Letters: Pregnant with moral dilemmas

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The Independent Online
Sir: The heated rhetoric of Vatican officials about the destruction of frozen pre-embryos in Britain provides an interesting contrast with the cool acceptance of Cardinal Basil Hume. While Vatican officials deem the event a "prenatal massacre" and call on married women to "adopt" the orphan embryos, Hume is prepared to settle for a decent burial.

Perhaps Hume understands the complexity and pitfalls inherent in the Vatican's approach to the subject of frozen pre-embryos - perhaps he understands better than the Vatican that the history of church teaching on the status of the early embryo speaks against claiming "personhood" for such undifferentiated early life.

St Augustine said that "unformed foetuses perish like seeds which have not fructified", clearly seeing actual human life beginning at some point after the foetus has begun to grow. This ambiguity continues to modern times - the Vatican's 1974 Declaration on Procured Abortion specifically "leaves aside the question of the moment when the spiritual soul is infused". It is for this reason that funerals for spontaneously aborted or miscarried foetuses are not routine in the church. As recently as 20 years ago priests and health care personnel were prohibited by church directives from baptising miscarried or aborted fetuses in the early stages of pregnancies. Last rites are not administered.

In natural reproduction, there are thousands of embryos that are spontaneously aborted every day. One cannot help but wonder why church officials and anti-abortion groups are not lobbying for a research programme that would prevent such tragedies. The magnitude of such loss of life in their terms is far greater than any deadly disease we have faced from polio to Aids.

Perhaps Cardinal Hume sees another problem with the Vatican approach. He knows that the church to date has forbidden artificial insemination with donated sperm, much less embryo transfer for married infertile couples. Arguing that embryo transfer and surrogacy is a lesser evil than destroying a pre-embryo, the Cardinal may reason, is the first step down a slippery slope in which contraceptives are seen as the lesser of two evils if they would prevent abortions; likewise the use of condoms to prevent the transmission of HIV. Fortunately, most Catholics already understand and accept these options.

FRANCES KISSLING

President

Catholics for a Free Choice

Washington DC

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