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.

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  • Julia

    “many” people think that the Washington Post is where our first president parked his horse at Mt. Vernon.

    That’s a great observation.

    The following is not an MSM article, but it might be useful to any MSM reporters who read this blog. It’s an analysis of the bio-ethics paper by John Allen, the best English language reporter on Catholic and Vatican doings.

  • Nancy Rosenzweig

    William Saletan at Slate writes fairly regularly about abortion, in vitro, and other life issues. This recent piece was specifically about the frozen embryos that are left over.

    The Frozen Ones: The morally deserted world of spare embryos.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I find two things interesting here.
    First–you don’t have to go far to find articles and stories excoriating the Catholic Church (medieval bastion it is) for being the prime defender of the sanctity and sacredness of HUMAN life from conception to natural death. But you also don’t have to look far to find positive articles or comments about the Buddhist reverence for life that extends to worms and insects–especially on some college campuses. (Double standard here??)
    Second, if the Catholic Church were not adamantly defending human life–who would be?? The MSM (fat chance), doctors and scientists (hogwash–read the history of 1930′s Germany), university and educated elites (forget it–many consider those of limited intelligence as subhuman and life unworthy of life), political parties (hell, they’ll favor lynching any humans the mob wants lynched), mainstream Protestant churches (for a while–until they determine times have changed and they must change with them).
    Indeed, how much credit or positive coverage in the media does the Catholic Church get for fast becoming the only real barrier to the reincarnation of Nazi life ethics in star-spangled drag????

  • Jerry

    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.

    That is, of course, a controversial use of the word abortion. The IUD is as far as I know universally advertised and promoted as a form of birth control. To say that IUD’s stated use is to induce abortion is not backed up by any facts that I’m aware of.

    On another point: One thing I’ve not seen in media coverage of the statement is mention of its intellectual consistency when it comes to in-vitro fertilization. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the statement, it’s clearly the product of careful and thorough thought. That clarity of reasoning deserves acclaim.

  • Dave2


    You write:

    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.

    I was very surprised to see the Vatican saying this. But I checked and I think the Vatican didn’t say anything like this. Good thing, because it looks to be false.

    Here’s what the Vatican said on the topic (link):

    In order to promote wider use of interceptive methods, it is sometimes stated that the way in which they function is not sufficiently understood. It is true that there is not always complete knowledge of the way that different pharmaceuticals operate, but scientific studies indicate that the effect of inhibiting implantation is certainly present, even if this does not mean that such interceptives cause an abortion every time they are used, also because conception does not occur after every act of sexual intercourse. It must be noted, however, that anyone who seeks to prevent the implantation of an embryo which may possibly have been conceived and who therefore either requests or prescribes such a pharmaceutical, generally intends abortion.

    I think this is plainly different from your summary.

    The reason it would be false is that the primary mechanisms of the morning-after pill are inhibiting or delaying ovulation and thickening cervical mucus. But, like I said, it looks like the Vatican never claimed otherwise.

  • Martha

    Well, as you posted the link to the new religion web-page of the “Louisville Courier-Journal”, I was not at all surprised to read the outraged responses of various commenters to the notion of “the Vatican” telling people what they could and could not do in the bedroom.

    Especially amusing (in a grim way) was the guy who said that the Vatican should “butt out on certain issues”, that they have no right to make rules for people – and that he thinks that the Church’s opposition to birth control is wrong because “people don’t need to be popping out kids like that.”

    In other words, no-one has the right to tell anyone not to have kids, but I’m telling you not to have kids. Yes, with sophisticated reasoning like that on display, I think this paper has a snowball in hell’s chance of being treated seriously. The reasoning behind the whole position on bioethics, and the worries about how the status of the human person will be affected by the subtle erosion of the notion of inalienable rights possessed simply by the fact of being human being replaced by contingent rights granted by society once a threshold of ‘personhood’ has been deemed to be achieved, is reduced to ‘tell the Pope to let us have the pill!’

  • Dave

    [...M]any U.S. Catholics do not follow many of the church’s teachings

    The last time I saw any numbers (admittedly a long time ago) the rate of contraceptive use among Catholic women was about the same as the rate among Protestant women, and the abortion rate was lower but comparable, certainly not zero. I think this (or whatever the up-to-date, accurate numbers reflect) is what WaPo was trying to reference in that clumsy sentence.

  • FW Ken

    Dave -

    As always, statistics about “Catholics” should control for actual practice, and the ones I’m finding aren’t. I doubt that abortion rates for Catholics who go to Mass are comparable to abortion rates for other women (though of course, it’s not zero). Include other measures of practice (confession, personal prayer, the Rosary and so on), and I would suspect the rate drops further.

    That’s not a comment exclusive to us, but we are more likely to identify as “Catholic” without respect to Mass attendance, so our stats are going to be especially skewed.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    I was unhappy with some of the supposed “facts” in the WaPo story, like this one: “The broad 32-page document, from the Catholic Church’s highest rule-making authority…” For their information, the CDF is not the Church’s highest rule-making authority, that distinction belongs solely to the Pope.

    Or the comment from one those intellectuals that went, “The church has now dug in and committed itself to an official position.” Sorry, Mr. Intellectual, but the Church committed herself to that official position a long time ago.

    I also didn’t like the tone of this line: “The church also decries procedures already commonly used to help couples have children, such as the freezing of unfertilized eggs and embryos, the injection of sperm into eggs, and genetic testing of embryos to identify those with defects.” It makes it sound like the mean old nasty Church doesn’t care about couples who face infertility.

    Overall, the WaPo piece left much to be desired.

  • Dave

    FW Ken (#8), your parsing of the US Catholic population leaves us to wonder what WaPo meant by “many US Catholics.” No doubt one of the reasons Mollie hates the adjective “many.”

  • FW Ken

    I always wonder what “some”, “many” and the like mean in a news story. But if you are going to use statistics, it helps to use meaningful statistics.