Frozen Embryo Adoption: A Second Look

April 17, 2009 09:00 AM

Some months ago, when Dignitas Personae was first published, we examined the section of the document dealing with the adoption of the frozen embryo, and came to a premature conclusion that the document was flatly rejecting the idea of the adoption of the frozen embryo.

However, that position never really sat well with me and I have been studying the question ever since.  A few days ago I came upon an article by well-known moral theologian William B. May that has changed my perspective on this question completely.  In his analysis, May writes the following,

 in Section 19:

 No. 19 takes up this issue, definitively repudiating as intrinsically immoral proposals to use these embryos for research or for the treatment of disease. Such proposals “are obviously unacceptable because they treat the embryos as mere ‘biological material’ and result in their destruction.” Similarly 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; this practice would also lead to other problems of a medical, psychological and legal nature.”
No. 19 then devotes two brief sentences to an issue on which Catholic theologians loyal to the Magisterium have been divided. It describes the issue as follows: “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.’”  The following sentence reads as follows: “This proposal, praiseworthy with regard to the intention of respecting and defending human life, presents however various problems not dissimilar to those mentioned above.”
Does this passage definitively reject the proposal concerning the “prenatal adoption” of frozen and orphaned embryos? There is a dispute among those who have read the document on this issue. Some scholars think that the CDF has definitely concluded that adopting frozen embryos prenatally is not morally licit. But others, and I am among them, think that a close reading of this sentence and the context in which it appears makes it clear that it was not the intention of the CDF to make a definitive judgment on this disputed question but that it left the issue open to further debate by Catholic theologians. The “various problems not dissimilar to those mentioned above” in this sentence refers to “other problems of a medical, psychological, and legal nature” (emphasis added) noted in the paragraph rejecting using these embryos as a treatment for fertility, not to any moral problem.

Frequently, when people engage in intrinsically immoral acts, various medical, psychological, and/or legal factors that are not in themselves moral determinants add to the immorality of their immoral acts, while very similar factors, prudently dealt with, do not cause people’s morally acceptable acts to become immoral. Therefore, DP’s statement that embryo adoption presents problems not dissimilar to those involved in the immoral practice treated in the preceding paragraph is reasonably interpreted as warning those engaging in embryo adoption to attend to all relevant medical, psychological, and legal problems and to exercise prudence in dealing with them. 
That paragraph of No. 19 also rejected any form of surrogate motherhood, which it defines, referring to the definition found in Donum vitae II, A, 3 (see footnote 38), a definition that supporters of embryo prenatal adoption completely accept (on this see the essays by Germain Grisez, William E. May, Christian Brugger and others in Human Embryo Adoption: Biotechnology, Marriage, and The Right to Life, eds. Thomas V. Berg, L.C. and Edward J. Furton. Philadelphia and Thornton, NY: National Catholic Bioethics Center and The Westchester Institute for Ethics & the Human Person, 2006).
The final paragraph of No. 19 declares: “All things considered, it needs to be recognized that the thousands of abandoned embryos represent a situation of injustice which in fact cannot be resolved.” This is definitely true. Someone, however, might argue that this sentence implies that embryo adoption is morally wrong and for that reason its practice cannot resolve the injustice that has been done to abandoned embryos.  That argument would be fallacious. Even if the practice of embryo adoption were so widely accepted by upright people that no abandoned embryo was left to die, all of those embryos would have suffered an injustice not rectified by the upright people who came to their rescue, just as injustices to other victims of wrongdoing are not rectified by the efforts of upright third parties to prevent or mitigate the injuries done by wrongdoers.

It seems to me, as a layperson, that this analysis corroborates the comments that former President of the Pontifical Academy of Life, Bishop Elio Sgreccia made some years ago.  In 2001, Bishop Sgreccia was asked about the adoption of frozen embryos by Zenit Catholic News Service:

Bishop Elio Sgreccia, of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said last spring that embryo adoption has "an end which is good" and cannot be dismissed as illicit.
But given the high failure rate of implantation and the fact that the process of freezing and thawing may cause many embryos to suffer genetic damage, he concludes, "Can we really counsel women to do this? It would mean counseling heroism. ... The issue is one big question mark. The point is, we should never have gone down this road to begin with."

While it is true that in December 2008, upon the release of Dignitas Personae, Bishop Sgreccia changed his view and said

The basic advice, explicitly stated in the document, is that embryos must not be frozen. It is one of those actions that has no remedy. Once it is done, correcting it implies committing another error.

It is also clear that the matter is unsettled and it is quite possible that upon further study, Bishop Sgreccia will return to his former viewpoint.  I hope he does, because I tend to side with those who express the basic concern we should all have, which is for the children already in our midst.

Catholic bioethics expert Professor Janet Smith apparently agrees with me that at the very least, this question must be studied even more.  She recently wrote

The possibility of “embryo adoption” is quite radically new; it will be some time, I believe, before we are able to evaluate all the arguments — pro and con — against embryo adoption as a solution to “orphan embryos.” […] I think that even if we put an end to in vitro fertilization and the need for some solution to the problem of frozen orphans, embryo adoption may well be a wonderful solution to other pregnancy-related problems.

As the mother of three and grandmother of twelve, two of whom have gone to God very early in their gestational lives, I would have to say that my relief upon studying this debate is overwhelming.  I know as well as anyone that the human person begins at his beginning.  Even though the process of IVF is radically wrong and should be banned, those little ones who are suspended in time are not errors but rather human beings who are without a home.  I believe, having studied this question further, that there is hope for them and that we need to keep an open mind on this question.  Finding a home for an orphan is never a bad idea.

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