The Vatican document on reproductive technology, issued earlier this year, is a "very important" statement "on a very important technology by a respected authority," but it sends mixed messages of how the church views technology, a Roman Catholic ethicist said here this week.

"As a symbol of how the Vatican views technology, it has faced technology by looking backward . . . by seeing what it has said about contraception to see what it must say" about the new birth technologies, said the Rev. Richard McCormick, professor of Christian ethics at Notre Dame University.

But the lively discussion at the session on the ethics of new reproductive technologies at the Washington Cathedral Wednesday demonstrated the potential of the document to stimulate serious thought about the issues.

McCormick, formerly on the staff of the Kennedy Institute for Bioethics here, agreed with the Vatican's position that artificial insemination, when it involves a third party donor, is morally unacceptable.

"When you look at it from the point of view of what marriage is," said McCormick, "third party involvement of the reproductive enterprise . . . is violative of the unity of marriage . . . . When you bring into the world a child with no biological relationship to one or both {marriage} partners," he said, "adultery might be encouraged" and the specter of a "stud farm mentality" is raised.

But a member of the audience who identified herself as a psychiatrist defended third-party sperm donation, citing studies that show the procedures tend to lower the divorce rate among infertile couples.

"I see the pain among my patients who are Catholic couples who have made this very difficult decision . . . who find themselves separated from parents and siblings because of this Vatican statement," she said.

The major point at which McCormick gently disagreed with the Vatican statement was the Vatican's disapproval of homologous sperm donation, in which a woman's ova is fertilized outside her body with her husband's sperm and reinserted for the normal gestation period.

The Vatican document condemns this procedure, said McCormick because "it says that love-making and baby-making are inseparable," citing the church's controversial condemnation of artificial contraception.

"What this says to me is that this {birth technologies} document is much more about contraception than in vitro fertilization," said McCormick. "Rather than clinching the argument against in vitro fertilization it simply carries us back to testing the validity of the original argument."

In vitro is "second best," he continued. "Nobody does it for the fun of it . . . for the expense . . . the pain. But we have a lot of things which are done . . . deprived of proper perfection . . . but they are not morally wrong."

Dr. Maria Bustillo said the Genetics and In Vitro Fertilization Institute at Fairfax Hospital that she codirects has produced 54 babies from in vitro procedures in its 2 1/2 years. But she called the stressful and "emotionally draining" process a last resort in which couples are "spending their retirement money to try to have children. In addition, Catholic couples have the added burden of having to deal with this Vatican document."

Both Bustillo and McCormick concurred with the Vatican's condemnation of surrogate motherhood.