ASK FATHER: Adoption and “rescue” of frozen IVF embryos in cryogenic oppression through surrogate motherhood

From a reader…


We recently had a Mormon physician die who became unhealthily fascinated with procreation.

He began an IVF “service”. With his passing, there are untold numbers of cryogenically frozen human embryos.

If Catholics, who had nothing to do with this inhumane procreation, wanted to save just one of these tiniest of persons, would it be licit for a married couple to ask for an implantation? How would this be any different than adoption? In fact, would it not be nobler, having to undergo the burdens of pregnancy, and trusting in God for the outcome?

Some think that maybe a million of these embryos languish in why I think of as cryogenic oppression.  They are mostly seen as “stuff”, to be thawed and “used” or thrown out.  Their fate can be the matter of couples fighting in a divorce.  They are experimented on.  As it takes money to maintain them, and as there is a demand by childless couples for children, they are a commodity, which is human trafficking.  Christians organizations are trying to walk the ethical tightrope in “matchmaking”.

Theologian are divided.

The Holy See has a document on IVF, but it doesn’t pronounce on this.  HERE  The CDF instruction correctly identifies the IVF act by which the child results as wrong.  It talks about “surrogate motherhood” in regard to women who have implanted an embryo of strangers, which she will give up at birth, and women who have implanted an embryo to which she contributed her ovum, and then gives up.  It doesn’t deal with the issue of surrogacy with the intent to keep the child of strangers, which some call a “rescue” of a frozen embryo, languishing in cryogenic oppression.

What to do about all the frozen children?

What to do?  There is no definitive teaching from the Church about adopting a strangers child locked in cryogenic oppression.

I have in mind the brave members of the Mercedarians who were founded to ransom slaves by raising money or substituting their own bodies in exchange.  That was morally licit.

On the one hand, it is hard to separate the implantation of an embryo in this way from some kind of objectification and the risk of continuing a commodity environment.   We have this problem in trying to “rescue” relics of saints that find their way onto the market.

So, what do we do if that is where we are stuck, just keep paying the bill to keep the children frozen?   Let them die a nature death?

Ethicist Janet Smith thinks that it is, in fact, licit for women to have these stranger children implanted so as to rescue them from frozen limbo.  It can be an act of charity.

For my part, and I am not a moralist or ethicist, it seems to me that adoption of a stranger’s child even at the stage of implantation in the womb is both ethical and moral and even meritorious.  Consider that if you were to find a baby abandoned in the street, it would be good – nay rather an imperative – to warm, save, feed, protect the child and meritorious to raise that child if abandoned.  That child would grow and develop.  That embryo would grow and develop.  You give of yourself to feed and raise the child at all stages.  One is internal and the other external.  “Greater love hath no man…”.

The good done in the rescue of the embryo from cryogenic oppression is considerable.  If there is a risk that one is contributing to making embryos a commodity for experimentation and exchange for value, that is foreseen by the principle of the double-effect.

If we say that frozen embryos are frozen human beings, children, then it is hard for me to escape the conclusion that this kind of surrogacy – with the intention of raising the child as one’s own – would be moral and licit and even a great good.  It would be another matter if the intention behind the adoption and implantation was to deal with infertility.  Also, it would be another matter if the woman had the intention to give the child up to someone else.

So, it is hard for me to escape that.  Then there’s this.

The 2008 Dignitatis humanae of the CDF – HERE.  We have to tread very lightly around this.   The CDF says:

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.  [But not quite the same, either.]

All things considered, it needs to be recognized that the thousands of abandoned embryos represent 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”.

seems to be no morally licit solution…”.

Just tears and reflection on the fallen nature of mankind?  That’s what we are left with?

This is a hard one and the Church hasn’t completely sorted it out yet.  But 2008 Dignitatis humanae must be weighed.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Ariseyedead says:

    While I certainly resonate with the sentiment of wanting to “rescue” the frozen embryos, it strikes me as against Natural Law to place a thawed embryo into a woman, even with the best of intentions. I’m not a moral theologian so I can’t explain my thought process in technically correct detail, but as a somewhat knowledgeable Catholic, it seems to me that the human reproductive process is an integrated whole so that a woman’s reproductive organs are intended to conceive and carry babies created from eggs from her own ovaries. To artificially place a foreign embryo into her fallopian tubes or uterus just doesn’t seem right. It seems to me that the embryo simply doesn’t belong there. Doing this procedure is not therapeutic in that it doesn’t correct any disfunction of the woman’s organs. I also don’t see a necessary spiritual advantage of doing this kind of procedure, where one might consider a higher spiritual good being attained over a natural good of not violating Natural Law. I would certainly be interested in counter arguments, since this is quite a morally complex situation.

    [It is complex, and you raise good points.]

  2. MitisVis says:

    I would seek the guidance of the National Catholic Bioethics Center. I have followed their work
    since the 90’s, especially that of Fr.Tadeusz Pacholczyk and John Haas.

  3. Suburbanbanshee says:

    I suspect that the statement was worried about embryo adoption resulting in the idea that IVF was morally okay, because the “leftovers” would not “go to waste, ” and that therefore more IVF would happen, or that well-being couples would be dragged into less and less moral cooperation with those culpable for IVF.

    And I would think that was a paranoid attitude, except for what has happened to the idea of rescue dogs. Instead of shutting down puppy mills, there are foreign puppy mills breeding for the rescue dog market! There are gravely ill foreign dogs being illegally shipped to the U.S. and bypassing quarantine, bringing in serious diseases that endanger all our dog population. Heck, there are “rescue horses” that are actually stolen horses. We always pretty much had rescue dogs, but some rescue organizations have become totally corrupt.

    So as bad as the situation is with “snowflake babies,” I fear that any demand may end up creating the need for supply. There would have to be a lot of oversight. It would have to be made clear that surrogates were not the same thing.

    (And yes, I am offended and disgusted by India’s surrogate industry and their dorms full of indentured pregnant women who cannot travel freely. But I was more offended that someone who was an acquaintance of mine, was okay with getting a grandchild this way. And talking about the surrogate the way you would talk about hired help, when everything he said made it sound more like slavery for hire. Ugh. What a slippery slope.)

  4. Fr. Kelly says:

    I recall Fr. Hardon addressing this point in the early 80s, when it was just starting to surface. In the face of a notorious case of a divorced couple who had frozen a number of embryos before their divorce. the wife was seeking to have an embryo implanted so that she could bear a child and receive an increase in child support. Her husband was fighting her in the courts to prevent just this. Neither of them expressed any concern for their frozen children.

    Father was very much in agreement with the eventual judgment of the CDF in Dignitatis humanae. There is no way that we can morally bring these children to term. His considered recommendation was to thaw them out, baptize them and then allow them to perish

  5. Evangeline V. says:

    My husband and I are in the process of adopting a set of embryos. They belong to a couple, a pair of non-believers who created them – then the wife tragically perished. I have studied this issue extensively as I understand that the Church, at the highest level, made the deliberate decision not to comment definitively on it at the time Dignitatis Humanae was being put together. Thus leaving it to the faithful to do due diligence. Having done that, my opinion is as follows: turning off the extraordinary means of life support – in the case of a patient who was and is being deprived of the ordinary means (eg nourishment, which for children this young must be given in utero), is not morally neutral.

    I lean towards thinking embryo adoption is a positive moral imperative. But the Church is right to be cautious. There are clinics in Prague, Greece, and so on, where embryos are created specifically to be offered for sale to couples who “adopt” them because it is so much cheaper than IVF. There is trafficking of young people to harvest donor eggs. Very dark evil stuff. And this is called “embryo adoption” but it is much closer to a flesh trade.

    On the other hand there are thousands of embryonic children in a situation like I described – their parents cannot raise them but they don’t want them to be killed or experimented on. These “embryo adoptions” proceed like a typical adoption – we had a homestudy and an interview by a social worker, extensive background testing, health examinations and hoouse inspections. The embryos’ father chose us to raise the children and we will have an open relationship with him so that the children can know him. Our adoption agency is run by a non denominational Christian ecclesial community and focuses exclusively on embryo adoption.

  6. Evangeline V. says:

    Further, I might add. When Dignitatis Humanae says the situation of embryos is “a situation of injustice which in fact cannot be resolved” this refers (or so I have read) to the fact that restoring basic rights to embryos (eg allowing them the ordinary means of life support) does not resolve the injustice of the fact that they were denied this from the moment of their existence. Similarly, we could say that children placed definitively in state care are in a situation of injustice that cannot be resolved – meaning, whether they languish in foster care or are adopted immediately – the situation in which they find themselves, separated from their first parents by the state, even by necessity, is a loss and an injustice which will not be completely “made up for” or resolved by adoption into a new family, however wonderful and amazing they may be.

    When the Church says there seems to be no morally licit solution – this applies to destroying the embryos, or ‘allowing them to die’ even while baptizing them. It applies to keeping them frozen indefinitely. And it applies to embryo implantation and/or adoption. But, although there seems to be no morally licit solution among these options, we know there must be one, right? Our situation was foreseen by God. There IS a way God wishes us to act. So, I do not read that statement as the Church throwing up her hands. Rather, as a call to action, to study pray and discern which of the possible actions (or non actions) are morally licit.

    For what it’s worth, my conscience is clear. If the Church were to rule otherwise I would submit will and intellect. However, I doubt any such ruling will come to pass, even in my lifetime.

  7. Time to close the combox on this one.

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