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The Vatican’s missed Nobel opportunity

2010 October 8
by Paul Vallely

It was with a bit of a sigh that I read the headline: “Vatican official criticises Nobel win for IVF pioneer”. The awarding of the Nobel Prize for Medicine to Professor Robert Edwards, for decades of work to fertilise a human egg outside the womb, ignored the ethical questions raised by the breakthrough, the Vatican’s top bioethicist announced.

It is true that in vitro fertilisation opens a Pandora’s box of ethical dilemmas. But the motor car has led to countless deaths on the roads. It seems a jaundiced response to technological developments to seize upon their downside before celebrating their manifold blessings.

In the case of IVF those blessings number four million, which is how many babies have now been born using the technique. As the Nobel medicine prize committee in Oslo said, Professor Edwards’ work has brought “joy to infertile people all over the world” – no insignificant matter since infertility is affects 10 per cent of couples worldwide. For them IVF has answered one of the deepest of human desires. “The most important thing in life is having a child,” Dr Edwards once said. IVF now accounts for 2 to 3 per cent of all births.

For Rome to respond to all that with a tone which was at best caveated, and at worst carping, seemed joyless for a church which routinely styles itself as ‘pro-life’.

To be fair to the Vatican official concerned, Bishop Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, who was only recently appointed head of the Pontifical Academy for Life, his statement was more nuanced than the media inevitably reported it. Professor Edwards had “inaugurated a new and important chapter in the field of human reproduction, whose best results are evident to all,” he accepted.  Awarding him the Nobel Prize was “not completely out of place,” he said (though this was unfortunately reported by the BBC website, among others, with the “not” omitted). But the Nobel laureate was also responsible, the Spanish doctor-priest said, for the destruction of millions of embryos and the creation of a “market” in donor eggs.

You might argue that with IVF so prominently in the news it was an obvious opportunity for Rome to push its line that test-tube babies are wrong because they separate conception from the “conjugal act”  and to emphasise its teaching that an embryo is an inviolable person from the moment of conception. Certainly many evangelical Protestants and members of the Orthodox Church agree.

But many others disagree, following Aquinas rather than Pius IX on ensoulment, or pointing out that God in nature is profligate in disposing of fertilised embryos on a significant scale in the normal processes of menstruation. Most Islamic scholars say a foetus acquires rights only at about four months of gestation. Judaism’s strong emphasis on procreation means that Israel has one of the highest per capita rates of IVF treatments in the world. And Hinduism is so sanguine at the concept that India is one of the world’s leading centres for IVF.

What would have been far more useful would have been for the Vatican at this point to highlight some of the serious ethical issues yet to be addressed. It could have set out the arguments against parents who want to design a baby to be taller, handsomer, smarter, and healthier than they are. Or shown how the commercialisation of surrogate motherhood risks exploiting poor women. Or asked how the shortage of egg donors in places the UK might be addressed without creating a market as has happened in the United States. Or examined the damage that the trivialisation of altruistic donation – whether of eggs, sperm or embryos – does to a society. It missed that chance.

If you can’t say something helpful, as my mother used to tell me, perhaps it’s better to say nothing at all.

from The Church Times 


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