The Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under American Cardinal William Levada, released a new analysis December 11 dealing with many of the thorniest issues in the bioethics world. Stem cell research, contraception, and new reproductive technoligies were the primary focus of the work. The document was approved by Pope Bendict XVI, and had been anticipated for some time.
Several of the US bishops responded approvingly toward the analysis, and noted that there are considerable unknowns with regard to many of these technologies. One new technique that has created considerable excitement in stem cell research circles over the past year is called "induced pluripotent stem cells" or iPS, in which embryonic-type stem cells are created from adult skin cells without the destruction of embryos. This technology, and related developments, are drawing interest across the research world because they are much less expensive than the early embryo-dependent techniques, and because they overcome the ethical concerns that had been raised by the destruction of human embryos. These techniques are not mentioned in the current Vatican document, leaving open a window of exploration for scientists into the therapeutic promise of such research for degenerative and other diseases.
"There really wouldn't be any moral objection whatsoever to how those stem cells would be obtained. How they would be used would fall under already existing principles," said Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut, chairman of the bishops' Committee on Doctrine, quoted in an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Another issue that receives considerable attention in the new document is the use of morning-after contraceptives, the availability of which has been much-discussed as a focus of some legislation aimed at decreasing the incidence of abortion. The full mechanism of action for morning-after contraceptives is unknown, and there is no specific evidence that they block implantation. Furthermore, the two common morning-after regimens have been shown not to affect established pregnancies, so they do not induce abortion like RU486 does. The attempts by some conservatives to lump morning-after contraceptives in with induced abortion or IUD use is based only on the unproven possibility that levonorgestrel use may sometimes interfere with implantation. It could be argued that it is counterproductive to oppose the use of these medications because their role in preventing unintended pregnancy is an important means of decreasing the number of abortions, and the Vatican document is bound to stir controversy in this regard.