Biomedical Research Is Good — Within Bounds

Interview With Bishop Sgreccia of Academy for Life

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VATICAN CITY, FEB. 15, 2001 ( The decodification of the human genome, which just a few days ago was made accessible to all on Internet, is a historic step for science, though one that raises ethical questions.

The implications of this development were addressed in a Vatican Radio interview with Bishop Elio Sgreccia. He is vice president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, which was founded by John Paul II to, in his own words, «study, inform and form on the principal problems of medicine and law relating to the promotion and defense of life.»

–Q: First of all, Bishop Sgreccia, is the Church for or against biomedical research?

–Bishop Sgreccia: The official thought of the Catholic Church is known, which on repeated occasions has expressed its appreciation and encouragement for scientific research, especially when it is directed to the prevention and treatment of sicknesses and the alleviation of human suffering. This type of research is regarded as consistent with faith in God the Creator.

In this connection, many texts of the magisterium of the Church could be quoted. Suffice it to think, for example, of the Vatican Council II passage that states: «If methodical investigation within every branch of learning is carried out in a genuinely scientific manner and in accord with moral norms, it never truly conflicts with faith, for earthly matters and the concerns of faith derive from the same God. Indeed whoever labors to penetrate the secrets of reality with a humble and steady mind, even though he is unaware of the fact, is nevertheless being led by the hand of God, who holds all things in existence, and gives them their identity» [«Gaudium et Spes,» No. 36].

Whoever believes in God is not satisfied with theories that are impossible to defend on «chance and necessity,» which would simply explain in a material way the origin of man. On the contrary, he has a stronger and more valid reason to encourage research in the quest for man´s good: God, who has asked man to cooperate with him in the work of creation [see Genesis 1:28; 2:15].

As regards the recognition of the usefulness of research in the biomedical field, Vatican Council II itself also affirmed, «Advances in biology, psychology, and the social sciences not only bring men hope of improved self-knowledge; in conjunction with technical methods, they are helping men exert direct influence on the life of social groups» [Gaudium et Spes, No. 5]. In a recent address to the participants of an international Congress on Transplants, John Paul II expressed his clear support of biomedical research.

–Q: Does the Church collaborate with present biomedical research?

–Bishop Sgreccia: History already confirms this collaboration since the discoveries in the genetic field carried out by monk Gregor Johann Mendel [1822-1884]. This support is of eloquent timeliness today in research institutions, departments of medicine, and hospitals directed by the Church.

Scientific research is pursued in them with recognized determination and effective results, despite the fact that sometimes they lack resources. They are especially known for their results in the prevention and treatment of sicknesses.

For example, just a few weeks ago the Mendel Institute was inaugurated here in Rome, renewed and equipped with the encouragement and participation of the Holy See, in memory of a geneticist who was a member of our Pontifical Academy for Life, Italian professor Luigi Gedda.

Collaboration with public institutions and with personalities (of all philosophical cultures), who work in this scientific realm, has never been interrupted. The esteem and appreciation that the Church feels for scientists has been demonstrated also by the presence of many scientists of other religions and nonbelievers in academic institutions of the Church, as is the case, for example, in the Vatican´s Academy of Sciences.

–Q: However, the Church puts limits on research. What are these?

–Bishop Sgreccia: There is no doubt that experimental science, just like all human activity, must be directed to man´s good and the respect of each person, both in the objectives it pursues, as well as in the methods it employs. It must always respect man, every human individual involved in experimentation, especially in the most vulnerable phases of life, or when the individual subjected to experimentation cannot give his consent.

Scientific research that tries to avoid a rigorous ethical examination of its objectives, its methods, and of its consequences, would not be worthy of man, and would run the risk of being used against the weakest and defenseless. This disfigured use of science has written dark pages in recent history, and research of this kind should not happen again, as not only would it be an attack against God, but also against man himself and civilization.

–Q: The Church has particularly entered the debate arising from the ethical questions posed by experimentation with stem cells. What is the position of the Pontifical Academy for Life in this connection?

–Bishop Sgreccia: In this connection, it is worth recalling that, in the document of our Academy dedicated to the use of stem cells, encouragement is expressed for research with stem cells taken from the organism of an adult or, in a birth, from the umbilical cord, as well as from fetuses aborted involuntarily, in keeping with hypotheses validated by internationally accredited research.

The hope of attempting to remedy serious sicknesses through this way has been repeated, encouraged and applied in the same research institutions of Catholic inspiration. The fact that, from the ethical point of view, our own Academy expressed a negative judgment on the destructive use of embryos for the purpose of doing research with stem cells, and on every form of human cloning, including the one called, inappropriately, «therapeutic,» is due to motives founded on rational ethics and not on a request based solely on religious faith.

In fact, we consider that the living human embryo is a human being, a human individual, who exacts the respect owed to every man, without any discrimination whatsoever. We are convinced by this that we are respecting science as regards the identity and status of the human embryo, an argument on which the Academy has reflected for a long time and is publishing universally appreciated studies [see «Identity and Status of the Human Embryo,» Vatican Bookstore, and others in].

Moreover, our position is in agreement with that of other institutions, such as the European Parliament. A science that wishes to use experimentation that provides for the suppression of human embryos or fetuses, or that wishes to create them for experimentation, would be disqualified and would be stained by inhumanity. Selective and discriminatory biomedical experimentation cannot be justified, not even in face of hypothetical advantages, which, in fact, can be reached with other methods.

–Q: Some have criticized the Church´s position on the use of animal and vegetable biotechnologies.

–Bishop Sgreccia: As regards the use of animal and vegetable biotechnologies, an issue on which our Academy has also published a report appreciated at the international level for its balance, we have simply made evident the need to be previously aware of the risks to health, especially in the case of the cultivation of seeds and vegetables that are included in the preparation of foods derived from transgenic organisms.

Likewise, we have confirmed the obligation to inform citizens and safeguard justice in the economic realm, especially as regards developing countries.

The commitment to ethical and scientific reflection of our Pontifical Academy for Life, as well as of other organizations of the Church, attempts to offer an honest and loyal inte
llectual contribution to researchers, and information to peoples and the public in the world, who should respect the effort being made and the values proposed.

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