I spoke recently at a conference on embryo adoption funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and joint sponsored by two agencies (led largely by devout Protestants) committed to facilitating the adoption of frozen embryos (i.e., the National Embryo Donation Center and Bethany Christian Services). Its purpose was to raise public awareness of the problem of frozen embryos and to point the way to a possible life-saving alternative. Everyone present agreed that something needed to be done about the 500,000 frozen embryos presently stranded in U.S. “concentration cans” (to use the late Jérome Lejeune’s poignant term). Most agreed that the embryo has a unique moral status. Some thought the status was that of a human person. And a small minority (myself included) thought the problem stemmed in the first place from our societal toleration of IVF. Most present were professionals involved in some way with embryo adoption or interested in getting involved (physicians, nurses, lawyers, academics) along with several couples who either have adopted and gestated embryos or put their embryos up for adoption.
I learned that frozen embryos presently have one of four fates. They may be: 1) destroyed; 2) earmarked for destructive experimentation; 3) frozen indefinitely; or 4) put up for adoption. Their fate is decided by their “owners” (in law embryos are treated as property). Most at the conference agreed that the first two are wrong. The IVF doctors present disagreed as to whether freezing was always wrong. I presume here that it is wrong.
This leaves us with the fourth. Those at the conference obviously had sympathies for the adoption alternative. But it was noted that not everyone thinks embryo adoption is a good thing. Two distinct and dissimilar groups oppose it. The first are defenders of abortion who fear that positive public awareness of embryo adoption will threaten abortion rights by humanizing the embryo and by implication the fetus. The second group are committed Christians, mostly Catholics, who, while deploring the injustice done to frozen embryos, believe that heterologous embryo transfer (HET) is nevertheless intrinsically evil. Although some of these are torn about what to do in response, most agree that there are no morally legitimate life-saving alternatives. Thus all frozen embryos should be immediately returned to their natural state to take their natural course, i.e. be allowed to die.
A very fine paper was given at the conference by Rev. Peter F. Ryan, S.J., professor of moral theology at Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary, an opponent of IVF and defender of embryo adoption, criticizing the three most prominent arguments by Catholic scholars against HET.
In summary the three arguments against HET are:
1. A woman should only ever get pregnant by her husband through marital intercourse; HET involves getting pregnant other than by one’s husband through martial intercourse; therefore HET is morally wrong. This position is defended by Australian moral theologian Nicholas Tonti-Filippini.
2. Procreation may never be separated from martial intercourse; since (the argument goes) procreation morally includes pregnancy (i.e. includes the nine month gestation period), and HET involves getting pregnant apart from marital intercourse; therefore HET is morally wrong. This argument is proposed by Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia.
3. Marital intercourse—from the perspective of the woman—can be described as a choice for “an intromission of an impregnating kind;” such an intromission should only ever be performed by one’s husband in martial intercourse, but HET is a choice for an intromission of an impregnating kind outside of marital intercourse and therefore HET is a “sort of defective version of the female marriage act” and hence morally wrong. This argument if defended by the British moral philosopher Mary Geach.
Fr. Ryan replies by showing that the great human goods of marriage and life, protected by absolute moral norms forbidding illicit sexual acts and the creation of human life as an object though IVF, are in no way violated by HET. The choice to gestate an embryo in order to save its life involves no sexual act at all. Although it ordinarily should not be chosen without the agreement of both spouses, it is by no means intrinsically excluded by marital love. Because HET does not involve procreating—since the innocent embryo’s life is already in existence—it does not violate the moral norm protecting human life at its conception.
Fr. Ryan also addresses the problem of the inevitable cooperation of adoptive couples with IVF clinics. He points out rightly that a couple cooperating with a clinic in an act of adoption would not be cooperating with the clinic in as much as the clinic does evil, but rather in as much as the clinic is doing good by facilitating a life-enhancing possibility for an innocent human life.
Fr. Ryan concludes, and I think rightly, that when HET is chosen as an act of rescue on behalf of an endangered human life, it is not only legitimate in principle, but can be praiseworthy in practice.* Although I respect the Catholic scholars who argue against embryo adoption, I believe their arguments are not grounded in substantive human goods and therefore the negative norms they derive are unfounded.
Presently, only a few hundred babies have been born as a result of embryo adoption. This is in part because very few custodians put their embryos up for adoption. The 2003 RAND-SART Report (the most reliable to date) states that only 2.3% (or about 9000) of the 400,000 frozen embryos (reported in 2003) are earmarked for “donation” and adoption. Bringing embryo adoption into the mainstream therefore should be a priority for all defenders of human life. Sam Casey, Director of the Christian Legal Society, in a fine address on the state of embryo adoption in the U.S., said there are an estimated 10 million couples suffering from infertility in the U.S. Between 11-25% of them consider adoption, and approximately 200,000 couples seek to adopt each year.** Making frozen embryos available for adoption would not only serve the urgent good of the embryos, but the interests of couples suffering from infertility.
It should be said that the magisterium of the Catholic Church has not officially taught on the morality of embryo adoption. It has been rumored for several years that the issue will be taken up in a forthcoming document on bioethical issues. Many faithful Catholics (and Protestants) eagerly await the Church’s judgment.
*For more complete versions of theological and philosophical arguments for and against HET, see the essays in: Human Embryo Adoption: Biotechnology, Marriage and the Right to Life, eds. T. Berg, L.C. and E. Furton (National Catholic Bioethics Center and the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person, 2006).
**Samuel B. Casey, “The Frozen Waiting to be Chosen: Human Embryo Adoption in America,” The Christian Lawler, vol. 3, no. 2 (Fall 2007), p. 13-16.
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