Baby bioethics

unborn-child-wk-10Last week the Vatican issued a document on bioethics called "The Dignity of a Person" that was covered fairly extensively by the mainstream media. Considering what coverage of Vatican statements and documents is normally like, the coverage was actually not bad. But it wasn't perfect. The Washington Post story "Vatican Ethics Guide Stirs Controversy" introduced the document with a promised debate:

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.

But the article included mostly bland quotes from onlookers. There's not much defense of the document and at the end of the story we get some juicy angry quotes from people opposed to the document. But I say that if you promise "intense debate" you should deliver on it!

There's also this paragraph:

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.

I like how that last sentence uses the beyond-vague word "many" twice. I have no idea what "many U.S. Catholics" and "many of the church's teachings" mean. At minimum, we could say the reverse is true. Many U.S. Catholics do follow many of the church's teachings.I understand that they're trying to emphasize that Catholic doctrine is not followed perfectly by 100 percent of people who claim to be Catholic. I'm also not entirely sure that the Washington Post statement is newsworthy. I mean, it's also true that "many" people have no idea that the church released a document and "many" people think that the Washington Post is where our first president parked his horse at Mt. Vernon.

But these are quibbles. It's hard to do a quick write-up of a big document, much less get other people to react without much notice. (Side note: Reaction may have been more difficult than the write-up.)

The New York Times piece did a good job of putting the document in context, calling it the "most authoritative and sweeping document on bioethical issues in more than 20 years":

Under discussion for six years, it is a moral response to bioethical questions raised in the 21 years since the congregation last issued instructions. It bans the morning-after pill, the intrauterine device and the pill RU-486, saying these can result in what amount to abortions.

The Vatican document reiterates that the church is opposed to research on stem cells derived from embryos. But it does not oppose research on stem cells derived from adults; blood from umbilical cords; or fetuses "who have died of natural causes."

I'm unsure why we have the clumsy second paragraph there. Did the Vatican really say that the morning-after pill, the IUD and RU-486 "can result in what amounts to abortions"? The document says of interceptive methods, such as the IUD and morning-after pill, that whether or not they cause an abortion, it's their stated intent. And the reason why they might not cause an abortion is because contraception doesn't occur after every act of sexual intercourse. But that their intent is to inhibit implantation of an embryo which may have been conceived.

As for contragestation methods such as Mifepristone (RU-486):

When there is a delay in menstruation, a contragestative is used, usually one or two weeks after the non-occurrence of the monthly period. The stated aim is to re-establish menstruation, but what takes place in reality is the abortion of an embryo which has just implanted.

It then goes on unambiguously to state that abortion is "the deliberate and direct killing, by whatever means it is carried out, of a human being in the initial phase of his or her existence, extending from conception to birth." And that therefore, all of these things are gravely immoral sins of abortion.

All this to say that I think the second paragraph of the NYT story excerpted above would have been better if the words "what amounts to" hadn't been included. They needlessly water down the document and distance the acts from the moral condemnation the Vatican intends.

8weeksStill, the piece does a solid job of boiling down a somewhat complex document into a readable article that doesn't sacrifice too much in the way of accuracy and context.

On that note, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette did a good job of introducing the document in laymen's terms:

New Vatican directives on bioethics uphold bans on harming embryos and on conception outside of marital intercourse, but they are cautiously open to some controversial research, including at least one way to produce embryonic stem cells.

She also has some interesting local hooks and some great quotes from Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington.

The Washington Times had the most interesting discussion about the part of the document that might have popular impact -- the morality of in vitro fertilization and other fertility treatments:

In-vitro fertilization, during which multiple eggs are taken from a woman's ovaries, fertilized, then frozen until implantation in the womb - got specific condemnation, even though the document recognized that one-third of all women who try the procedure succeed in conceiving.

"Given the proportion between total number of embryos produced and those eventually born, the number of embryos sacrificed is extremely high," the document said. Roughly 90 percent of all frozen embryos are discarded or die.

Each of these embryos is "deserving of full respect," it said, and not to be put in a freezer and withdrawn whenever a couple decides to have more children.

I'm always a bit surprised by how little is commonly known about in-vitro fertilization and blame reporters for more or less ignoring the process by which one child is produced from the method. Considering how many couples use this method to have children, it seems there's not been terribly much written about the ethics and morality of all the embryos that are discarded in the process.

There was much more coverage. Let us know if you saw any that was particularly good or bad.

Please respect our Commenting Policy