Human Exceptionalism

Scientific American Does the Mischaracterization, Not the Vatican

I wasn’t planning on exploring the Vatican’s new bioethics pronouncement. But the media’s reportage does bear some discussion. Scientific American’s story, for example, contains the following subheadline:

Mischaracterizations of science lurk in the Vatican’s latest instructions on bioethics

That was a surprise. In my experience, whether one agrees or disagrees with Catholic moral views, the science upon which the Church bases its analyses, at least based on pronouncements I have seen, is always sterling. So I wondered: Where did the report go wrong?

Turns out, unsurprisingly, that it is the Scientific American that is conflating science with statements by the Vatican that are not scientific in nature. The magazine bases its false charge on an interview with a reproductive health “expert,” who naturally disagrees with many of the Vatican’ views. From the story:

But it [the Vatican report] also opposes IVF even if it doesn’t involve embryo loss, because the Vatican is committed to conception that involves the conjugal act. This I don’t really understand. There are multiple descriptions of in vitro fertilization that make it sound as though couples going through IVF and the doctors and technicians involved are doing it in a heartless way. My understanding is that many couples and doctors involved have a huge amount of respect and awe for the embryos they create. They are very attached to the embryos they create. They are highly invested in their survival. They do everything they can to make sure as many embryos develop after fertilization. The idea that they are doing it in this detached, technical, love-free environment is really a mischaracterization.

Okay, but even if true, that isn’t a mistake in the science of the report.

What other examples does the story give?

They talk about pre-implantation diagnosis, which is where you do tests on embryos before you transfer them to the woman’s body. They describe it as being done to ensure that embryos are free from defects or other particular qualities. Sometimes it is done for that reason, but they don’t mention the most important reason that people do pre-implantation diagnosis, which is to make sure they only transfer embryos that will survive. A friend of mine had two miscarriages late in third trimester because there were serious genetic defects with the fetus incompatible with its continuing to live. She had IVF, and they did pre-implantation diagnosis and of the six embryos they created all had multiple genetic problems that would have prevented them from surviving for birth. That’s probably better than having six more miscarriages. That is not even mentioned in this document and it seems extremely important.

Okay, but even this anecdote does not mean that the science in the report is wrong.

I carefully read the whole story. Each of the alleged mistakes mentioned in the article are not scientific in nature but have to do with ethics or motivations. Thus, from what I can tell from this story, the party that is confused is not the Vatican: It is the Scientific American.

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