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EUR: Pope decries discrimination based on genetics

By Nicole Winfield
22 Feb 2009 3:00 AM

VATICAN CITY, Feb 21 AP - Pope Benedict XVI said on Saturday any type of discrimination based on genetic factors, such as a risk for cancer or other ailments, is an attack against all of humanity.

Benedict praised the scientific progress that has enabled researchers to diagnose genetic illnesses and develop therapies to treat them.

But he said alongside this progress were "worrisome displays" of discrimination that privileged "efficiency, perfection and physical beauty at the expense of other forms of existence that are deemed unworthy".

Benedict made the comments during an audience with participants in a Vatican conference on the New Frontiers of Genetics and the Risk of Eugenics. Eugenics is the effort to improve the quality of the human race by controlling heredity.

The comments were an apparent reference to pre-implantation genetic diagnosis for embryos. In the screening, known by its abbreviation PGD, a single cell from an embryo created for in-vitro fertilisation is tested before being implanted in the womb to screen for genetic conditions and diseases such as Down Syndrome, sickle-cell anemia or cystic fibrosis.

The Vatican opposes the screening because it often results in the destruction of embryos, and the Vatican holds that life begins at conception. But Benedict also voiced opposition to the type of technology because "it means that medical biotechnology has given way to being the judge of the strongest".

Proponents of the process say it can spare parents the tragedy of passing on hereditary diseases to their children. But many countries ban it or restrict it to prevention of serious inherited diseases, in part to prevent it from being used to screen on the basis of gender or eye colour alone.

Benedict told members of the Pontifical Academy for Life any discrimination of individuals, people or ethnic groups on the basis of real or presumed genetic factors "is an attack against all of humanity".

He acknowledged the term eugenics harks back to the past, when most famously the Nazis used eugenic theories to justify forced sterilisation and other practices in their quest to establish a master race.

Benedict said such ideologies are not returning, but a type of eugenics mentality had emerged with medical advances to justify different considerations of who deserves to live.

"What we must repeat with force is the equal dignity of every human being, for the sole fact of having been brought to life," he said. "One's biological, psychological and cultural development and health can never become an element for discrimination."