Can Embryos Be Adopted?

Interview with Moral Theologian Father Thomas Williams

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ROME, JUNE 3, 2005 ( As stockpiles of frozen embryos grow, so does the debate regarding what should be done with them and for them, even among Catholic moral theologians.

For an overview of the issue, ZENIT interviewed moral theologian Father Thomas Williams, dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: Why is there so much debate surrounding embryo adoption?

Father Williams: We are starting from an «unnatural» situation, one that should never have existed. The production and cryogenic preservation of human embryos — upwards of 400,000 already — is a moral aberration, and morally sensitive people spontaneously recoil from this procedure.

Many people, ethicists included, have difficulty separating this wrong situation from what can morally be done to help those embryonic persons that now exist.

Q: Doesn’t embryo adoption at least tacitly imply approval of the process by which these embryos came into existence?

Father Williams: Not at all. When a couple adopts a child that was conceived by an act of rape, does the couple condone that violence? Of course not. The child that came into existence because of that terrible act, through no fault of its own, is still worthy of kindness and care.

It is a basic principle of Christian ethics, and indeed of a democratic state, that all human beings bear an equal dignity and deserve to be treated as human beings. The question we need to ask is not how did they come to be, but rather what can we do to help them.

Given the current state of medical science, the only thing that can be done to save the lives of those persons is gestation in a woman’s womb. Most women aren’t called to make this sacrifice, but those who feel called should not be discouraged from doing so.

Q: But you must admit that embryo adoption can only encourage the production and preservation of more embryos in this way.

Father Williams: An ethical analysis of embryo adoption cannot be based principally on the consequences we foresee. We must ask ourselves what the right thing is to do for these little persons.

Sometimes doing the right thing carries with it unpleasant consequences, or mixed results. But to condition our treatment of persons by the possible effects that it will have on others would be to reduce those persons to a means, and our morality would decay into a utilitarian calculus.

Still, in answer to your question regarding the effects of embryo adoption, I do not think that it will necessarily encourage in vitro fertilization and the cryogenic storage of embryos.

The promotion of embryo adoption underscores the reality that each human being, no matter how small, is worthy of care by the community. As society’s consciousness of this reality grows, I would foresee a decrease in the production of embryos.

In fact, speaking of negative consequences, the condemnation of embryo adoption sends out a very inconsistent message regarding the sanctity of human life. On the one hand, we denounce abortion as the killing of innocent human persons; on the other hand, we refuse to help those embryonic persons already in existence. We simply can’t have it both ways.

Q: Some ethicists have proposed that we can forgo embryo adoption because it would constitute «aggressive medical treatment,» that we are not obliged to pursue.

Father Williams: This is a misapplication of terms. We need to remember that «aggressive medical treatment» refers to futile medical treatment of terminally ill patients, not to the normal care of healthy persons.

Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical «Evangelium Vitae,» in No. 65, stated that medical treatment can be refused when «death is clearly imminent and inevitable» and when the treatment is either «disproportionate to any expected results» or imposes «an excessive burden on the patient and his family.»

These conditions are not met in the case of frozen embryos.

Q: What is the difference between «embryo adoption» and «embryo rescue?»

Father Williams: «Embryo rescue» refers to saving the life of an embryo by offering it the possibility of gestating at least until it reaches viability and can live outside the womb. «Embryo adoption» refers to the same process but adds the intention to care for and raise the child, in effect making the child one’s own.

Obviously embryo adoption by a married couple is the preferable option, but from an ethical perspective, simple embryo rescue cannot be ruled out, even by unmarried women.

Q: Doesn’t embryo adoption violate the integrity of the marriage covenant?

Father Williams: No more than the adoption of already born infants does. Obviously the decision to adopt an embryo would have to be made by the couple, and not made unilaterally; just any adoption decision is made by the couple. The decision to bring another child into one’s home is an act of Christian charity, not a violation of the marriage covenant.

Q: But didn’t the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith specifically state that spouses have the right and duty to become mother and father solely through each other?

Father Williams: Yes indeed. In the 1987 instruction «Donum Vitae,» the congregation taught: «The fidelity of the spouses in the unity of marriage involves reciprocal respect of their right to become a father and a mother only through each other.»

We must remember, however, that here «becoming a father and a mother» means the act of begetting a new human being, not receiving into one’s home a child that already exists. When a couple adopts a young child, they do, in a sense, become the child’s mother and father, but this is not what the congregation was referring to.

Q: What is Church teaching regarding embryo adoption?

Father Williams: At the moment no clear magisterial teaching exists on this question, and that is why there is much debate, even among moral theologians.

Q: Do you expect any clear teaching on this question in the near future?

Father Williams: I am no prophet, but many people are expecting some clarification from the Holy See, so there may be a magisterial statement in the not-too-distant future. Sometimes these matters take time.

In the case of organ transplants, for instance, official Church approval of the procedure came literally decades after the process became medically possible and was, in fact, practiced by Catholics.

Q: What if the Church eventually decides that embryo adoption is immoral?

Father Williams: One of the great joys of being a Catholic and a theologian is the gift of the papal magisterium, which offers sure guidance especially in murkier areas where intelligent people of good will disagree. This was the case, for example, of the prophetic 1968 encyclical «Humanae Vitae,» with its teaching on contraception.

There was much disagreement among ethicists at the time, and the magisterium, assisted by the Holy Spirit, set the matter straight. If the Holy See were to teach that embryo adoption was ethically unacceptable, I would embrace that decision and try to understand the reasoning behind it to better form my conscience and explain it to others.

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