Posts Tagged ‘Embryo Adoption’

My Article in today’s Headline Bistro.

In Part I of this series I laid out the broad scientific and theological issues inherent in the debate over embryo adoption, which is the legal adoption of leftover embryos created through in vitro fertilization (IVF), implanted in the adoptive mother’s womb, brought to term, and then raised by that adoptive couple as their own.

It is an issue that has riven the Catholic bioethical community. Whether or not the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s instruction, Dignitas Personae (DP), has ended the debate depends on whom one asks. Pushing out into the deep from Part I of this series, I posit that much of the division around this issue arises from language in DP that is muddled regarding the science and human rights, and spilling over into the very essence of conjugal union.

Recently, Msgr. Ignacio Barreiro-Carabula, the outgoing interim President of Human Life International cited a debate between Professor Janet Smith (pro-embryo adoption), and Father Tad Pacholczyk (against embryo adoption). In his article, Msgr. Barreiro declares that the matter is closed, citing the language of the Church’s document, which states:

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.

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 (19).

Msgr. Barreiro editorializes:

So what this document is stating is that adoption in the womb presents similar problems to those that are found in artificial heterologous procreation and surrogate motherhood. The above-mentioned norms were issued by the CDF with the purpose of putting an end to the long debate between theologians on the question the permissibility of embryo adoption. So this document should put an end to these discussions stating the embryo adoption should not be done.

Msgr. then goes on to state:

Finally it should considered that this instruction’s doctrinal value is clearly described by Archbishop Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, Secretary of the CDF at the presentation of this document, stating that it participates in the ordinary magisterium of the successor of Peter and as a consequence it should be received by the faithful with the religious assent of their spirit.

Respectfully, Msgr. Barreiro has oversimplified the matter and overlooked a few contrary voices among the bishops here in the U.S. and in Rome. DP was not a document crafted to address embryo adoption, but to deal with the broader issues surrounding reproductive technologies such as IVF. In that light, Archbishop Ferrer’s declaration of the document as binding on the faithful is binding on those matters in the document that are considered settled.

Embryo adoption is not one of those settled issues. Consider the words of Dr. Stephen Napier at the National Catholic Bioethics Center:

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops says, “The document raises cautions or problems about these new issues but does not formally make a definitive judgment against them.” Also, the current president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, has said that the issue of embryo adoption was still an open question. If the USCCB and the President of the Pontifical Academy for Life got the interpretation wrong, the Vatican would have corrected them publicly. But there has not been any correction; consequently, the question on embryo adoption remains open.

So where is the language in DP that might leave the door ajar for the Congregation to revisit the issue, adding clarification? Consider:

…John Paul II made an “appeal to the conscience of the world’s scientific authorities and in particular to doctors, that the production of human embryos be halted, taking into account that there seems to be no morally licit solution regarding the human destiny of the thousands and thousands of ‘frozen’ embryos which are and remain the subjects of essential rights and should therefore be protected by law as human persons” (19).

There seems to be no morally licit solution. Yet, at the same time, John Paul II recognized that these embryos remain the subjects of essential rights and should therefore be protected by law as human persons.

These are human beings, declared by the Congregation in its 1974 Declaration on Procured Abortion to be presumed to possess a soul from the moment of fertilization and in need of safeguarding:

• “The tradition of the Church has always held that human life must be protected and favored from the beginning, just as at the various stages of its development” (6).

• “Most recently, the Second Vatican Council, presided over by Paul VI, has most severely condemned abortion: ‘Life must be safeguarded with extreme care from conception; abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes’” (7).

• “From a moral point of view this is certain: even if a doubt existed concerning whether the fruit of conception is already a human person, it is objectively a grave sin to dare to risk murder. ‘The one who will be a man is already one’” (13).

• “This declaration expressly leaves aside the question of the moment when the spiritual soul is infused. There is not a unanimous tradition on this point and authors are as yet in disagreement. For some it dates from the first instant; for others it could not at least precede nidation. It is not within the competence of science to decide between these views, because the existence of an immortal soul is not a question in its field. It is a philosophical problem from which our moral affirmation remains independent for two reasons: (1) supposing a belated animation, there is still nothing less than a human life, preparing for and calling for a soul in which the nature received from parents is completed, (2) on the other hand, it suffices that this presence of the soul be probable (and one can never prove the contrary) in order that the taking of life involve accepting the risk of killing a man, not only waiting for, but already in possession of his soul” (Footnote #19).

As no human person has the “right” to be submerged in liquid nitrogen and kept there until succumbing to freezer burn, there must be a moral solution that respects the rights of these babies to continue their development unmolested and nurtured, especially in light of God’s having created for them a soul.

There is, and it resides in the very aspect of conjugal union being appealed to as the impediment to embryo adoption. We’ll examine that argument in Part III.


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The issue of embryo adoption, having leftover embryos frozen in liquid nitrogen thawed and implanted in an adoptive mother’s womb, is a thorny subject in Catholic moral theology and ethics circles. I’ve wrestled with this idea for years, and I think we need to continue attending to it in a serious and substantive way. In order to keep the conversation localized, may I ask FB folks to post their comments directly here, and then copy them to FB?

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has issued Dignitas Personae (DP), which tackles the morality of IVF and addresses the issue of embryo adoption. It’s a short document and an easy read. I recommend it highly.

Disclaimer: From the outset, I do not presume to know more than the bishops who have contributed to the promulgation of the document. However, the Church collaborates with physicians and scientists when investigating these matters and pays close attention to the insights coming from science. So I offer these insights as a lay Catholic, educated deeply in the faith, as well as a molecular biologist.

DP does a great job of staking out all of the moral land mines in the field of in vitro fertilization (IVF) technology. It isn’t the last word on the subject, either. From the outset, the document lays out its two fundamental principles:

“The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life” (n. 4).

“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” (n. 6).

DP goes on to address, specifically, the dilemma of frozen embryos left over after IVF:

With regard to the large number of frozen embryos already in existence the question becomes: what to do with them? All the answers that have been proposed (use the embryos for research or for the treatment of disease; thaw them without reactivating them and use them for research, as if they were normal cadavers; put them at the disposal of infertile couples as a “treatment for infertility”; allow a form of “prenatal adoption”) present real problems of various kinds. It needs to be recognized “that the thousands of abandoned embryos represent a situation of injustice which in fact cannot be resolved. Therefore, John Paul II made an “appeal to the conscience of the world’s scientific authorities and in particular to doctors, that the production of human embryos be halted, taking into account that there seems to be no morally licit solution regarding the human destiny of the thousands and thousands of ‘frozen’ embryos which are and remain the subjects of essential rights and should therefore be protected by law as human persons” (n. 19).

It other words, we have a mess on our hands. Many respected leaders in the Catholic bioethics community such as Dr. John Haas and Father Tad Pacholczyk (who also has a Ph.D. in molecular biology) have come down against embryo adoption, as it is a participation in the broader realm of IVF. To read the case against embryo adoption by Father Tad, click here. These are great minds whose words are not to be taken lightly.

However, there seems to be another dimension that has been overlooked, and that is the issue of procreation itself and God’s role in it.

IVF is intrinsically evil. It takes procreation out of the marital embrace and relegates spouses to mere tissue donors and sideline spectators as the technicians do the actual work of bringing sperm and egg into union. However evil this technology is, there is a more delicate question that I have regarding God’s role in all of this.

The Church does not maintain that we all existed as disembodied spirits before our conception. We are created (soul) when we are conceived (body). That’s why the procreation of children in marriage is such a grace-filled moment for spouses, because God is there, freely creating the soul as the parents unite themselves. But what happens when a woman is raped, or two individuals fornicate, or IVF is employed? What are the degrees of freedom on God’s part?

Is God bound by His own paradigm for human procreation? Is He dragged kicking and screaming into the evil means by which sperm and egg find one another? Does He not create freely, though perhaps reluctantly under such circumstances?

The fact remains that God creates a human soul when sperm and egg unite.

That fact is my dilemma.

God is there in the IVF clinic, creating a new human soul (dozens at a time, actually). He is participating in a procreative act that is occurring outside of His divine plan, and which in its human dimensions is intrinsically evil; but He is there, and He is creating.

Now we return to the first of the two guiding principles in DP. The first right of the IVF baby is the right to be respected as and treated as a person. That right means facilitating the unmolested development of that individual. If implantation in the womb is to be forbidden in all circumstances, then I fail to see the point of the Congregation mentioning this first principle.

What we see a great deal of is the condemnation of the technique, which is truly abhorrent. However, I think there is a great distinction to be made between the technology leading up to the creation of a new human being, and the technology employed to sustain those new human beings. The former is always gravely and intrinsically evil. I’m not so certain about the latter.

The great distinction is that life has been made, both by man and by God. The act of procreation is done, and a child exists in its most nascent form. From here we have a battle of principles, and again, Father Pacholczyk’s points are well made. However, I see a certain chilly aloofness in standing by and saying of so many thousands of baby’s, “Gee it stinks to be you.” Catholic moral theology demands greater than that from us if we truly believe that the human embryo is a human being endowed with a soul of God’s making.

The second principle in DP is where we run into trouble:

“Procreation which is truly responsible vis-à-vis the child to be born must be the fruit of marriage”

I don’t disagree at all with the imperative in that statement. The problem is that it does not account for the child conceived outside of that principle. What then?

Jesus admonished the Pharisees when they took exception to His disciples picking grain and eating it on the Sabbath. He also admonished them about the lawfulness of saving life on the Sabbath, even if it meant breaking the law to do so. “Who among you would not pull his sheep out of a hole to save it on the Sabbath?”

We are dealing with much more than sheep here.

If God freely creates the soul in the midst of such human evil, do we not have an imperative to honor that creative act by facilitating the child’s development through implantation and adoption?

It isn’t perfect, but I think we do.


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