Vatican Considering Ethics of "Synthetic Life"

Cardinal Hails Another Sign of Man’s Intelligence

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By Jesús Colina
 
VATICAN CITY, MAY 26, 2010 (Zenit.org).- As scientists are abuzz about the discovery of how to fashion a new type of life from existing life, the Vatican is awaiting more information before offering ethical guidance.

A group of 24 scientists led by Craig Venter, one of the fathers of the human genome project, published a discovery in Science magazine last week explaining how they started with a living cell and added a synthetic chromosome, which totally transforms that living cell to the new synthetic cell.

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office, responded to the news with a call to “wait, to get to know more about this case.”
 
Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, and his predecessor, Monsignor Elio Sgreccia, made statements echoing the position of Father Lombardi.

Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, president of the Italian bishops’ conference, highlighted another element of the discovery. “It is one more sign of man’s great intelligence,” he said. The cardinal clarified, however, that scientific achievements are valid if they follow the requirements of ethics, “which holds at heart the authentic dignity of every person.”

Courage and caution
 
The Saturday Italian edition of L’Osservatore Romano published an article by Dr. Carlo Bellieni, director of the Department of Neonatal Intensive Therapy of the University Polyclinic of Siena, Italy, and member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, in which he calls for “uniting courage with caution.”
 
Bellieni lauded Venter’s discovery as a landmark for bio-genetics; however, he clarifies, “life has not been created; one of the motors has been substituted.”
 
Citing geneticist David Baltimore of the California Institute of Technology, he explained that life has been copied, more than created.
 
“Beyond the announcements and newspaper headlines an interesting result has been achieved, which could have applications and which must have rules, just like everything that touches the heart of life,” explained Bellieni, a regular contributor to ZENIT. “Genetic engineering can do good: suffice it to think of the possibility of curing chromosomal illnesses.

“Interventions on the genome can — it is hoped — cure, but they affect an extremely fragile terrain, in which the environment and manipulation play a role that must not be underestimated.”
 
Venter himself told the Independent newspaper that he’s proposed new regulations in the field of this “powerful technology” because he doesn’t think existing regulations are sufficient.

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