to its positions.

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Michelle Boorstein: As a religion reporter, I've found it interesting to listen to debate within the community of Catholic bioethicists -- as well as theologian-bioethicists in general -- who see Catholic teachings leading them to different conclusions about these bioethics/reproduction issues. For example bioethicists who see Catholic teaching emphasizing that procreation should be confined to a marriage, and thus support artificial means of baby-making. They see this raft of arguments the Vatican makes against so many technologies as the equivalent of saying: If God wanted us to fly, he would have given us wings, so why should we use planes? In other words, that the church is losing one value in pursuit of another. Richard, or any readers, would you care to comment?

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Denver, Colo.: Comment: Although I accept people's right to join, believe in and be part of a religious organization, I DO NOT (and let me repeat, DO NOT) accept the presumption of religious organizations of the world to inject their doctrines and interfere in the responsibility of governments to carry out their responsibilities to their citizens.

This is the 21st century and the Pope and his doctrine needs to be brought out of the doctrine that gave them the power they assumed as they created wealth and doctrine that did not and continue to not embrace the best interest of the people of the globe. Enough! IRS, do your job and take away their non-profit status!

Richard Doerflinger: I think the question here is: What is being injected and into whom? The Church is participant in a broader public debate about the human consequences of technology, specifically the consequences of applying our new technological powers to our fellow human beings in a way that risks making them into our objects or our slaves. These are questions for everyone, and the concerns raised by the Catholic Church are generally not denominational peculiarities but the same kinds of broad human concerns that led the United Nations (for example) to call on an international ban on human cloning out of respect for human dignity. These technologies tend to be in the control of a fairly narrow class of affluent and powerful people in the developed nations, who may use them not to lift up everyone but to begin new forms of discrimination and oppression. One of the UN's concerns, for example, was the exploitation of poor women in the Third World for their eggs, to make cloned embryos for the incredibly expensive tailored stem cell treatments of the rich. As war is too important to be left just to the generals, the power of these technologies to serve or demean human dignity is too important to be left only to the scientists and technocrats.

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Washington, DC: "Richard Doerflinger: The Catholic Church's objection to IVF is not that it succeeds in making the child into an object in the laboratory -- it is that, in the very act of generation, it treats AS a product or object someone who deserves to arise from his or her own parents' act of love." What makes you think IVF is any less an act of love than getting pregnant the old-fashioned way? In fact, it may be more so, given the effort involved and the fact that it is ALWAYS intentional. I find your stance extremely offensive.

Richard Doerflinger: I'm not talking about love as an emotion. I'm talking about the nature of the act of generating this new human life, which is not even performed by the couple but by a technician in a lab. This is more like the kind of process one would use to manufacture a product on an assembly line, and it subjects that new life to screening, manipulation and "quality control" that is inimical to the kind of unconditional love and acceptance that we hope all parents can have for the children that arise from their love.

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Michelle Boorstein: To the person who wrote in from Denver about the influence of the Catholic Church (and other religious organizations) and others who feel similiarly -- do you feel religious groups shouldn't have the right to lobby? Can you be more specific about what you see as illegal/immoral interference?

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Germantown, Md.: If Christianity encourages believers to enjoy a personal relationship with a living God, why would anyone, especially a Christian couple who has found it difficult to conceive, rely on the guidance of the Vatican in making their decisions? Why not take the question of IVF to God in prayer and let him speak to the couple directly?

Richard Doerflinger: This will be answered differently by different Christian denominations, but Catholics believe that we are united to Christ by becoming part of the community of love that he founded, which in a larger sense is His body. Catholics pray every Sunday that God will not focus on our sins but on "the faith of our Church," and our personal faith is supported and confirmed by being united with that Church. The primary role of teacher within the Church, to clarify and affirm the responsibilities of this faith, is held by the successors of Peter and the other apostles, the Pope and bishops. Catholics don't as a result see our union with God as less direct -- just less lonely.

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Washington, DC: I read the new document this morning. Having done research in this area, I've learned that a majority of American Catholics disagree with the Church's position on in vitro fertilization, abortion, and contraception. While I know that the Church sees its role as speaking truth regardless of the beliefs of the laity, how can a Church survive when a majority of its members do not agree with its tenets?

Michelle Boorstein: This is obviously a major point, one I'd like to hear Richard respond to. One of the bioethicists I spoke with yesterday noted that Catholics are highly represented -- perhaps statistically overrepresented -- in using IVF, and that Catholic hospitals are leaders in using some of the very technologies the church opposes. Some say: the church has a duty to state its values, but these values as interpreted appear to be in major conflict with science and Catholic public opinion. How do they seek having impact on Catholics and people in general with this backdrop? Is that a concern? In a discussion we were having, Richard said he thought the document made an unprecedented effort to praise science. Perhaps this is part of that?

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Bethesda, Md.: I probably won't ever get around to reading today's document, so it would be very helpful if you could distill the fertility components of it, from a sin perspective. Or does this document not look at things that way? My simple question is: if my catholic wife and I have difficulty conceiving traditionally, is it a sin if we attempt IVF or other non-sexual fertility procedures?

Rob Stein: The document basically rules out any type of treatment that separates procreation from the sexual act between a husband and wife. So IVF is not allowed. But other treatments that correct problems that are interfering with fertility, such as surgery to unblock fallopian tubes, are permitted.

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Washington, D.C.: How is it wrong for a couple to use IVF if we tried to conceive naturally for over 10 years and due to genetic predisposition (which IVF can address)we can't have kids?

Richard Doerflinger: The Church is not against solutions for infertility, and many Catholic physicians are treating patients using approaches with a higher success rate than IVF. What is being said is that some treatments are fully respectful of the special kind of being a new human person is and others are not. We shouldn't have to generate our children in a laboratory, exposing them to the incredibly high death rate of life in a petri dish and clinics' opportunities for mistreating and experimenting on them, to have a child at all. The document also has high praise for adoptive parents who reach out to children unwanted or abandoned by others to build their family. This is no less exalted a form of parenthood. If you think about it, all Christians should see themselves as adoptive children of God.

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Can you be more specific about what you see as illegal/immoral interference? : Abortion, Gay marriage, Evolution, "Under God" in Pledge, Stem Cell Research, flying airplanes into tall buildings, ... In general, trying to force their medieval beliefs on the rest of us.

Michelle Boorstein: What I meant was, what actions do religious organizations (including the Catholic Church) take to advocate that you object to? Lobbying? Preaching in orthodox terms?

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Washington, DC: Re: technician in the lab. Then, if the two were a doctor and a scientist with the proper facilities at their disposal and able to create the embryo and implant it themselves, does this change the Catholic Church's stance?

Richard Doerflinger: The problem still lies with the nature of the act, which is not the embodied act of loving union that spouses committed themselves to in their marriage vows. The technicians may be married to each other, accidentally, but the procedure works exactly the same way if they are not. For that mater, the act of creating the embryo by IVF is exactly the same if one or both parents are already dead -- all you need is the "biological material" of sperm and egg. The document is holding up a different approach to make sure our way of giving rise to our children, our equals in human dignity with their own uniqueness and their own future, remains as distinctively human and as fully personal as marriage itself is.

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Germantown, Md.: "If God wanted us to fly, he would have given us wings, so why should we use planes? In other words, that the church is losing one value in pursuit of another."

I agree with this take on the Vatican's argument. God gave man two rules in the New Testament: Love God and love your neighbor as you love yourself. This means, unlike in the Old Testament, there is a lot of grey area that God himself will evaluate during judgment. The viewpoint that Ms. Bloomstein paraphrases exposes a dangerous ambivalence to logic on the Vatican's part, which when inappropriately attributed, can reflect negatively on the logic of God himself and make it difficult to share truth with non-believers about the freedom that came with the resurrection of Jesus.

Richard Doerflinger: Actually a remarkable characteristic of this document is its language about the wonderful gift that science and technology are -- that these are among the ways that mankind actually participates in the creative work of God, and can exercise responsible stewardship over the rest of creation. There is nothing here against technology as such. But it is saying (with my apologies to the scriptwriters of the Spiderman movies) that with great power comes great responsibility. In the 1940s, C.S. Lewis (not a Roman Catholic) raised the same concerns about taking our new powers over nature, and turning them toward each other to allow some humans to exert ultimate control over other humans -- including a power over their life and death, their future, even their personal traits. Power can be misused, even if it is not bad in itself.

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Alexandria, Va.: I don't wish to negate the importance of bioethics -- we must enter this brave new world with our eyes fully open. But a much larger question looms -- overpopulation is driving unprecedental exploitation of natural resources and global warming, and fueling the extinction of a healthy proportion of our planet's plants and animals. Still the Church opposes birth control, also, I suppose, in the name of Dignitas Persona. In doing so, it is doing great harm -- perhaps irreparable harm -- to our world's biodiversity and to our species. As such, to my mind, it has forfeited any moral high ground it might like to claim in this essential matter.

Richard Doerflinger: In response to this and the other comment about birth control: That's not the immediate issue with this document, but the Church is saying something very similar here. The goal of being able to plan your family is good, but some of the means do not do justice to that incredible power of creating a new human person with God that a husband and wife possess only together. There are methods of family planning that respect the human body's power to create a new life, even when it may be a good time not to exercise that power right now. In terms of global warming, I think most experts would agree that the greatest threat comes from the voracious energy-guzzling appetites of you and me, not from the decision of a poor woman in Africa to have another child.

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Albany, NY: Several American bishops told their parishioners that they would have to repent if they voted for Obama. Could you explain to me why the Catholic Church should keep its tax exempt status?

Michelle Boorstein: My sense in covering religion is that the trend of clergy endorsements is waning. Probably not because of a threat by the IRS, but because a lot of politicians and religious leaders believe it is backfiring for them both -- that many Americans increasingly resent being told by clergy who they should vote for, and politicians are finding those endorsements often explosive for them. But to your larger point, some libertarian and conservative legal groups pushed harder this year to challenge the anti-endorsement law, saying charitable groups are being illegally muzzled. Allegations made to the IRS of improper endorsing rose significantly in the 2000s.

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Reston, Va: Events in natural biology don't allways fit neatly with doctrine. For example, how does the church treat conjoined twins? In particular, the thoracopagus twin classification. Are such twins considered as a single soul?

Richard Doerflinger: This is complicated for everyone, not just Cathlic theologians. My short answer: Generally the assumption would be that if there are two brains, two personalities, in that conjoined body, you have two persons sharing some bodily organs, who should be eligible for surgical separation if that can be done without unjustly killing one of those persons.

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Milwaukee, Wis.: I say this with sadness. After the pedophilia scandal, and worse, the Vatican's and American Bishop's Clintonesque handling of it, the Bishops have lost all moral credibility. It's like listening to Newt Gingrich prattle about the sanctity of marriage. I simply can't take it seriously. I wonder how many people and how many Catholics feel the same way.

Michelle Boorstein: Polls consistently show American Catholics differ from the church on some key bioethics issues, including abortion, birth control and stem cell research. A poll released earlier this year by the Pew Research Center found 59 percent of white, non-Hispanic Catholics favor stem cell research, even if it may result in the destruction of some embryos. (poll info here: http://pewforum.org/docs/index.php?DocID=317)

Among those Catholics, those who attend Mass at least once a week support the research at the lower level of 46 percent.

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Richard Doerflinger: On the question of opinion polls re Catholics'views: Most polls show that churchgoing Catholics (those the Church has a real opportunity to reach with the message) generally support the Church's teaching on clearcut issues of attacks on human life like abortion and euthanasia. Issues of contraception and IVF, I agree, are much more widely misunderstood -- I wouldn't even say dissented from, by and large, because so many adult Catholics have never had the case made out to them in an understandable way what the reasons for these teachings are. Perhaps the documents and commentaries that will be promoted by this new vatican document will be of some help in that regard. In the end, though, Catholics do not expect teachings in their church to be determined by a majority vote. Jesus had a big problem with "hard sayings" as well. The Church always offers this guidance in the context of God's infinite love and his mercy for the many, many ways in which all of us (sometimes including Church leaders) fall short of living up to what He wants for us.

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Washington, DC: I'm Catholic and deeply respect the thought and effort that goes into the creation of these guidelines. I wonder, however, how the lines are drawn sometimes. For example, why allow the "billings method" for family planning, but not pharmaceutical methods (where practiced within marriage)?

Rob Stein: One of the key lines that the church tends to draw is between methods that separate procreation from the sexual act between a married man and woman and those that don't. Because the church defines life as beginning at the moment of conception, another key issue for the church is concerns about any method that may interfere with an egg after it has been fertilized. That's why, for example, the church opposes the morning-after pill. There is concern that at least in some instances that method might prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the womb.

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Michelle Boorstein: Another thing I found interesting in reporting this story is to note how much has changed in bioethics, in terms of the role of theologians. Even the Catholic Church's harshest critics say American Catholics -- Jesuits in particular -- essentially founded the modern field of bioethics. Today they are a minority. Glenn McGee of the American Bioethics Journal said every 100th manuscript he receives is from a theologian. But experts say this is largely due to the fact that the field expanded significantly in recent decades, so there are simply more people and Catholic bioethicists are a smaller subset. McGee argues that the Vatican has intimidated dissenting theologians and that that is also a factor.

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Princeton, N.J.: Please explain how the decision about Galileo 300 years differs from the various decisions made by the Church today? Are different principles used?

Richard Doerflinger: We've had a couple of comments about Galileo. It was one of the saddest and most deplorable incidents in the history of the ever-shifting relationship between religion and science. The fact is that many other scientists, some of them priests, had come up with the same conclusions as Galileo and were never treated as he was. There are many aspects to that tragic history, but the bottom line is that both Galileo and his opponents were making the same error of treating the Bible as a science book, which is not what the Bible is for. The Bible said the sun stood still in the sky for the Israelites, and scientific evidence said it is the Earth rather than the sun that moves, so Galileo said the Bible is wrong and some church leaders of limited minds said Galileo is wrong -- and they had the power in that time to tell Galileo to shut up. The curent situation is one in which everyone accepts science as a wonderful area for human advance (have we forgotten that modern genetics was basically founded by a monk?), but we are debating the human consequences of using or misusing these powers to place some human beings in positions of domination over others, and perhaps in domination over the future evolution of the human race.

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Re: Denver: Two things here. First, the Catholic Church is given major tax exemptions based on its status as a non-political entity; thus, any lobbying by it to change secular laws to fit its religious opinions should be undertaken very carefully. Second, there is a legitimate concern over what this means to Catholic hospitals and research centers. Does this statement mean that such institutions cannot engage or research these practices? That would make non-Catholics leery of working or seeking treatment at places where there aren't the full spread of options for reason of ideology.

Richard Doerflinger: Catholic hospitals, to be recognized as Catholic hospitals, operate acording to Catholic ethics. You'll find the same thing of Jewish or Lutheran hospitals. They are second to none in providing high-quality care to mothers, children and families, and some of them have remarkable centers for resolving infertility without the use of IVF or other procedures the Church objects to. It's not a matter of ideology but of integrity -- we think good morality is perfectly compatible with good health care.

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Rob Stein: Thanks everyone for all your great questions, and for this lively discussion. There are certainly lots of important, provocative issues raised in this document that we'll be debating for years to come. I'd like to thank my colleague, Michelle Boorstein, and Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for helping out with this.

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