Vatican Assails Genetic-Testing Decision in Britain

Granted Permission to Screen In-vitro Embryos

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ROME, NOV. 3, 2004 (Zenit.org).- A British agency's decision to allow the screening of embryos produced by in-vitro fertilization for the purpose of destruction was roundly assailed by a Vatican official.



"Obviously, to procreate in vitro embryos to subject them later to pre-implantation diagnosis in order to screen the healthy and eliminate the unhealthy represents, before any conscience, the suppression of a living and innocent human being," Bishop Elio Sgreccia, vice president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, explained on Vatican Radio.

"The decision is perfectly and fully negative," he said Tuesday.

He was reacting to the decision by Britain's Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority to approve the screening of embryos obtained from in vitro fertilization and the destruction of those that might be genetically predisposed to develop a type of cancer.

A team at University College London has been granted the license to screen embryos for the gene that causes familial adenomatus polyposis, a rectal or colon cancer of hereditary character.

The decision marked the first time that the United Kingdom has authorized a pre-implantation genetic diagnosis for an illness that does not develop from birth.

Four couples -- who have undergone artificial insemination -- will be able to make use of the authorized method. To screen the embryos, an analysis is carried out three days after in vitro fertilization. The goal is to select for implantation only those found to be free of the problem gene. The rest would face destruction.

Bishop Sgreccia warned that the diagnostic procedure used in the screening is not always reliable.

"It is often subject to so-called false diagnoses, so that a healthy embryo could be eliminated, just as a sick embryo could be implanted considering it healthy," he said.

"It is not a screening that can be carried out with certainty," the bishop emphasized. "Even if it could be done, it is always a selective, negative judgment and oriented to kill, a very grave and illicit deed."

The Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, which already permitted the screening of embryos to avoid genetic illnesses, extended the margin of the law last July, authorizing the screening of embryos to conceive babies for "therapeutic" ends: to cure the sicknesses of family members.

England was the first country to take this step, Bishop Sgreccia recalled.

"It was the first place where in-vitro fertilization was carried out," he said. "A committee was established, whose president was Mrs. Warnock. The Warnock Committee issued a report, on the basis of which the government elaborated a law and established an authority."

"In this way, permissions are regulated on a certain number of interventions on the human embryo, on the processes of procreation, authorizing their execution," the bishop said.

This "is always within the philosophy of the Warnock Committee and the Warnock report, which does not consider the human embryo fully worthy of respect, as a human being of full dignity," he lamented.

"It is a utilitarian logic that opens the way to things that must rightly be considered crimes against human dignity and life," Bishop Sgreccia stressed.

Amid the controversy caused by the Embryology Authority's latest decision, specialists warned that the latter was made without sufficient debate and they expressed their perplexity because it is about a sickness that develops in time.

Dr. Mohammed Taranisini, director of London's Assisted Reproduction and Gynecological Center, whose request to create "designer babies" to treat the illnesses of family members, was authorized by the Embryology Authority, told BBC that the issue "needs to be debated properly," as these are conditions "that may or may not develop 20, 30, 40 years down the line."

"The HFEA has yet again taken ethical decisions without consulting the public," said Josephine Quintavalle of the public interest organization Comment on Reproductive Ethics.

"We should be looking for medicines that cure, not medicines that kill," she added. "In July there was talk of therapeutic ends. We are now in genetic screening."