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Assisted Reproduction

Embryo Adoption: Charity or Sin?

Saint Peter's Basilica

I try to avoid issues involving religion for several reasons. Among them, most organized religions condemn assisted reproduction so there is little to be gained by stating the obvious. Also, any conversation involving religion tends to invoke heated debate and, once all is said and done, little has been accomplished because the positions are usually so deeply entrenched, there is no common ground to be found.

However, this article entitled The Absurd Fate of Frozen Embryos got my dander up. As many probably know, the Catholic Church condemned IVF back in 1987 in its Donum Vitae. The Donum Vitae was extremely controversial and was followed with the Dignitas Personae in 2008. In this document, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith took a critical stance against “selective reduction, prenatal diagnosis, preimplantation diagnosis, in vitro fertilization, cryopreservation‎, parahumans, embryo transfer, genetic engineering, and embryo donation” because they provoke the termination of embryonic cell reproduction. These doctrinal materials are not just limited to Catholics, but to doctors, ethicists, attorneys, pharmacists, psychologists and other professionals whose participation would be essential in any IVF cycle.

Twenty-three years later, the Church is still struggling with this issue. In this article, Brian Scarnecchia, president of the International Solidarity and Human Rights Institute and professor of law at Ave Maria Law School, responded to the reaction to his lecture at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace wherein he discussed the fate of frozen embryos:

For instance, “Donum Vitae” principally addressed the coming to be of a human being through a conception that was not the fruit of a conjugal act of love between a husband and a wife, but occurred in vitro, that is, in a glass petri dish. This procedure was clearly condemned as was the freezing of “extra” or “spare” embryos. Nonetheless, thousands of frozen embryos have been created and the question was asked by many well intentioned persons — can a woman, other than the mother, have a frozen embryo transplanted into her womb without becoming a surrogate mother?

Some bioethicists faithful to the magisterium, not dissenting theologians by any means, who were concerned about the fate of these frozen embryos, argued that rescuing or adopting a frozen embryo would not make the woman a surrogate. A surrogate, they argued, would be one who, for love or for money, took an embryo into her womb with the intention of giving it to another — “I’m doing it for my sister, I’m doing it for my daughter, I’m doing it for $20,000.” A woman would not become a surrogate mother, they argued, if she did not intend to give the child away after birth but intended to adopt him or her. Anecdotally, I’ve spoken to a nun who said that if heterologous embryo transfer were approved, she would be tempted to found a new order of nuns dedicated to rescuing these frozen embryos.

This approach was criticized for collapsing the motive into the moral deed. Bioethicists critical of embryo adoption objected and said [that what’s more important than one’s motive] is the moral deed, the “what”, which they understood to be the act of becoming pregnant with someone else’s child. These bioethicists argued that if the transfer of a frozen embryo into a woman’s womb was surrogacy per se, it would be intrinsically evil and it couldn’t be done for any good motive, not even to save the life of the frozen embryo….Then the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued “Dignitas Personae.” Paragraph 19 offered some resolution to this debate…. Paragraph 19 said that those who are genetic strangers to the embryo, who through heterologous embryo transfer, become pregnant with a child genetically not their own, have engaged in acts similar to heterologous in vitro fertilization and/or surrogacy, and it was not a licit act. So it is not licit to adopt an embryo to fill out your family size.

In the United States, there is the Snowflake Baby Program, promoted by National Right to Life as an alternative to embryo destructive research on these embryos. Certainly, this was a well-intentioned movement. At the time, between “Donum Vitae” and “Dignitas Personae,” Catholics could in good conscience, after weighing both sides of the debate, adopt a frozen embryo. Following the publication of Dignitas Personae this would no longer seem to be an option a Catholic can in good faith pursue.

Some bioethicists who argued against heterologous embryo transfer said that it was tantamount to a technological adultery; that for a woman to become pregnant with another couple’s child violates the unitive good of marriage.

This presents a classic Morton’s Fork dilemma which has been created solely by the Church as a result of its instructions in Donum Vitaie and Dignitas Personae. Effectively, the Church has created a situation where the origins of the frozen embryo dictate the potential child’s right to life. By analogizing embryo adoption to surrogacy, a practice the Church has declared “intrinsically evil”, they have condemned for destruction the very embryos that they seek to protect. With more than 400,000 excess frozen embryos already in limbo, it would seem to me, as a non-Catholic, the only moral resolution to this dilemma is to permit altruistically inclined would-be parents the right to carry one of these unwanted embryos. Yet the Church cursorily dismisses this idea of a prenatal adoption and instead appeals to doctors to cease performing IVF. And, in so doing, the Church makes a mockery of their own instruction in Rule 12 that medical techniques must “respect right to life and to physical integrity of every human being from conception to natural death.”


9 comments for “Embryo Adoption: Charity or Sin?”

  • Jen

    Thanks for writing about the miracle of Embryo Adoption.

    We are two moms who are raising awareness about Embryo Adoption. We are hoping that other families will be able to experience the miracle of pregnancy through EA.

    For more information, please visit our blog: http://3babes2jens1cause-embryoadoption.blogspot.com/.

    Have a GREAT day!!!
    2 Jens

  • Well done and well written. The church seems to clearly believe that the ends do not justify the means. Since the means are forbidden, they can’t seem to allow themselves to comprehend that these embryos still exist. By existing, regardless of the teachings of the church, some may feel a responsibility to try to care for these potential lives. These and other short-sighted decisions will continue to erode their numbers over time.

    If you get a moment, please check out a recent news release regarding the term “embryo adoption”: http://www.dreamababy.com/news-article.php?article=12. I would appreciate your feedback. You and I have followed each others comments I think as far back as http://www.surrogacy.com. Keep up the good work.

  • Michael Fierro

    This is not an accurate assessment of the position of the Catholic Church.

    The Conference of Catholic Bishops had this to say about the issue:

    “Proposals for
    “adoption” of abandoned or unwanted frozen embryos are also found to pose problems,
    because the Church opposes use of the gametes or bodies of others who are outside the
    marital covenant for reproduction. The document raises cautions or problems about these
    new issues but does not formally make a definitive judgment against them.” in response to questions about Dignitas Personae, which quite clearly shows that the Church has not made any judgement on embryo adoption/donation whatsoever. (http://www.usccb.org/comm/Dignitaspersonae/Q_and_A.pdf, Question 5)

    The National Catholic Center for Bioethics (which does not have the authority to dictate teaching, but nonetheless) also points out that it is a question open for debate:


  • Dan

    This is a dilemma experienced by many practicing Catholics. On the one hand, the desire to have a family and experience the miracle of parenthood. On the other hand, when the body does not permit, IVF may be the only choice. Therefore, the Church would prefer the couple remain without child. Not sure this makes much sense.

  • Thank for sharing your article about embryo adoptation. I would like to say that manipulation in life creation is like doesn’t look good for it’s only God have the rights in doing so. This issue may be forever be alive forever. But hopes that humans have thier limitations to stop.

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