Friday, June 24. 2011
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:
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:
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:
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:
John Berkman likens frozen embryos to orphans and argues that Christians have obligation to take care of them. He writes:
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:
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:
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My issue with those who support embryo adoption is that they ignore that not only is in vitro fertilization condemned by Donum Vitae, so is Embryo transfer. From Donum Vitae:
"the Church remain opposed from the moral point of view to homologous 'in vitro' fertilization. Such fertilization is in itself illicit and in opposition to the dignity of procreation and of the conjugal union, even when everything is done to avoid the death of the human embryo. Although the manner in which human conception is achieved with IVF and ET cannot be approved, every child which comes into the world must in any case be accepted as a living gift of the divine Goodness and must be brought up with love.”
Also, thawing them is not considered ethical by the Church. This is also clear in Donum Vitae. This is why the Church calls their situation absurd.
The question is which of the many possible evils is the least evil. Thawing them and letting them die? Adopting them? Leaving them frozen until the refrigerator fails, or the end of the world comes?
Thanks for the comment. I have never read any Catholic author either pro or con embryo transfer that "ignores" that IVF is condemned by the Church. They all agree on that. There is disagreement whether embryo transfer is inherently immoral when is it divorced from the illicit act of in vitro fertilization. Donum Vitae speaks specifically to embryo transfer in connection to the creation of embryos in a dish which we know is inherently immoral. But is it inherently immoral in and of itself? Can it be ethical once the immoral IVF is already done? That is why there is debate. If the Church considered thawing to be outright unethical then I doubt May, Berg, Furton, Berkman, Tonti-Filippini, Ryan and others would suggest it as an option.
If the choice is between destroying these embryos and giving them a chance to be born and live regular lives, it's an obvious one to me.
The disagreement comes in with what has to be done to give them a chance.
Do nothing, they die. Unplug them, they die. Implant them, and you're violating the link between marriage to sex to babies. (Which caused the whole problem!)
From where I stand, it seems to be along the same lines of how killing someone is always wrong, but if the other option is that they'll kill a kid, and there isn't any other viable option....
(Yeah, clear where I come down on this one, but I really can't think of an example that goes the other way.)
"Do nothing, they die. Unplug them, they die. Implant them, and you're violating the link between marriage to sex to babies. (Which caused the whole problem!)"
The last of these is less than ideal, but it can't compare to actively killing them.
My thought, exactly.
I can't think of a different way to put it, and I fear that the massive dehumanization of these tiny humans taints the entire conversation.
[Your comment was deleted. Ad hominem attacks are not accepted here. Say something substantive or don't say anything at all. - Rebecca]
I must say the second view seems most morally accurate to me-- over on Ricochet there was a post complaining about the "abandoned baby" laws and saying they promote irresponsibility, so the subject's been on my mind.
It seems incredibly wrong-headed to say "we should not move to protect this child's life because it may be seen as supporting the wrong that created it", sort of like those who support abortion in the case of rape. (I have a friend who is the child of rape. The notion of murdering her because of that is utterly abhorrent; God bless her mom and dad for being the amazing people they were.)
It seems to me that the entire set-up is against the human dignity of the embryonic humans-- first, being made outside the usual process, second, being frozen, third-A being raised in a bottle, third-B being killed, third-C being put into a family they have no connection with.
Of the three options, adoption seems the least harmful to the child-- nobody should be forced to be put into a strange family without grave cause, and "my biological parents didn't need the spare after all" isn't much of a cause.
As with the abandon-a-child-with-no-charges laws, the kid is put through a lot, and of course anyone who adopts them had best offer them a stable home with the full support of at least both parents, and possibly even other children if they're mature enough. I can also see where the concerns come from, and think abuse would have to be watched INCREDIBLY closely....
I am of two minds. With each essay I read I think, "well they are right" and then I think "no they are right." I go back and forth. It is certainly an ethical conundrum that we should never have had to deal with. I am reserving full judgment until the Church makes an official statement. That is the one of the best parts of being Catholic: having such great guidance!
Of course, the other great thing is that it's rational -- one can try to figure out what to think. ^.^
I do appreciate the wonderful work that is done on this blog! I, however, would think that Dignitas Personae paragraph 19 pretty much clears up any debate that previously existed with regards to this issue:
"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.
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."
Am I mistaken in this regard or have I missed something?
Site covered that before.
(sorry for multiple replies, spam catcher stops it if there's more than one link)
They weren't as clear as they could be, but ( http://www.usccb.org/comm/archives/2008/08-196.shtml ) the USCCB preface specifically says:
_Other issues discussed in Dignitas Personae include:
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. "Cryopreservation is incompatible with the respect owed to human embryos," the Instruction states.
From the press conference when the document was released :
_Speaking at the Dec. 12 Vatican press conference to explain the document, Bishop Elio Sgreccia -- former president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, who helped prepare the Vatican's new bioethics document -- told reporters: "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."
Archbishop Rino Fisichella, current president of the academy, told reporters that "the discussion is still open" and the Vatican has not completely ruled out the possibility of embryo adoption, although it is leaning toward an entirely negative judgment because embryo adoption involves the future parents in an immoral process.
But according to that reasoning, Smith said, "How is the traditionally adoptive couple not also participating in an immoral act -- in many cases they're assisting the unwed mother who had sex outside marriage."
"I believe the church not only condones adoption; it helps carry them out," he added. "Should not the church not only accept, but actively support, the rescue of frozen embryos?"
The document specifically cited ethical norms that make "artificial heterologous procreation illicit as well as any form of surrogate motherhood."_
Thank you for the replies and links! Those did help and I can see (after reading the text a little more carefully) how it could be interpreted as not passing a ruling. Particularly revealing is the quote from Archbishop Fisichella - this is perhaps the most convincing evidence I've run across that the question is still open.
Having said that, it seems quite clear what the intent was when the paragraph was written (backing up a bit from what I originally quoted): "The proposal that these embryos could be put at the disposal of infertile couples as a treatment for infertility is not ethically acceptable..." There could be a distinction between implanting embryos into an infertile versus an otherwise fertile woman, but in reality I fail to see the difference, except perhaps in the intent of the two women. In either case, the immorality of the act would be based on the means used rather than the intent or the end achieved. It still seems to me, despite the Archbishops statement, that the case is closed. Has there been a dubium proposed to the CDF concerning this?
Intent matters. It's not the inherent fertility they're pointing out, it's the using these people as a medical treatment that matters-- exactly the sort of thinking that resulted in this situation. "I, I, I,"-- no thought about the little child.
Apparently, the distinction was important enough for them to make it separate -- and important enough that we've got both sides represented by strong theologians.
We know that some parts of the document were hotly argued, and that they very carefully did not condemn it. Exactly as the Archbishop (who helped write it) said, they are leaning that way, but did NOT do so. (Explains the very next paragraph pointing out that this is ridiculous and solvable-- seems like the big sins always end up that way. Probably the little ones, too, just harder to see.)
As I understand it, the argument is still boiling around if this is like breaking the Sabbath to save your sheep, or stealing a loaf of bread so you can live. Is it worse to do nothing while children die, or to care for an already formed person in a manner that, usually, only the blood child would be cared for?
No idea what The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has proposed, I'd imagine they'd be a bit annoyed at folks holler right after they put this out and explained how hotly contested it was.
An important conversation to be sure, especially given the fact that IVF is becoming more and more common. The number of frozen embryos abandoned in the US alone is not negligible. Shameless self-promotion alert...I will have an essay in the upcoming summer 2011 National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly journal on this very topic. It's titled "Is Embryo Adoption a Form of Surrogacy?" I hope you'll have a chance to read it and let me know what you think!
I would love to read that! Would you send it my way?
I truly wish the Catholic Church would choose to focus on the 500,000+ frozen lives that are already created... what should happen to these babies that are frozen in time?
As a Catholic Mom of 7 adopted blessings- 2 of which whom were adopted before birth as frozen embryos, I'd love to share our story in hopes of getting some of these frozen babies into waiting wombs- and there are plenty of waiting wombs!!!!
Please feel free to visit my blog @ http://3babes2jens1cause-embryoadoption.blogspot.com/ to learn more about our family and mission.
Jen, thanks for the comment and for your obviously big heart. I have friends that also have adopted embryos. Their little daughter is adorable.
I think the problem lies with the Church wholeheartedly endorsing something that could alienate some husbands from their marriage. It is the rejection of natural marriage that put 500,000 lives in the freezer in the first place.
If there is one thing I have learned from writing this blog is that the Church is wise beyond what we can immediately see. Teachings that made no sense to some Catholics 60 years ago now speak directly to human cloning and genetic engineering. Embryo adoption maybe one of those cases where we cannot see reason for reservation, but it may exist all the same.
we are in the process of doing embroyo adoption. And I have a few questions after reading the statements above. First how is it marriage infidelity? We would not be doing this without my husband's consent, we have to discuss things and especially pay for this together, so we must be on the same page all the time. Another question is what's the difference if we are a fertile or infertile couple? Our intentions, being infertile for 10 years, is the same as a fertile couple, to raise this child or children in the fear of the Lord. We are content without children, our quiver is still full. I think to say no to embroyo adoption and do nothing is something we must answer to God for as well. It's definitely not for everyone, but if you feel God calling you to do something, how can we say no? I guess I'd also like to throw out there, not in any disrespectful way, was Jesus embryo adopted by Mary and Joseph? Joseph was not his 'real' father, but apparently still loved and cared for him.
Thanks for your comment. Some Catholic theologians would say it was infidelity simply because in embryo adoption the women is impregnated by a doctor and not by her husband. Some reject that line of thinking and say it is a moral good.
As for the fertile vs. infertile, I think the Church is simply trying to make sure that infertile couples aren't just using frozen embryos as a way to overcoming their own infertility. Instead it should be intended as an adoption not a treatment for infertility (that way the embryo is not treated as an object or means to an end.) It is the intent of the couple that matters not whether they are infertile or not.
I am not a priest nor a theologian. I would recommend, as stated above, consulting a priest you know is faithful to Church teaching for guidance on this issue.
I guess I'd also like to throw out there, not in any disrespectful way, was Jesus embryo adopted by Mary and Joseph? Joseph was not his 'real' father, but apparently still loved and cared for him.
Similar thought crossed my mind, but given my "light touch," I figured I'd better avoid the comparison....
One major difference between embryo adoption and the adoption of an already gestated and born child is that the mother's womb during an embryo adoption is no longer able to conceive life within the context of her marriage. She essentially is rendered infertile and closed to conception during the time that she is pregnant with someone else's child. While many Christian denominations would have no problem with that fact, the Church does. It may be curtailed, possibly, by celibacy between the husband and wife throughout the gestation of the pregnancy, but that will deny the husband his legitimate marital rights, so to speak, due to a pregnancy with a child that is not his own. There are many sticky issues. Naturally, a husband and wife may openly agree and consent to these types of situations, but that is not the measure by which we determine what is ethical or not.
Nicholas Tonti-Filippini's statement: "In... [embryo adoption] the husband is isolated from this process ... of a child that bears no relationship to him, that is from outside their union ... The pregnancy is in fact achieved outside the marital relationship."
How is this different from adoption, where a couple love and raise a child that bears no relationship to them and was conceived outside of the marital relationship?
I think he is pointing out that in a traditional adoption both mother and father have no prior relationship to the adopted child so they enter into parenting together. With embryo adoption, the mother has the gestational relationship and the husband has none. This is why he says that the pregnancy is achieved "outside the marital relationship."
I think he is articulating a point that I did not include in the review. When asked how they would feel about their wives becoming pregnant with someone else's child, men may answer that they are uncomfortable with that. Upon being asked the question, some of the men around the authors said that such a situation would make them very uncomfortable. And while not all men might have the same reaction, many would and husband's feelings on the issue should not be discounted or overlooked simply because they are men.
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