Rescuing Frozen Embryos

Is Adoption a Valid Moral Option?

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By E. Christian Brugger

WASHINGTON, DC, MARCH 17, 2010 ( When I speak publically on bioethical issues, the topic I most frequently address is the problem of the terrible exploitation of human embryos.

I tell my audience that as of 2003 the estimated number of frozen embryos at IVF clinics in the United States was approximately 400,000.[1] I add that that number increases annually by approximately 19,000 [2], which puts estimates in 2010 at between 500,000 and 600,000 frozen human embryos. I tell them that although the largest percentage of those embryos are formally earmarked in the IVF registers for «future pregnancies,» everyone knows that the majority of couples who successfully conceive through IVF never again choose to go through the harrowing experience (including repeating the $20,000 price tag); and so it is reasonable to assume that the majority of those 600,000 human beings will never be implanted into a female uterus and hence will die.

During questions and answers I always get the same question, and it’s always asked by an earnest young woman between 18-30 year’s of age: «What can we do to help?»

I tell her that given the present state of technology, there is only one possibility for their survival to birth and that’s to be implanted and gestated in a woman’s uterus. I tell her that some Christians (more Protestants than Catholics, but Catholics too) recommend that couples «donate» their «spare» embryos for «adoption» and that other couples «adopt» them and the wife gestate them. Supporters of this proposal conceive it either as a form of human rescue («embryo rescue»), or simply as an alternative to traditional infant adoption («embryo adoption»). Since I usually address Catholic audiences, my reply usually prompts the question: «What does the Catholic Church teach about this?» I outline here my reply.

Until the publication of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith document on bioethics, «Dignitas Personae» (hereafter DP), in December 2008, the Church had formally said nothing on the issue. Some theologians faithful to the magisterium had defended embryo adoption in print, myself included, and others had opposed it. Both had reasons to be disappointed with the release of DP.

Although the document dedicates almost two paragraphs to embryo adoption («prenatal adoption,» DP, No. 19), it offers no moral judgment on the practice. It does offer cautions, which unfortunately have been taken by some Catholics, including some theologians, as a condemnation of embryo adoption. But no such condemnation was ever made. This is clear from the U.S. bishops’ conference commentary on DP — «Questions and Answers about ‘Dignitas Personae'» [3] released along with the text in December 2008, as well as the News Release published by the conference’s Office of Media Relations, on Dec. 12, 2008. Both assert that DP makes no definitive judgment on the practice [4].

My friend and colleague at the Culture of Life Foundation, William E. May, provided an exegesis of «Dignitas Personae» on embryo adoption almost two years ago. His interpretation is supported by the U.S. episcopal conference’s published statements and I recommend it as a reliable guide to reading DP. So rather than discuss DP’s teaching, I would like to dedicate the remainder of this essay to a «status update» on certain important moral arguments in Catholic theology.

Any Catholic who desires to come to a true judgment on a moral issue that is not settled by authoritative Catholic teaching should ask whether there is a consensus of faithful Catholic theologians on the issue. If there is, then one is justified in adopting that consensus as a reliable indicator of what is true. It may in fact be false, so one should not adopt it with an assent of «faith» as we accept the teachings of divine revelation, but rather after careful consideration and comparison with other truths that are clear.

If however there is no such consensus, then, absent Church authority and expert opinion, the faithful should carefully consider the best arguments for and against the issue and assent to the judgment that seems to them most to be true. Remember, a thing is not true because the Church teaches it; the Church teaches it because it’s true. Truth is what we’re after. Since there is no clear teaching on embryo adoption and no consensus of trustworthy theologians, we must turn to the arguments.

Arguments against

The most persuasive argument against embryo adoption is formulated by the very capable Australian moral philosopher, Nicholas Tonti-Filippini. His view captures a sentiment shared by many Catholics when they first hear about the procedure.

Presented with the possibility of having an unrelated embryo technologically transferred into one’s uterus, or one’s wife’s uterus, some feel instinctively that accepting pregnancy in this way somehow violates the sanctity of the marital relationship. Something about it just feels wrong. Tonti-Filippini’s argument captures the heart of this sentiment. He concludes that to gestate an unrelated embryo is a violation of the «unitive good» of marriage. This follows from the premise that a woman should only ever get pregnant by her husband through marital intercourse. Since through embryo adoption a woman becomes pregnant by means other than by her husband through martial intercourse, the act is intrinsically evil (a bad means to the good end of saving a human life).

Probing more deeply the origin of this moral prohibition, Tonti-Filippini considers the significance of pregnancy. The type of relationship established between mother and child, he says, is wholly unique: The child is «essentially of her, not only located within her, but bound essentially, vitally to her.» She is «literally home» to the child, «home in the sense of a dynamic dependency and interrelationship in which they share an intimate biological and spiritual connectedness.» The intimate union has no parallel. It follows, he argues, that the union «is not separated from but rather an extension and embodiment of the union between the woman and her husband.» In other words, pregnancy belongs to the marital relationship. This being the case, embryo adoption means becoming pregnant outside of marriage.

I offer the following reply. His argument rests on the presumption that pregnancy belongs (morally speaking) to marriage. Since the marital act epitomizes the dual meaning of marriage, it follows that pregnancy (and becoming pregnant) belong to the marital act, that is, when married persons engage in intercourse and the wife becomes pregnant, the pregnancy (and thus the becoming pregnant) is not only causally related to their intercourse, but morally speaking is an intrinsic part of their marital intercourse. And so a marital act should only ever be that by which a woman becomes pregnant. Embryo adoption intentionally separates pregnancy from marital intercourse; therefore it vitiates the marital act and is a sin against marriage. Various forms of this reasoning are found in the diverse arguments of respected Catholic ethicists such as Luke Gormally, Mary Geach, and Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk.

Pregnancy and marriage

Notwithstanding its prima facie plausibility, the premise and conclusion must be rejected. The premise that pregnancy belongs to marital intercourse falsely assumes that procreation and pregnancy are a single moral reality. This assumption however muddles the significance of the legitimate moral norm requiring the unity of procreation and marital intercourse. Sexual intercourse derives its procreative significance — affirmed and handed on from biblical times to our day — not from the fact that a woman becomes pregnant, but from the fact that a new human person comes into existence. That coming-to-be is complete with fertilization at which time pregnancy begins.

In a world without sin, procreation and pregnancy would never have been separ
ated. But neither would procreation and marriage. And yet a sinful world presents us with children conceived in fornication, rape, adultery and incest. We do not turn away from those lives because the circumstances of their origins violates God’s original plan. Sinned against in their coming-to-be, they deserve nevertheless the best possible future.

In one sense, it is perfectly reasonable to assert that a woman should only ever become pregnant as a result of marital intercourse and consequently that the biological mother’s womb is normative for the gestation of every conceived child. But that «should» is violated every time someone creates a human being in the laboratory. Although it is true to say that the circumstances of their origins violates God’s original plan; it no more follows that assisting the child through offering him or her uterine nurture is excluded than it follows that the norm’s violation with every pregnancy conceived outside of marriage means that a woman mustn’t carry the wrongly conceived child to term. In both cases, the wrongdoing brings into existence a human being, who now has a claim in justice on his brothers and sisters in the human community; and a claim in mercy and charity on the members of Jesus’ Church. Sinned against in his origin, he deserves the best possible future. And the only possible future for these little brothers and sisters is a hospitable female uterus.

To collapse the significance of procreation and pregnancy into one moral reality, as Tonti-Filippini and those who follow his reasoning do, leads to the appalling and counter-intuitive conclusion, affirmed by all opponents of embryo adoption, that morality requires that we let the hundreds of thousands of persons die; that our obligations to this despised multitude cease if we can but successfully accomplish their thawing from their cryogenic state; that morality and the dignity of the human person require that we refuse them any further human assistance!

Feeling of repugnance?

What then accounts for the feeling of repugnance of some (though certainly not all) faithful Catholics? Two things. First, IVF casts a negative moral shadow over embryo adoption because some of the behaviors performed by embryo adoptive couples mirror the behaviors of IVF couples. In both, embryos created in a laboratory are transferred into a woman’s womb. But this is where the likeness between them ceases. The malice of IVF does not inhere in the embryo transfer, but in the unjust «making» of children in a laboratory. If the embryo transfer itself were immoral, then couples who create children through IVF would be morally forbidden from carrying those children and bringing them to birth, certainly a false conclusion.

Second, there is a sense in which gestational motherhood can be said to be unique; it is a unique biological relationship between two persons; it also has a unique bonding dimension for mother and child. But asserting this uniqueness does not settle the question of whether it is licit to nurture a threatened embryo after it’s been unjustly brought into the world.

Analogous to the way the adoption of a baby after gestation is not a violation of the exclusive rights of spouses to «become fathers and mothers only through each other,» neither, I suggest, is adopting an embryo before it’s gestated. A woman provides an endangered human person the only kind of nurture possible to save its life — uterine nurture. If she is married, she should certainly discern the appropriateness of this with her husband. If they decide together to move ahead, it is no more a violation of the marital good, than for a lactating woman to breast-feed an abandoned child for nine months.

In both cases, the woman offers what the child most needs — nurture from her very body. Her concern is not principally for herself, but for the child. In this way, she makes of her embodied feminine self a truly disinterested gift to a person in grave need. Tonti-Filippini fails to show how pregnancy per se gives rise to an absolute condemnation of a woman’s becoming pregnant — not her procreating, but simply becoming pregnant — outside of the context of marital intercourse.

Moral norms

The three moral norms that need to be examined when considering embryo adoption include: 1) the norm protecting human procreation; 2) the norm protecting martial intercourse, and 3) the norm prohibiting surrogacy. We ask whether embryo adoption violates any of these. Both «Donum Vitae» and «Dignitas Personae» teach that new human life is only legitimately brought into existence in the context of marital intercourse.

Embryo adoption obviously does not violate this norm since it does not concern bringing new human life into the world, but rather human life that has already been brought into existence; it cannot then be criticized by a norm that specifically relates to procreation. Both documents also teach that the procreative and unitive dimensions of the marital act should never be separated intentionally. But embryo adoption does not concern any act of sexual intercourse, indeed any sexual act at all. And so a norm protecting the integrity of marital intercourse is not relevant to its moral assessment.

Finally, both documents condemn surrogacy. We must ask then if embryo adoption is tantamount to surrogacy. Although there are certain physical similarities between surrogacy and embryo adoption, chiefly that a woman has transferred into her uterus an embryo that is not her own and gestates it until birth, the two acts are morally very different. The evil of surrogacy is not per se the becoming pregnant with and the gestating of an unrelated embryo, but rather formal cooperation by the surrogate in the evil of IVF. In contracting with the creators («parents») of an IVF embryo to gestate and then hand over the child, the surrogate shares the bad will of those who bring the child into the world unjustly. But the woman who rightly chooses embryo adoption deplores the injustices done to the embryo, refuses to carry out any evil projects of those who create embryos, and is morally opposed to IVF.

Embryo adoption chosen to save the life of an endangered human being has as its end the rescue of the threatened human person (which is good) and as a means an act of uterine nurture, which given a iusta causa (a serious reason) can be morally legitimate. Although it may be wrong to choose in particular cases, chiefly if a woman has good reason to believe that adopting the burdens of pregnancy will compromise her ability to fulfill well her already existing duties, the act cannot be intrinsically evil.


[1] According to the 2003 RAND-SART Report [], the most reliable study to date.

[2] Casey, Samuel B. 2007. The Frozen Waiting to be Chosen: Human Embryo Adoption in America. The Christian Lawyer 3(2): 13.



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E. Christian Brugger is a Senior Fellow of Ethics at the Culture of Life Foundation and is an associate professor of moral theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado. He received his Doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford in 2000.

[Readers may send questions regarding bioethics to The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. The fellows at the Culture of Life Foundation will answer a select number of the questions that arrive.]
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