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Vatican Calls for Honesty on Biotechnology: "Don't Fear Scientific Progress"

Pontifical Academy For Life
October 12, 1999

Two New Books Clarify Questions on Genetic Modification

Vatican City, Oct 12 (Zenit).- Transgenic foods, genetic maps and sex selection are just the tip of the iceberg that has sparked the debate on the ethical repercussions of the use of biotechnology. Both scientists and ethicians alike are trying to agree on the limits and use of this new emerging field. At present, there is a clash between those who have denounced the encouragement of alarmist views, devoid of scientific basis and, those who stress the enormous advantages that can be gleaned from a proper use of biotechnology.

To date, the Church has not pronounced itself explicitly on this matter. Believers and non-believers ask a very serious question: what is the Catholic moral position regarding genetic manipulation?

To answer this question, the Pontifical Academy for Life, an institution created by John Paul II himself in 1994, has published two volumes, one on the human genome and another on biotechnology - both presented this morning to the international press.

Scientific Progress

According to one of the most prestigious European geneticists, Jesuit Angelo Serra, Professor Emeritus of the Faculty of Medicine of the Sacred Heart University in Rome, "research on the human genome began in 1989 and after ten years we only know about 6% of this map that contains 3 billion letters. 1,462 genes are known, on which genetic diseases depend, and 4,500 monogenetic illnesses have been identified, to which must be added all the rest, such as tumors, which are poligenetic illnesses." Serra said that "the progress of scientific knowledge is exceptional, although its application is deficient. The 600 experiments of genetic engineering that are currently underway on illnesses such as AIDS, cancer, monogenetic and enzymatic sicknesses, to date have not given definitive results, as they have not succeeded in curing the dysfunction of some genes that cause the sicknesses."

New Medical Responsibility

Serra denounced that "instead of making the medical and health personnel more aware of their own responsibilities, this knowledge is heading "toward moral shipwreck." By way of example he mentioned pre-natal diagnoses, which "tend to eliminate the subject that could develop the sickness, instead of curing it." He added that "there are real cases of eugenics that are triumphing in the field of medicine."

Professor Serra was certain that "the progress in knowledge will bring great benefits to mankind; consequently, science must not be incriminated." Yet, he acknowledged that science "requires greater responsibility and attention on the part of the medical corps and institutions, by respecting the ethical limits that many would like to ignore."

Catastrophic Sensationalism

Giuseppe Bertoni, professor at the Institute of Zootechnology of the Sacred Heart University in Piacenza, criticized "the catastrophic sensationalism with which the press reports on biotechnology," specifically, he rejected the "idea of conceiving scientific progress as something that should be feared."

"It's true that ethical limits must be respected, but above all the reality of biotechnology must be known. Because of this I say: 'If you know biotechnology, you don't fear it.' "

"To reject biotechnology because its patent is in the hands of multinational corporations, is an ideological argument - not a scientific one. Perhaps what Rifkin says is true, that corporations have 40% of the knowledge in this field, but it is also true that the public structures and the smallest European enterprises are committed to this research and offer guarantees that must not be ignored," Bertoni said.

Regarding animal cloning, Bertoni said that "it could help to resolve in a final way the problem of species in the process of extinction. It is being tried with the panda, and it could be applied to other species."

The Church's Position

Bishop Elio Sgreccia, vice-president of the Pontifical Academy for Life and director of the Institute of Bioethics of the Sacred Heart University of Rome, explained that "there are no specific indications from the Magisterium of the Church on biotechnology.

Because of this, I have stopped all those who demand the condemnation of these products." "The book, 'Animal and Vegetable Biotechnology: New Frontiers and New Responsibilities,' is a contribution toward clarifying this question. We give the ideological lines: research in the biotechnological field could resolve enormous problems as, for example, the adaptation of agriculture to arid land, thus conquering hunger. The biotechnological products must contribute to man's wellbeing, giving guarantees in face of possible risks. Therefore, what is needed is honesty. Once the proper health characteristics of the product are guaranteed, it is right that the consumer should know if it has been genetically modified."

Finally, Bishop Sgreccia confirmed that "the Pontifical Academy for Life says no to the cloning of man in all its forms."