Vatican Strongly Opposes In Vitro Fertilization

Anna Wilkowska-Landowska

Will the Catholic Church's recent document opposing in vitro fertilization affect a Polish bioethics law addressing the method?

Last week Vatican has explicitly
expressed its opposition to in vitro fertilization. A new document issued by the Vatican’s
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, criticizes
that method, claiming that it violates the principles that every human life
– even an embryo – is sacred, and that babies should be conceived
only through intercourse between husband and wife. 

The 23-page instruction, entitled "Dignitas Personae,"
or "The Dignity of the Person," carries
the approval and the authority of Pope Benedict XVI. The Instruction,
released December 12, highlights "some anthropological,
theological and ethical elements of fundamental importance" as well
as "new problems regarding procreation" and "new procedures involving
the manipulation of embryos and the human genetic patrimony." This
Instruction was announced at the same time in Vatican and Warsaw,
Poland, where it raised questions regarding the impact it may have
on the Polish couples who consider IVF technique as the only treatment
which is to combat their infertility.

Catholic Church officials
regard this Instruction on bioethical issues
as a guidance on how to respect human life and human procreation in
everyday life.  "Dignitas Personae" criticizes "embryo adoption," whereby infertile
couples adopt embryos frozen during in vitro techniques, because it
involves separating conception from the "conjugal act" and often
results in the destruction of embryos. "The Church understands suffering
of many infertile couples, but the desire to have a child cannot come
first, before the dignity of every human life, including an embryo,"
said the Polish priest and professor Wojciech
. The Church
representatives underline that the ban on in vitro fertilization results
from the fact that it violates the basic moral norms created by the
Catholic Church.

The Instruction similarly opposes
the techniques involved in IVF, because embryos are or can be destroyed. The Instruction’s authors consider  intentional
selective abortion the deliberate and direct elimination of one or more innocent human
beings in the initial phase of their existence. The authors also oppose pre-implantation diagnosis and
embryo freezing, arguing that doing so exposes them to potential damage
and manipulation, and that it raises the problem of what to do with
frozen embryos that are not implanted. The document also says "no"
to the morning-after pill, even if it doesn’t cause an abortion, because
an abortion was intended. The use of drugs such as RU-486, which causes
the elimination of the embryo once it is implanted, is equivalent to
the "sin of abortion," thus their use is "gravely immoral."

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Experts say that there is little
new in this document, but that it may still come as a surprise to many
Catholics who are unaware of the church’s ban on in vitro fertilization.
However, Polish ethicists claim that Instruction should not change
social attitudes towards IVF methods. "The document should be treated
seriously, but one does not have to blindly accept its postulates,"
says Pawel
, a Polish expert on bioethics.

Instead of IVF the Church supports
adoption, and medical treatment of infertility or endometriosis.
It does not oppose research on stem cells derived from adults; blood
from umbilical cords; or fetuses "who have died of natural causes."
The document does not prohibit the use of vaccines developed using "cell
lines of illicit origin" if children’s health is at stake. But it
says that "everyone has the duty" to inform health care providers
of personal objections to such vaccines.

The Vatican’s intended audience
is not only individual Roman Catholics, but also non-Catholic doctors,
scientists, medical researchers and legislators who might consider regulating
stem cell research and other recent developments in biomedical technology.
With regard to the last group of addressees, the Vatican’s statement
is released just when the works on new bioethics law in Poland are being
undertaken. Quite coincidently, a few days before the Vatican’s Instruction was issued, the Church representatives in Poland for the Episcopate conference expressed their discontent regarding
the idea of partial insurance coverage of in vitro fertilization methods, to
be included into the new law on bioethics. Archbishop Józef Michalik
said that "refunding IVF is paying for murder," and Archbishop Henryk
Hoser stated that "it’s moral schizophrenia." "There is no slightest
doubt that IVF violates the right to life of conceived persons. At the
price of one life, to give parents pleasure and give them a child, another
one is killed," said Archbishop Józef Michalik, chairman of the Polish
Episcopate Conference. However, Jarosław Gowin, the member of the Parliament,
who is responsible for preparing a legal act on bioethics, was not surprised
when he heard what the Polish Catholic Church authorities said, as well
as the Vatican’s instruction issued right after. And, even more importantly,
he underlined that the new law would allow for the use of in vitro fertilization
in Poland, because Poland is a secular state and while creating the
law, his team did not take into consideration the Church’s guidance
related to reproductive methods.

The law will simply make legal all
those practices which are already commonly used by many Polish couples
suffering from infertility. Gowin is a co-author of a draft law which, although
it goes against the Catholic Church ideology, radically improves the
right to life. And Gowin still hopes for a positive opinion of the Polish
Episcopate in that regard. But right now the Episcopate’s acceptance
is rather unrealistic. One may say that what the Church says
should not be so important, but for some Catholic
couples in Poland the decision over whether to undergo in vitro fertilization may become that much more difficult, knowing
that the Church considers "a sin." It will certainly
not make their lives easier. 

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