One of the great ironies of the stem cell debates of the last few years has been that some of the most serious attention to scientific detail and reality has come from Catholic circles, while some of the most wide-eyed messianic faith-healing talk has come from liberal political (and sometimes even scientific) circles. There is another example of the former today, with a new Vatican document about reproductive technologies and bioethics. I’m not a Catholic and am in no position to speak to the theological components of the document, and I don’t agree with all of its conclusions (on IVF, for instance) but its treatment of the latest scientific developments and of the related ethical questions is exceptionally good, and its attitude—very pro-science and very clear about ethical boundaries and the reasons for them, with arguments that reach well beyond Catholic theology—is very impressive.
The view of many of us who have argued against the destruction of embryos for research is that we ought not understand ourselves to be faced with a choice between science and ethics, but with the challenge of championing both, which is a challenge both to scientific ingenuity and to ethical reflection and argument (a case I take up, among other issues, in my recent book on science and democracy). The Bush administration’s approach to the stem cell debate has been one example of how to think in these terms. This document, wherever you stand on its Catholic-specific elements, is another very worthy one.