The Vatican and Stem Cells: A Tale of Two Headlines

Filed in Religion, Science, Social IssuesTags: Christianity, Clone The Truth, Cloning, Media Bias, Sanctity of Life, Stem Cells

The Vatican recently issued a statement on bioethical issues, entitled Dignitas Personae (The Dignity of the Person), which serves as the authoritative ruling for the Catholic Church in condemning, among other things, embryo-destructive stem-cell research and human cloning.

The foundational tenet for the ruling is, as astute readers may surmise, the inherent dignity of the human being. The statement makes this point explicit in its opening sentence (pg. 1 of 23):

The dignity of a person must be recognized in every human being from conception to natural death.

The statement attempts to differentiate between human dignity, which has inherent moral value, and scientific research, which does not have inherent moral value apart from the moral implications of the applications of that research. The statement goes so far as to reiterate the church's support for and participation in such research (pg. 2 of 23):

The church therefore views scientific research with hope and desires that many Christians will dedicate themselves to the progress of biomedicine and will bear witness to their faith in this field.

Having made clear this differentiation, the statement lays out the foundation of its ruling: 1) all human life has inherent dignity and moral worth, 2) life begins at conception, therefore 3) human life at the embryonic stage of development deserves all the dignity and respect due human life at all other stages of development (pg. 3 of 23):

The body of a human being, from its very first stages of development, can never be reduced merely to a group of cells. The embryonic human body develops progressively according to a well-defined program with its proper finality, as is apparent in the birth of every baby.

It is appropriate to recall the fundamental ethical criterion expressed in the Instruction Donum Vitae in order to evaluate all moral questions which relate to procedures involving the human embryo: 'Thus the fruit of human generation, from the first moment of its existence, that is to say, from the moment the zygote has formed, demands the unconditional respect that is morally due to the human being in his bodily and spiritual totality. The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life.'

From this foundational position, the statement makes the logical conclusion that embryo-destructive pursuits (including embryonic stem cell research) are immoral.

So, given this position, I would expect a headline such as "Vatican document condemns cloning, stem cell research", just as a matter of course. But how do the ostensibly upstanding journalists at the Honolulu Advertiser portray the ruling? Why, "Vatican condemns modern science research", of course.

Contrast that gem of journalistic integrity with the (Minneapolis/St. Paul) Star-Tribune's take: "'Dignity of a person' reinforced in Vatican bioethics document."

Well now, that sounds just a little bit more accurate.