Prenatal Adoption of Frozen Embryos

The instruction of the CDF, Dignitas Personae, takes up the question of what could be done with the frozen embryos that are already in existence. It rejects the use of these embryos for research or for the treatment of disease because this would be contrary to their dignity as persons. It further takes up the question of their being given to infertile couples as a treatment for infertility, and rejects this as ethically wrong:

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;[note: Cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction Donum vitae, II, A, 1-3: AAS 80 (1988), 87-89.] this practice would also lead to other problems of a medical, psychological and legal nature.

Finally, it considers the proposal of adopting these embryos precisely to give them a chance to live:

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.

Here the document waffles, speaking vaguely about "various problems not dissimilar to those mentioned above." Since the moral objections reference in Donum Vitae do not apply to this situation, the most reasonable way to understand the "various problems not dissimilar to those mentioned above" is in reference to the "problems of a medical, psychological and legal nature" rather than to a moral evil. Thus we should read this paragraph along the following lines: the document neither intends, nor in fact does condemn embryo adoption as wrong in itself, yet expresses practical concerns of prudence regarding the issue. This interpretation is supported also by the statement of the president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, that the issue of embryo adoption is "still an open issue," and that of the U.S. Bishops Conference, saying that "The document raises cautions or problems about these new issues but does not formally make a definitive judgment against them" (Questions and Answers on 'Dignitas Personae'). The principal of these concerns is probably that of material cooperation with those involved in illicit use of embryos, and the potential scandal linked with it, as is argued by John Grabowski and Christopher Gross in an article in the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, Dignitas personae and the Adoption of Frozen Embryos – A New Chill Factor?

In the end, I am inclined to think that if in fact the motive is saving the lives of persons, and known to be such, the witness provided by this more than outweighs the possible evil of material cooperation. Moreover, the resistance to prenatal adoption of frozen embryos is seen by not a few to belie the Church's own position on the human dignity of such embryos, and so is a scandal in its own right. I think, therefore, that while not ignoring the concerns alluded to by the CDF, one should see the choice of prenatal adoption of embryos that would otherwise perish as a good and positive choice.

Janet Smith wrote an article last year in favor of embryo adoption–Adopting Embryos: Why Not?–and while not rigorously argued, and lacking in precision, I think most of her instincts are correct. I also recommend a longer, more academic article by Stephen Napier, Moral Justification and Human Acts: A Reply To Christopher Oleson, which examines closely the text of Dignitas personae and Donum vitae, and argues in favor of the legitimacy of embryo adoption.

7 thoughts on “Prenatal Adoption of Frozen Embryos”

  1. I do not have time to read about this issue, so I have to apologize for being a less-than-optimal interlocutor. Let me just pass on an argument I heard once from Steven Long to see what you think of it.

    According to Long, the general ordering of the womb to nurturing babies is like the general ordering of the reproductive system to reproduction: general though it be in itself, once a woman is married then it is concretely co-ordered with her husband. So she can no more harbor another man's baby in her womb than she could conceive a baby by another man.

    This has an initial plausibility about it: you can't just toss this argument to the side.

    My first question would be whether Long thinks it immoral for a woman to nurse another man's baby at her breast.

    1. I had actually went back and re-read Steven Long's argument before writing my post, and had been planning to say something about it, but didn't have time. Long doesn't consider it immoral for a woman to nurse another man's baby because it is possible for her to do so without technological intervention (and therefore nursing is not among the things uniquely bestowed by a wife upon her husband).

      His argument is basically: (1) The natural purpose of childbearing, and the only natural use of it without technological intervention, is to serve the procreative purpose of marriage, and the mother's childbearing is naturally necessary for this purpose. [Breastfeeding by the mother, education etc., are not necessary for the procreative purpose of marriage, because they can naturally be performed by others if the parents die.]

      (2) All that is necessary to the integral procreative good, is bestowed uniquely by the spouses upon one another. [Similarly, all that is necessary to the integral procreative good is reserved for a spousal relationship, so that carrying such children is contrary to the chastity of the unwed.]

      (3) Therefore, childbearing is bestowed uniquely by the wife upon the husband.

      The biggest problem with the argument is in the second premise. Long gives a reductio argument for this premise: "It is also true that either all that is necessary to the integral procreative good is bestowed uniquely by the spouses upon one another, or not. If not, then marriage does not involve the unique gift of integral procreativity, and it necessarily follows that marriage is not essentially but only accidentally ordered to procreation. But this latter the Church has always denied." (This is quoted from a draft version, as I don't have the printed copy at hand; but I don't think the versions differ significantly.)

      The problem with this argument, and indeed with the premise as Long takes it, is that it seems to require and imply that the order to procreation so belong to marriage that when procreation is impossible marriage is invalid. If "all that is necessary to the integral procreative good" is understood as immediately and directly given in marriage, rather than as given implicitly insofar as it is necessary for the fulfillment of what is principally given (the persons in their capacity to enter into a habitual and actual union ordered by nature in relation to the end of being parents–sexual union), it follows that a marriage between infertile persons is invalid. At any rate, I don't see how one could avoid this conclusion.

      But if the power of childbearing is given inasmuch as it is necessary in order to fulfill the sexual union ordered to the procreation and education of children, then it is given in fundamentally the same manner as the power of breastfeeding, the capacity to raise children, etc., is given. The wife does give these capacities to her husband, but not so absolutely as to in principle and always exclude the use of them for other children than those who are the fruit of the sexual union between her and him (children from a previous marriage, adopted children, etc.), if this does not impede their union.

    2. Children do not belong to men. Children belong to God. To suggest that a woman is carrying "another man's baby" is to fail to notice that she is likewise carrying "another woman's baby". That is the nature of embryo adoption; the baby has a genetic family that for whatever reason is not giving the child what she or he needs, starting with a womb for gestation, followed by the breasts for nutrition.

      There is no infidelity in taking in a needy child. Those born need our homes. Those not yet born first need our womb. And perhaps a look at adoptive breastfeeding might also give good insight into meeting a child where they are, providing them with what they need, and not trying to make mountains out of molehills.

  2. As a Catholic mom to seven adopted miracle blessings- two of which I adopted as frozen embryos, I was stunned to discover that the Catholic Church does not encourage the adoption of frozen babies.

    I would like to volunteer my twin daughters, adopted as embryos, and myself to help the Catholic Church and general public realize that the 500,000 frozen babies need and deserve the opportunity to continue to develop… Their conception certainly is not their fault, and they do not deserve a frozen eternity or death… There are more couples who want to adopt these babies than there are embryos available for adoption or donation.

    Please feel free to contact me @ to let me know how we can help benefit the embryos who are still frozen.

  3. I agree with DP that the concept of embryo adoption needs to be considered with prudence. It's rather a quagmire in some ways: even the dethawing of the embryos is so risky that it could end their lives. And that's before we get to the problem of trying to save lives when the unitative aspect has been struck out by the misled and/or unscrupulous action of lab workers and biological parents.
    I do hope that a completely safe and morally acceptable solution will be found for these little lives.
    Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus…

    1. The risk of death is no reason to maintain a human being in a perpetual state of cryopreservation. Being frozen in time in no way exemplifies human dignity. What is at issue here is the decision to freeze these embryos in the first place, thus putting their little lives at risk upon thawing. To deny them even a chance to continue living is plain wrong. God help us if we can intellectualize our way into a place where we no longer act in accordance with our belief in the dignity of the human being.

  4. Thank you Lord for leading me to your website. I came here after searching for discernment of a vocation within marriage for those of us unable to conceive or adopt traditionally. My husband and I have adopted four embryos, only to lose them all soon after their homecoming transfer. I have been guilt-ridden by the anti-embryo adoption Catholic sentiments I've found online, and perplexed at how one can claim to be pro-life yet stand so firmly in the way of saving these little lives! I'll be honest, such a negative witness has had me questioning if life really begins at conception, because if it does, how can Christ's church be anything but in favor of meeting these babies where they are and offering any help available for them to reach a state of life that is dignified for human beings? Perpetual cryopreservation in no way is a choice that exemplifies human dignity. I have started to ask the gut-wrenching question of whether or not the Lord is calling us to embrace life without children, and perhaps He is, but now I don't have to make this decision with the false understanding that a choice for these embryos' lives is a choice against the Church. God bless you for this post!

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