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Technology and the Vatican

March 13, 1987

The Vatican doctrinal statement on human procreation may help people, within and without the Roman Catholic Church, wrestle with the moral and ethical questions raised by new technologies and new techniques. Churches should indeed be addressing their members on these issues. But the statement is mistaken, we think, when it proposes using civil law to impose these views on all people in all nations.

Decisions regarding the use of artificial insemination, prenatal diagnosis that might lead to abortion, test-tube fertilization and embryo transfer are private and personal, matters of conscience, and not an appropriate focus of the police power of the state. For the same fundamental reason, we have argued that the U.S. Supreme Court was correct in defending the right of pregnant women to decide the issue of abortion.

Recent litigation in cases involving surrogate mothers dramatizes the void of law and legal case history for dealing with some of the matters addressed in the Vatican's "Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation: Replies to Certain Questions of the Day." But the cases that have become celebrated and have stirred controversy have also seemed to resist the kinds of authoritarian solutions that the Holy See would mandate. Many of the questions raised have no answer beyond that which couples, in their eagerness for parenthood, can give privately to their attending physicians.

If there is a case for police intervention, the Vatican document fails to make it. In fact, the Vatican weakens its own appeal for civil control by the injection of narrow doctrinal views that are not widely shared by other religious bodies--for example, the Vatican's absolute opposition to artificial insemination.

Most of the scientific advances that help couples achieve pregnancy have been widely welcomed as a constructive response to the desire for progeny. It is, of course, for Roman Catholics themselves to decide whether participation in these new technologies is morally acceptable. But it would be a grave injustice to deny all couples the opportunity of parenthood because some people might be offended by some elements of the techniques used.

There is always a risk that new technologies will be abused. The preponderance of evidence thus far, however, suggests that the positive contributions have far outweighed what abuses there may have been. Furthermore, it would appear that efforts to write controls into law would do more harm than leaving the decisions to individuals. These are essentially moral issues to be resolved by individuals, guided as they choose by churches and others with sound counsel. They are not appropriate issues for police intervention.

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