Embryo Adoption: a moral option for infertile Catholic spouses

Artificial procreation (in vitro fertilization, artificial insemination, etc.) is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral, because it separates the unitive and procreative meanings, and because it offends against the marital meaning. Infertile Catholic spouses may not use any form of artificial procreation; to do so is a mortal sin.

One horrific result of artificial procreation is the very high percentage of artificially procreated embryos who are directly killed, or who indirectly die, during the entire process of artificial reproductive technology (or ART, as it is called). Another moral horror is the practice of freezing some of the artificially procreated embryos, often with no intention to bring them to birth. They are frozen indefinitely, just in case more embryos are needed. In my book, The Catechism of Catholic Ethics, I estimate that there are presently over one million frozen embryos in the world. These embryos are in a state of literal slavery, since they are treated as property, not persons, and are deprived of all fundamental human rights. Many of these frozen embryos have been abandoned; their parents (‘owners’) cannot be located, or have determined that they will no longer ‘use’ these embryos. The yearly storage fees for these embryos are high, representing an economic pressure on the parents to sign a paper having them destroyed. Some of the frozen embryos are used for ‘quality assurance’ purposes: they are thawed, tested for viability, and then destroyed. Artificial procreation has resulted in new previously-inconceivable exceedingly grave sins against the most innocent of the human family.

What are the moral options for Catholic infertile couples? Of course, an infertile married couple has the option of adopting a child. In this way, they can enlarge their family while helping children who otherwise would be orphans. But are there any other options for infertile Catholic spouses? Certainly, they cannot commit, nor formally cooperate with, any of the intrinsically evil acts of ART. But is it moral for them to adopt frozen embryos, who otherwise would have no chance of further development, birth, and a normal lifespan?

The analysis of the morality of embryo adoption (or ‘prenatal adoption’) is similar to that of surrogate motherhood. Both types of acts involve the transfer of an embryo to the womb of a woman who is not the mother of the child. Both acts are directed at the good moral object of giving life to an innocent and very young human person. But embryo adoption more specifically refers to the circumstance in which a frozen embryo cannot be given continued development, birth, and the possibility of a normal lifespan, except by being borne by a woman other than the mother. Embryo adoption transfers the parental guardianship and care of a prenatal child (a human embryo, usually frozen) from one woman to a second woman. Therefore, it is similar to adoption, and it is also a type of surrogate motherhood. Just as surrogate motherhood is not intrinsically evil and may be moral in some circumstances, embryo adoption likewise is not intrinsically evil and may be moral in some circumstances.

Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: “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 [i.e. in the case of surrogate motherhood]. 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.” (Dignitas Personae, n. 19.)

The Congregation states that the intention (first font) is good. The second font would be bad if prenatal adoption were intrinsically evil, and this would make the moral analysis of the situation relatively simple; intrinsically evil acts are always immoral. But the CDF does not state that prenatal adoption is intrinsically evil. In fact, the Congregation states the good moral object of prenatal adoption, “to allow human beings to be born who are otherwise condemned to destruction.” Also, the CDF does not state that non-abandoned frozen embryos are in an irresolvable situation. Again, this indicates that the second font of morality is good, and that the immorality depends on the circumstances. A complex set of circumstances, summed up by the phrase “all things considered,” is what makes this situation morally intractable.

Why does the CDF say that the situation cannot be resolved? If we were to try to give life to all of the thousands abandoned embryos, most would die in the attempt. The process of taking the embryo from the frozen state to birth has a success rate of perhaps less than 10%. And the total number of frozen embryos is certainly in the hundreds of thousands, and may be as high as about one million. Therefore, the CDF is correct in saying that there is currently, considering all the circumstances, no way to give justice to all, or even most, of these prenatals.

Although the overall situation cannot be resolved with justice for all or even most of these frozen embryos, this does NOT imply that particular attempts to give life to frozen embryos by adoption is immoral. It is an irrefutable principle of morality that a good act done with good intention, an act that is immoral only due to the circumstances, becomes moral when that same good act, done with only good intentions, is done in circumstances such that the good consequences now outweigh any bad consequences. Therefore, in some circumstances, frozen embryos morally may be given development and birth by transfer to the womb of either the biological mother (for non-abandoned embryos) or a surrogate mother (for abandoned embryos, and for those that cannot be given life by means of their biological mother due to age, illness, or injury).

All acts of artificial procreation are intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. But once the human person is created, he or she has a right to life. The immorality of surrogate motherhood is based on the third font, specifically, the bad consequences that can be reasonably anticipated when a prenatal is raised in the womb of a woman other than the mother. But since this immorality is not intrinsically evil (under the second font), in some grave circumstances the good consequences may outweigh these bad consequences. So if the frozen embryo (or for some grave reason, the fresh embryo) has no path to continued development and birth other than embryo adoption and/or surrogate motherhood, the act may be moral. A medical intervention to give life to a frozen embryo is not intrinsically evil; the morality depends on the third font.

Pope John Paul II: “As far as the right to life is concerned, every innocent human being is absolutely equal to all others. This equality is the basis of all authentic social relationships which, to be truly such, can only be founded on truth and justice, recognizing and protecting every man and woman as a person and not as an object to be used.” (Evangelium Vitae, n. 57)

Pope John Paul II: “…the Church has always taught and continues to teach that the result of human procreation, from the first moment of its existence, must be guaranteed that unconditional respect which is morally due to the human being in his or her totality and unity as body and spirit: ‘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’ ” (Evangelium Vitae, n. 60; inner quote from Donum Vitae, I., 1)

The most weighty circumstance in considering the morality of embryo adoption and surrogate motherhood is the right to life of the human person. Even when a human person is created by the immoral means of artificial procreation, once procreated, that human person has the same right to life as all other innocent human persons. Therefore, the parents of a frozen embryo have a grave moral obligation to attempt to give that human person continued development and birth.

Certainly, it is a mortal sin of omission to deny a seriously ill human person ordinary and necessary medical treatment; euthanasia is a type of murder which can be committed either by commission, or by omission. Similarly, if the parents of frozen embryos refuse to attempt to save the lives of those very young human persons, allowing them to die by remaining frozen indefinitely, they commit the sin of murder by omission. But if the parents give permission for the frozen embryos to be directly destroyed in any way, they commit the sin of murder by commission.

This obligation to give life to these innocents, who would otherwise die in the frozen state, outweighs the bad consequences that occur from surrogate motherhood and embryo adoption, as well as from the risks of implanting the frozen embryo in the womb of the natural mother. Since no other path to continued life for frozen embryos is available, and since the acts involved are not intrinsically evil, the overall act of implanting the frozen embryo in the womb of the natural mother, or, in grave circumstances, the womb of a surrogate mother, is moral.

A Catholic couple considering embryo adoption must be careful to avoid any formal cooperation with the intrinsically evil acts of artificial procreation. They can attempt to give life to frozen embryos that otherwise would have no chance of life. But they cannot cooperate directly with artificial procreation. For example, they cannot make an agreement with another couple, such that the couple will use artificial procreation, and the Catholic spouses will take any embryos that are not used. Also, they absolutely must not allow the physician to directly kill any embryos, in vitro or in the womb, as this is a type of murder (the direct killing of the innocent). The couple should not allow the physician to implant more than one embryo, since this increases the chance of death to these innocents (whose risk of death, even in such a moral attempt to give them life, is very high).

Now in implanting the frozen embryo, the Catholic married couple is cooperating with the intrinsically evil acts of ART. But their cooperation can be merely material cooperation, not formal cooperation, and can be sufficiently remote that their act is moral. As is always the case with material cooperation, the intention must be good, the act must not be intrinsically evil, and the good consequences must outweigh the bad. If so, then all three fonts of morality are good, and the act is moral. Scandal must also be avoided, as much as possible, and must be weighed as one of the possible bad consequences in the font called circumstances.

[Portions of this article were taken from my book: The Catechism of Catholic Ethics]

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator

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