Catholic Church accuses Telethon of 'eugenics'

4th December 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Dec 2, 2006 (AFP) - The Catholic Church has set off a major row in France by accusing a much-loved medical charity of "eugenics" for helping to fund the screening of human embryos for hereditary diseases.

PARIS, Dec 2, 2006 (AFP) - The Catholic Church has set off a major row in France by accusing a much-loved medical charity of "eugenics" for helping to fund the screening of human embryos for hereditary diseases.

A Catholic official warned last month it was "no longer possible", for ethical reasons, for the Church to donate to the Telethon, a gigantic medical fundraiser that draws in millions of French people each year.

Organised by the French Association Against Myopathy (AFM), last year's Telethon — short for television marathon — raised EUR 104 million for research into muscle-wasting diseases with 22,000 sponsored runs and concerts held in what has become an annual French ritual.

On November 9, the head of the Catholic bioethics committee in Fréjus-Toulon in southern France published an article denouncing the Telethon, which holds its 20th edition on December 8-9, as part of a "great eugenic strategy".

Pierre-Olivier Arduin accuses the Telethon's organisers of having pushed France to legalise the selective screening of human embryos, through something called Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD).

The state-of-the-art procedure — which enables parents with hereditary illnesses to select an embryo that does not carry the disease — is opposed by the Catholic Church because it implies destroying the remaining embryos.

Senior Church figures have since waded into the debate, with Archbishop of Paris Andre Vingt-Trois saying this week he was worried Catholic funds were being used for unethical purposes.

"What concerns me is that donations made for research could be used for work that intrumentalises the human embryo or that borders on eugenics," he said on French radio.

"Who sets the criteria? Who decides that a person doesn't have the right to live? If we move towards this kind of society, it will be worse than Orwell's world," he warned.

"It's not because the Telethon is a charitable organisation that we should be writing it a blank check."

Though the Church stopped short of calling for boycott of the event, its comments set off a barrage of protest from French ethics experts, the government and the charity itself.

Didier Sicard, the head of France's national ethics committee, denounced the Church's intervention as "unfortunate and extremely unwelcome".

"Of course it has the right to a judgement. But it should not impose it on the public as it is doing right now," he said Thursday.

Health Minister Xavier Bertrand voiced his "unflinching support" for the Telethon, calling it "a beautiful initiative".

Meanwhile the AFM issued a statement saying it did not finance PGDs — which it said were covered by the national health system — while defending the procedure as a vital medical tool.

"PGD allows healthy children to be born into at-risk families. This has nothing to do with the search for a perfect child," the AFM's director Laurence Tiennot-Herment told the Catholic weekly Le Pelerin.

She said she was "shocked" and "outraged" by the accusations, insisting the charity strictly adhered to French law.

The AFM also rejected Catholic calls for a pick-and-mix system letting donors choose what their money pays for, saying it could lead to some illnesses being neglected compared to others.

Out of 440 research programmes backed by the AFM last year, it says just one involved embryonic stem cells — accounting for 1.3 percent of donations.

Even the head of the Catholic Scouts and Guides association — which takes part in the Telethon each year — said the Church had chosen the worst possible moment to raise its protest.

France's scientific community took a joint decision to stay silent on the issue until after the Telethon, out of fear the row could jeopardise the event.

The French biomedical agency simply published a statement recalling that PGD had been legal since 2004.

Around 100 PGDs are thought to be carried out in France each year, resulting in between 10 and 20 births.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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