Catholics and embryo adoption

The longest-known case of a frozen human embryo successfully coming to birth happened in November 2017, in Tennessee, when Emma Wren Gibson was born to Tina Gibson, who nine months earlier had been implanted with an embryo that had been frozen since 1992. Tina, who was born in 1991, and her husband received the embryo through the National Embryo Donation Center, a Knoxville-based group offering implantation of donated frozen embryos for infertile parents seeking children.

Moral reservations

How should Catholics respond when they learn that a friend or family member has done in vitro fertilization and now has frozen embryos? What should be done with all the frozen embryos who now exist?

The short answer to this vexing question is that, ethically, there is very little we can do except to keep them frozen for the foreseeable future. As the Church condemns separating human reproduction from the procreative act of husband and wife, no other morally acceptable options seem to exist.

In “embryo adoption,” couples relinquish their own embryos so others, like Tina Gibson, can implant, gestate and raise them as if they were their own children; this approach, however, raises various moral concerns. Technically speaking, the moral question of whether it is allowable to do this remains unresolved, and there is ongoing debate among reputable Catholic scholars about the matter. The most recent Vatican bioethics document called Dignitas Personae (2008), however, expresses serious moral reservations, even though it does not outright condemn it as immoral.

We easily can see reasons why the promotion of embryo adoption would be imprudent. If embryo adoption were to become standard practice in the current, largely unregulated setting of the infertility industry, this actually could stimulate the production of yet more frozen young human beings; IVF clinic operators would be able to placate themselves by saying, “We really don’t need to worry about producing extra embryos, because there will always be a market, and somebody willing to ‘adopt’ any that are left over.” It could offer the clinics an excuse to continue and even expand their current immoral practices of doing in vitro fertilization, cryopreserving embryos and trapping young humans in these “frozen orphanages.”

Live and let die?

Some have suggested that a morally acceptable solution to the frozen embryo problem might come through applying the principle that “extraordinary” means do not have to be undertaken to prolong human life. They argue that to sustain an embryo’s life in a cryogenic state is to use extraordinary means and this is not required. 

This is not a convincing argument, however, since the decision to continue cryopreserving an embryo in liquid nitrogen does not actually appear to be an example of using “extraordinary” means — the burdens and costs involved in taking care of embryonic children in this way are actually quite minimal. When we have children, we take on a duty to clothe, feed, educate and care for them, all of which costs plenty of money. When our children are frozen, we don’t need to clothe, feed or educate them; our care for them can only be expressed by regularly paying the bill to replenish the liquid nitrogen in the tanks that preserve their lives. This way of caring for them is obviously unusual, but it does not appear to be morally “extraordinary” and clearly achieves the important goal of safeguarding their very young lives.

Obligation to care

In my opinion, parents have an obligation to care for their children in this way at least during the parents’ own lifetimes, in case some other option happens to become available in the future — maybe a sophisticated “embryo incubator” of some kind — or until there is a reasonable certainty that they have died on their own from decay or “freezer burn,” which may occur whenever frozen embryos are stored for very extended periods. Perhaps after a few hundred years, stored embryos will have died on their own, and they will finally be able to be thawed and given a decent burial. This approach would not involve us in the direct moral agency of ending their lives by withdrawing their life-sustaining liquid nitrogen.

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Frozen embryos, clearly, can never be donated to science. Such a decision would amount to handing over not cadavers, but living human beings for dismemberment at the hands of stem cell researchers. This always would be a radical failure in the parents’ duty to protect and care for their offspring.

Our sinful choices have consequences. The original decision to carry out in vitro fertilization invariably has serious repercussions and causes real complications, including these kinds of dilemmas for which no sound moral resolution is apparent.

Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D., is director of education at The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia.