What is the Pro-Life Catholic View of Human Embryo Adoption?

Bioethics   |   Rebecca Taylor   |   Jun 29, 2011   |   12:22PM   |   Washington, DC

It has been estimated that there are as many as half a million frozen IVF embryos in fertility clinics across the United States waiting to continue their lives. Some are abandoned or forgotten. What should be done about them? The Catholic Church resoundingly opposes using human embryos for research. Embryos are human organisms with value simply because they are human and to destroy them in research, even if the goal is a proposed good, is morally unacceptable.

Embryo adoption has been proposed as a way to give the half a million Americans on ice a chance at completing their lives. Embryo adoption would entail thawing these “surplus” embryos and implanting them into the uterus of a woman willing to gestate them. Snowflakes is an adoption program by Nightlight Christian Adoptions that is specifically for the adoption of frozen “surplus” IVF embryos. A embryo adoption is also called a heterologous embryo transfer (HET) because the gestating mother is not the embryo’s genetic mother. Homologous embryo transfer is when an embryo is implanted into the genetic mother’s womb.

At this time the Catholic Church does not have official teaching on embryo adoption. It is a very complex issue. More complex than even I ever imagined. It is not just a simple discussion over whether or not adopting embryos is ethical. Embryo adoption raises questions about the nature of marriage and what it means to be pregnant. If embryo adoption is ethical, should it be limited to married couples? Or could single or religious women participate? Does adopting an embryo imply a complacency with the entire immoral process of IVF? If embryo adoption is not ethical what should be done with the embryos currently frozen? Should they be left in cryopreservation or should they be thawed and allowed to expire?

True to my mission at this blog to inform the everyday Catholic about Catholic thought on tough bioethical issues, I have been researching what Catholic theologians have been saying about embryo adoption and I hope to present an overview. The range of opinion on this issue is staggering. What all do agree on is that the current situation is unacceptable, These hundreds of thousands of embryos should never have been created outside their mother’s womb, outside of the act of love between a husband and wife. These smallest of human lives have been marginalized and treated like commodities. What these great thinkers disagree on is how best to deal with this untenable situation.

Nearly all of what follows came from the excellent book Human Embryo Adoption: Biotechnology, Marriage, and the Right to Life put out by the National Catholic Bioethics Center. The depth and breadth of the essays in this book is amazing. Being that I am no theologian or philosopher, I will never be able to convey every important subtlety of all the arguments in a simple blog post. So if this subject interests you, please purchase the book to get the full force of each author’s arguments.

There are two camps of Catholic thought on embryo adoptions with variations in each camp. There are those that believe embryo adoption to be immoral and those who believe it to be moral. It seems the dividing line depends on whether pregnancy is viewed as a part of the procreative process between a husband and wife or whether pregnancy is seen as a biological nurturing that is a necessity after fertilization has occurred.

Among those on the “embryo adoption is immoral” side there is Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Christopher Oleson, Nicholas Tonti-Filipini, Mary Geach, and Rev. Nicanor Austriaco O.P. The foundation of this argument is the nature of marriage and its role in procreation. The Catholic Church has long argued that procreation is meant to be the fruit of the conjugal act of a husband and wife. Children are to be begotten out of a specific act of love between a wife and her husband. The above authors quote a specific passage from Donum Vitae:

Respect for the unity of marriage and for conjugal fidelity demands that the child be conceived in marriage; the bond existing between husband and wife accords the spouses, in an objective and inalienable manner, the exclusive right to become father and mother solely through each other.(37) Recourse to the gametes of a third person, in order to have sperm or ovum available, constitutes a violation of the reciprocal commitment of the spouses and a grave lack in regard to the essential property of marriage which is its unity.

They focus specifically on “the exclusive right to become father and mother solely through each other.” They argue that impregnating a woman with the genetic offspring of another violates this right of a husband and wife to become a mother and father only through each other. Embryo adoption specifically excludes the husband because the wife becomes a gestational mother to the embryo while the husband is eliminated entirely from the procreative process. Nicholas Tonti-Filippini writes:

By contrast, in heterologous embryo transfer [embryo adoption] the husband is isolated from this process by which his wife becomes with child. Her body—which she gave to him in love in the sacrament of marriage, a gift which they renew in the conjugal act—for a time, becomes the home of a child that bears no relationship to him, that is from outside their union. It is in this sense that heterologous embryo transfer may be an infidelity to the marriage. The pregnancy is in fact achieved outside the marital relationship.

Fr. Pacholczyk goes one step further and argues that even implanting one’s own embryos (homologous embryo transfer) is immoral for a couple. He writes:

When a husband and wife decide to do IVF using their own gametes – sometimes referred to as homologous IVF – motherhood, I suggest is violated twice. The first violation flows from allowing one’s gametes to be used generatively outside the conjugal act itself, by allowing conception outside the body and apart from a conjugal act. The second transgression occurs at the point of embryo transfer, in the attempt to become a gestational mother without…a prior conjugal act. The woman is essentially becoming a surrogate mother to her own genetically related offspring.

So if adopting embryos violates marriage, what should be done with them? Fr. Pacholczyk and Nicholas Tonti-Filippini disagree. Fr. Pacholczyk argues in his Making Sense Out of Bioethics series that these embryos be kept frozen until such time as an alternative to embryo adoption becomes available such as an embryo incubator or artificial womb. Nicholas Tonti-Filippini argues that the process of cyropreservation itself it against the dignity of the embryo and embryos should be returned to their natural state and allowed to expire on their own.

In the “embryo adoption is moral” camp are William E. May, E. Christian Brugger, Rev. Thomas D. Williams L.C., John Berkman and Rev. Peter F. Ryan S.J. They agree that IVF violates the natural procreation of a husband and wife. They argue that naturally sexual intercourse, conception and gestation all go together, but IVF interrupts that natural process. Procreation instead takes place in a dish and so gestation is turned into a biological necessity to save the life created with IVF. William E. May writes:

The baby to be transferred to the womb already exists and it is his life that is relevant. Although this human person ought not to have been generated in the way that it was this new person now exists and like babies conceived through the conjugal act, or though IVF and other new “reproductive technologies,” or through fornication, adultery or rape, it has the same immeasurable worth and deserves the same loving care as any other human person.

John Berkman likens frozen embryos to orphans and argues that Christians have obligation to take care of them. He writes:

If much of society fails to recognize a class of orphans in their midst, as in contemporary society, then it is the special duty of the Christian community to witness this failure. This is particularly true when the case involves the creation, abandonment, and often killing of the innocent human life in its most vulnerable state. If some think that nothing (morally speaking) can be done to aid these orphaned embryos then their reasons must be truly decisive, or the Christian community’s failure to attend to those who are “the least of these” would be a rejection of Christ himself.

Rev. Paul F. Ryan asserts that not only is embryo adoption moral, but that the government “find women who are willing and able to have the embryos transferred into their wombs.” Ryan suggests the state “should run a campaign to have these embryos gestated and adopted.”

So if embryo adoption is moral then who can and should adopt? May and others hold that married or single women can gestate embryos to save them. May even says that women can gestate, give birth and then give those babies up for adoption. This would be referred to as “embryo rescue” as opposed to “embryo adoption.” Berkman disagrees and thinks embryos should only be adopted by a married couple that is willing to raise the child.

As you can see, there is much disagreement and until the Church comes out with an official stance, there will continue to be debate. So what are Catholics to do if they already have frozen embryos or if they feel called to adopt an embryo? Rev. Thomas Berg L.C. and Edward J. Furton have some guidelines. They recommend, first and foremost, getting counsel from a priest or ethicist who is well informed and has a reputation of fidelity to Church teaching. For couples who already have frozen IVF embryos, they recommend implanting them and bringing them to term unless there are grave reasons not to. If there are grave reasons, then the couple can search their conscience and consider giving those embryos up for adoption. If adoption to another couple is not an option, then continuing to keep them frozen may become futile. In this case, it may be ethical to thaw the embryos and allow them to die. For those who feel called to adopt an embryo, they need to examine their conscience to ensure that it is not for any reason other than the best interest of the child. The husband must give “deliberate and express consent” and while the embryos are transfered, great effort must be taken to not cooperate with the IVF industry. A clear statement must be made to condemn the process of IVF and reiterate that this embryo adoption is an effort to right those wrongs.

**Update** My great commenters reminded me that the Instruction Dignitas Personae on Certain Bioethical Questions published after the above volume had the following passage that seems to call embryo adoption immoral:

The proposal that these embryos could be put at the disposal of infertile couples as a treatment for infertility is not ethically acceptable for the same reasons which make artificial heterologous procreation illicit as well as any form of surrogate motherhood;38 this practice would also lead to other problems of a medical, psychological and legal nature.

It has also been proposed, solely in order to allow human beings to be born who are otherwise condemned to destruction, that there could be a form of “prenatal adoption”. This proposal, praiseworthy with regard to the intention of respecting and defending human life, presents however various problems not dissimilar to those mentioned above.

It clearly states that embryo adoption for the treatment of infertility is immoral, but adoption for adoption sake is left ambiguous to which the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops had this statement:

Embryo adoption. The document does not reject the practice outright but warns of medical, psychological and legal problems associated with it and underscores the moral wrong of producing and freezing embryos in the first place.


LifeNews.com Note: Rebecca Taylor is a clinical laboratory specialist in molecular biology, and a practicing pro-life Catholic who writes at the bioethics blog Mary Meets Dolly. She has been writing and speaking about Catholicism and biotechnology for five years and has been interviewed on EWTN radio on topics from stem cell research and cloning to voting pro-life. Taylor has a B.S. in Biochemistry from University of San Francisco with a national certification in clinical Molecular Biology MB (ASCP).