Vatican official against Nobel Prize for IVF: Conflict or debate?
- October 8, 2010 11:55 AM |
- By Quirks
By Bob McDonald, host of the CBC science radio program Quirks & Quarks.
An official from the Vatican has stated that the awarding of this year's Nobel Prize in Medicine to British professor Robert Edwards for pioneering in vitro fertilization, or IVF, is "completely out of line." Is this another case of the church in conflict with science, or an opportunity for open discussion about how science should proceed?
Prof. Edwards introduced the world to the first test tube baby, Louise Brown, who celebrated her 30th birthday in 2008. Since then, IVF has provided a way for millions of infertile couples around the world to have children.
However, IVF is not a perfect process. It takes many embryos before success is achieved, which means many are discarded. And that is where the Vatican has a problem. According to church teachings, all embryos are considered human beings.
Mgr. Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, head of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said in a statement that prof. Edwards "opened the wrong door" in research. According to The Vatican's own documents, IVF goes against their teachings on the dignity of life.
This argument by the church over scientific conduct is different from the famous trial of Galileo over his assertion that the Earth went around the sun. In that case, the church had the facts wrong. In this case, the church is not arguing against the accuracy of the science; it is setting a moral boundary around scientific pursuits. It is against storing, freezing and transporting embryos for any purpose. This position reaches far beyond IVF into other areas of science, specifically stem cell research.
Those same embryos that are discarded by fertility clinics are seen as a source of stem cells by researchers. They see great promise in stem cells for the treatment of many types of disease for which there is no current cure, such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, multiple sclerosis and heart disease. Stem cells have the potential to be turned into any type of cell in the body, so the idea is to grow healthy new nerve cells, blood cells, new organ tissue, and perhaps one day even new organs.
But embryonic stem cell research is embroiled in controversy, especially in the United States where a fierce religious, ethical, political and legal debate is raging over the use of embryonic stem cells. This has redirected funding and scientific effort to work on other sources of stem cells from adult tissues. However, many researchers think that using adult stem cells faces bigger technical challenges and has far less potential than embryonic stem cells.
In Canada, because of the same concerns, the guidelines for embryonic stem cell research have been slowly but constantly evolving, and are quite restrictive.
The Vatican's opposition to in vitro fertilization will likely not change the practice, since it has been around for so long and brings children to so many infertile couples. But the broader issue of scientific research constrained by religious concerns is one that must be discussed openly if we are to proceed. Where do we draw the line between science that has enormous potential on one hand, but offends a segment of society on the other?
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