Published online 12 December 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.1306

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Vatican toughens stance on embryo research

Proclamation on biomedical science and reproductive medicine revised.

The VaticanThe Vatican has said that researchers should not work with stem cells derived from embryos.Punchstock

The Roman Catholic Church has reaffirmed its opposition to embryonic stem cell research in a document that updates its 20-year-old position on biomedical research and reproductive medicine.

The instruction Dignitas Personae not only condemns embryonic stem cell research, and in vitro fertilization (IVF) but also formalizes its many previous positions including banning human cloning to produce embryonic stem cells, and human–animal cloned chimaeras.

For Catholic researchers, the biggest impact of the new text is that for the first time, it rejects a position taken by many ethics groups that researchers who work on tissues derived from embryos or abortion are absolved of responsibility because they were not directly involved in their creation.

"It clearly raises the bar," says John Allen, a Vatican expert and senior writer for the National Catholic Reporter, an independent US news weekly covering the Catholic Church. It suggests that scientists who are asked to work on such materials should either "refuse or resign", he says, and may lead to tighter rules at Catholic hospitals and research facilities.

"The Vatican is entitled to its theological position, but many other world religions have a permissible view on human embryonic stem cell research," says Insoo Hyun, chair of the International Society for Stem Cell Research's Ethics and Public Policy Committee. He questions the Vatican's suggestion that Catholic researchers should stop working on stem cell lines derived from embryos.

"If we go down that road of moral complicity where do we stop?" asks Hyun. "What about a parent wanting a future stem cell therapy for their child?"

Mixed messages

Work using adult stem cells, umbilical cord cells, or stem cells from fetuses who have died naturally is morally acceptable, the church says.

On the question of altered nuclear transfer, a recent, controversial technique to create embryo-like entities engineered to not develop into babies, for example by mutating certain genes, it leaves the door open, saying only that further research in animals is needed (see ''Ethical' routes to stem cells highlight political divide').

Conventional somatic cell gene therapy is endorsed. But germ line therapy, where genes are inserted into sperm or egg cells, is too unsafe, would require IVF and carries the risk of promoting a "eugenic mentality". However, research on this form of gene therapy is in any case still in its early stages and it has not been used to treat patients.

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Despite the hard line taken by the instruction, it praises scientific research as "an invaluable service to the integral good of the life and dignity of every human being".

The document was released this morning at the Vatican by the church's highest ruling body, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The text, approved by Pope Benedict XVI, is billed as an update to the landmark 1987 Donum Vitae, which was itself written by Benedict, as the then Cardinal Ratzinger headed the Congregation.

The new text restates that the church's stances are guided by the core principle that life begins at conception. This dogma was first introduced by Pope Pius IX in 1869, ending centuries of policy inspired by Thomas Aquinas, which considered that embryos did not acquire a soul until later in their development. 

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