The Catholic Case for Embryo Adoption

Opinion   |   Gerard Nadal   |   Apr 17, 2011   |   5:05PM   |   Washington, DC

The issue of embryo adoption, having leftover embryos frozen in liquid nitrogen thawed and implanted in an adoptive mother’s womb, is a thorny subject in Catholic moral theology and ethics circles. I’ve wrestled with this idea for years, and I think we need to continue attending to it in a serious and substantive way.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has issued Dignitas Personae (DP), which tackles the morality of IVF and addresses the issue of embryo adoption. It’s a short document and an easy read. I recommend it highly.

Disclaimer: From the outset, I do not presume to know more than the bishops who have contributed to the promulgation of the document. However, the Church collaborates with physicians and scientists when investigating these matters and pays close attention to the insights coming from science. So I offer these insights as a lay Catholic, educated deeply in the faith, as well as a molecular biologist.

DP does a great job of staking out all of the moral land mines in the field of in vitro fertilization (IVF) technology. It isn’t the last word on the subject, either. From the outset, the document lays out its two fundamental principles:

“The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life” (n. 4).

“The origin of human life has its authentic context in marriage and in the family, where it is generated through an act which expresses the reciprocal love between a man and a woman. Procreation which is truly responsible vis-à-vis the child to be born must be the fruit of marriage” (n. 6).

DP goes on to address, specifically, the dilemma of frozen embryos left over after IVF:

With regard to the large number of frozen embryos already in existence the question becomes: what to do with them? All the answers that have been proposed (use the embryos for research or for the treatment of disease; thaw them without reactivating them and use them for research, as if they were normal cadavers; put them at the disposal of infertile couples as a “treatment for infertility”; allow a form of “prenatal adoption”) present real problems of various kinds. It needs to be recognized “that the thousands of abandoned embryos represent a situation of injustice which in fact cannot be resolved. Therefore, John Paul II made an “appeal to the conscience of the world’s scientific authorities and in particular to doctors, that the production of human embryos be halted, taking into account that there seems to be no morally licit solution regarding the human destiny of the thousands and thousands of ‘frozen’ embryos which are and remain the subjects of essential rights and should therefore be protected by law as human persons” (n. 19).

It other words, we have a mess on our hands. Many respected leaders in the Catholic bioethics community such as Dr. John Haas and Father Tad Pacholczyk (who also has a Ph.D. in molecular biology) have come down against embryo adoption, as it is a participation in the broader realm of IVF. To read the case against embryo adoption by Father Tad, click here. These are great minds whose words are not to be taken lightly.

However, there seems to be another dimension that has been overlooked, and that is the issue of procreation itself and God’s role in it.

IVF is intrinsically evil. It takes procreation out of the marital embrace and relegates spouses to mere tissue donors and sideline spectators as the technicians do the actual work of bringing sperm and egg into union. However evil this technology is, there is a more delicate question that I have regarding God’s role in all of this.

The Church does not maintain that we all existed as disembodied spirits before our conception. We are created (soul) when we are conceived (body). That’s why the procreation of children in marriage is such a grace-filled moment for spouses, because God is there, freely creating the soul as the parents unite themselves. But what happens when a woman is raped, or two individuals fornicate, or IVF is employed? What are the degrees of freedom on God’s part?

Is God bound by His own paradigm for human procreation? Is He dragged kicking and screaming into the evil means by which sperm and egg find one another? Does He not create freely, though perhaps reluctantly under such circumstances?

The fact remains that God creates a human soul when sperm and egg unite.

That fact is my dilemma.

God is there in the IVF clinic, creating a new human soul (dozens at a time, actually). He is participating in a procreative act that is occurring outside of His divine plan, and which in its human dimensions is intrinsically evil; but He is there, and He is creating.

Now we return to the first of the two guiding principles in DP. The first right of the IVF baby is the right to be respected as and treated as a person. That right means facilitating the unmolested development of that individual. If implantation in the womb is to be forbidden in all circumstances, then I fail to see the point of the Congregation mentioning this first principle.

What we see a great deal of is the condemnation of the technique, which is truly abhorrent. However, I think there is a great distinction to be made between the technology leading up to the creation of a new human being, and the technology employed to sustain those new human beings. The former is always gravely and intrinsically evil. I’m not so certain about the latter.

The great distinction is that life has been made, both by man and by God. The act of procreation is done, and a child exists in its most nascent form. From here we have a battle of principles, and again, Father Pacholczyk’s points are well made. However, I see a certain chilly aloofness in standing by and saying of so many thousands of baby’s, “Gee it stinks to be you.” Catholic moral theology demands greater than that from us if we truly believe that the human embryo is a human being endowed with a soul of God’s making.

The second principle in DP is where we run into trouble:

“Procreation which is truly responsible vis-à-vis the child to be born must be the fruit of marriage”

I don’t disagree at all with the imperative in that statement. The problem is that it does not account for the child conceived outside of that principle. What then?

Jesus admonished the Pharisees when they took exception to His disciples picking grain and eating it on the Sabbath. He also admonished them about the lawfulness of saving life on the Sabbath, even if it meant breaking the law to do so. “Who among you would not pull his sheep out of a hole to save it on the Sabbath?”

We are dealing with much more than sheep here.

If God freely creates the soul in the midst of such human evil, do we not have an imperative to honor that creative act by facilitating the child’s development through implantation and adoption?

It isn’t perfect, but I think we do. Thoughts?