Exploring the Pro-Life Catholic View on Embryo Adoption

Opinion   |   Gerard Nadal, Ph.D.   |   Aug 23, 2011   |   10:15AM   |   Washington, DC

Thus far in our series on the thorny issue of embryo adoption, we have looked at some of the broader theological questions as well as considering whether it is true that Rome has closed the door to further discussion. As the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, have said the matter is still open for discussion, I am comfortable in advancing the argument in favor of embryo adoption.

See Part I here.
See Part II here.

In this installment of the series, we turn our attention to the great dignity of conjugal union between husband and wife, examining its nature, its purpose, and whether embryo adoption violates that union.

The marital embrace between husband and wife must remain open to the fruitfulness that results from unimpeded self-donation on the part of each spouse. This is the procreative dimension of marital sex, which can never be separated from the unitive dimension of sexual expression. This paradigm is no mere human construct, but rooted in our understanding of the Blessed Trinity that was beautifully described by Saint Augustine.

Within the Godhead, the Father gives Himself totally and freely to the Son, who reciprocates totally and freely to the Father, and out of the radical self-donation of love is generated the Holy Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit is the perfect expression of perfect love. That dynamic of the Trinity becomes the paradigm for Sacramental Marriage, which becomes an earthly icon, literally a window into the inner life of the Trinity. The radical self-donation of the spouses makes of them “one” flesh, producing the expression of that oneness, and calling to mind Jesus’ words in John 10:30: “The Father and I are one.”

It also calls to mind this beautiful prayer of Jesus to the Father in John 17:20-26, where He reveals the love between Himself and the Father, and how the unity of His disciples is ultimately bound up in the unity between Jesus and the Father:

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.

“Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”

That unity on our part has as its cornerstone marital unity, which in its most organic sense has the conjugal embrace as the sign and symbol of the inner life of the Trinity.

Seen in that context, in vitro fertilization (IVF) shatters that paradigm, separating the unitive and procreative dimensions of human marital sex, and introducing an entire fertility clinic staff into the intimacy of life’s generation that was hitherto the sole province of husband and wife overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, wherein God created the soul. IVF does violence to God’s order for creation, not only in the strict biological sense, but in the spiritual/ontological sense as well. It is not surprising, then, that the adoption of frozen embryos should be seen as a participation in this grave evil.

But it isn’t. It is a restorative, redemptive act. The current opposition comes from the following passage in Dignitas Personae:

“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.”

This statement is a beautiful expression of the heart of the church. The problem is that it has nothing to do with embryo adoption, whatsoever.

As we established in Part II of this series, the Church takes the most cautious approach to the issue of when ensoulment occurs and gives the presumption to the very beginning of human development, stating that is grave evil to even risk murdering a human. The fact is that human procreation, including God’s part in it, is complete at the moment of fertilization.

That fact, including God’s part, does not change in the case of IVF. Though the mother and father commit grave sin in so doing, all of the Church documents quoted in Part II indicate that the soul is presumed present from the very beginning of a human’s life, and that life is to be protected and safeguarded.

Some counter that creation of a human being is not complete during IVF, and that procreation continues during pregnancy. If we are to suggest that procreation is an ongoing process throughout pregnancy, as is suggested by some in the Catholic bioethics community, then we are saying that there is not a complete human being from the moment of fertilization, and in so doing, we make the same argument as Planned Parenthood and the rest of the abortion industry! This is not only bad biology, but even worse theology.

Biologically speaking, the embryo in its single-celled, zygotic stage of development is a whole and complete human organism in form and function for that particular developmental stage. The same may be said for every subsequent stage of development spanning the rest of the individual’s life. One need not look like the adult human, nor have all of the functions of the adult human to be fully human.

Theologically speaking, the Church gives the presumption of ensoulment to have occurred from the very beginning. There is simply no protracted process of “becoming” more and more fully human. We Catholics simply don’t buy that incrementalist argument, which is used to justify abortion. If we adopt the concept of procreation as a protracted process that requires a full, natural pregnancy because we find IVF so offensive, we lead ourselves into biological and theological error, and consequently we lose our foundations in the abortion debate forever.

So, how does embryo adoption fit in to a sacramental marriage, respecting marital rights and obligations? We’ll tackle that in Part IV.