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No way out? What to do about a 'frozen generation’

In vitro fertilization illustration. Credit: Shutterstock.

Being pro-life, especially as a Catholic, often entails an unambiguous and clear moral stance: Catholics are for the dignity of every human life, and they are called to defend that life wherever it is threatened — simple, right?

Not always. In medical facilities across the United States, hundreds of thousands of individual human lives remain frozen in their embryonic state. The Church teaches that, as regards science and natural law, these embryos are persons, with innate human rights and dignity.

But how do Catholic honor that dignity, or fight for those rights? That’s not always clear.

Human embryo. Credit: Shutterstock.

Ethicists are divided on what, if anything, can be done for these embryonic persons, who in the vast majority of cases are either thawed out and disposed of as medical waste, or sold as research material. And the concept of “embryo adoption” remains controversial, even within Catholic circles.

So, what are the arguments? And what does the Church teach?

Charlie Camosy talked with bioethicist Kent Lasnoski, associate professor of theology at Wyoming Catholic College, to answer these questions.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Lots of folks have likely heard about embryonic stem cell research and the 'problem' of frozen embryos, maybe for some time now. Some might think of it as an issue of the past. But you have a different view.

Why do you see this as an urgent issue, especially for Catholics?

Faithful Catholics pride themselves on living a consistent, integral ethic of life, a total pro-life commitment to the dignity of all persons from conception to natural death. Most Americans, including Catholics, are keenly aware of many structural sins that create and perpetuate injustice for the vulnerable — from racism to abortion rights and so on — but I think most Catholics simply don’t realize the scale of evil we have created for ourselves with the fertility industry.

Estimates vary, but today anywhere from 650,000 to over 1,000,000 embryonic persons sit frozen at -70 degrees around our country. Just let that sink in for a minute.

The numbers are shocking, but what’s more disturbing is the most likely fate of these enslaved embryos. I say enslaved because they are considered property under law. Their owners, biological parents, rent space for them at the fertility clinic. When their generosity runs dry, the clinic either thaws them out as medical waste, or sells them to laboratories for research that ends in death. Catholics in good conscience ought not to be able to sleep at night without doing something about this grave injustice.

A rare but still possible path for these oppressed persons is embryo adoption. A married couple can purchase an embryo from the clinic and transfer it to the woman’s womb. Upon birth the couple can legally adopt the child, thus saving it from its cold tomb of neglect.

The question of embryo adoption is deeply controversial. Why is that the case?

Everyone who hears about the million frozen embryos feels deeply disturbed by the problem and moved to help. The idea of leaving embryos to thaw, or to eternal cryostasis, or to death by research should be disgusting to everyone, but I run into three strong gut reactions to the idea of embryo adoption as the solution.

On the one hand, it feels like an heroic and beautiful work of mercy and hospitality, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry. On the other hand, many women feel revulsion at the technologically invasive procedure and the idea of becoming pregnant with someone else’s child. Finally, there’s lots of anxiety about participating in the evil of buying and selling persons. No one wants to raise demand in the already existing ‘market’ for human embryos.

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When difficult issues touching fundamental morals arise, the Church usually steps in with magisterial statements. Has that happened with embryo adoption?

Yes and no.

In 1987 the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (CDF) wrote Donum vitae, a doctrinal instruction on fertility technology. Here the Church affirms the embryo’s right to life and the duty of society to protect that right, as well as encouraging therapeutic actions for the embryonic person.

The Church rejected any intentional destruction of embryos and harmful research. Embryo adoption, however, was not yet a question.

In 1996, a CDF theologian published a non-magisterial article in the Osservatore Romano positively inclined toward embryo adoption. In 2004, the Pontifical Academy for Life treated embryo adoption as an open question.

In 2008, the CDF wrote another doctrinal instruction, Dignitas personae, which briefly considers embryo adoption.

Dignitas personae affirms the good intention of rescuing frozen embryos. But the CDF cited certain moral difficulties with the embryo transfer and the ensuing pregnancy, which seem similar to the immoral practice of surrogate motherhood.

Furthermore, the CDF is clear that embryo adoption cannot be used as a treatment for infertility. The strongest statements in Dignitas personae are these: “the thousands of abandoned embryos represent a situation of injustice which in fact cannot be resolved.” The authors go on to quote John Paul II, who said in a lecture to physicians, “there seems to be no morally licit solution regarding the human destiny of the thousands and thousands of frozen embryos.”

Do faithful theologians believe either the 1987 or the 2008 document closes the conversation on embryo adoption?

Again, it’s ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ As a non-dissenting theologian fully faithful to the magisterium, I believe the question remains open, as do a number of my colleagues whose theological positions would certainly be called conservative. At the same time, about the same number of faithful Catholic theologians believe Dignitas personae has closed the question.

The trouble is that these magisterial statements don’t carry the clarity or definitive language that you see on issues like contraception, abortion, and euthanasia. For the sake of the faithful’s consciences, if an action is always wrong, the Church wants to avoid being vague and confusing folks about the heart of the teaching.

In this case, since the teaching isn’t stated with even enough strength to create consensus among theologians who are docile to ecclesial authority, I think it’s fair to assume the question is open.

Furthermore, in 2009, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops interpreted Dignitas personae permissively, saying it “raises cautions or problems about these new issues [of embryo adoption] but does not formally make a definitive judgment about them.”

So if the question among faithful Catholic theologians is open, what are the basic arguments both for and against embryo adoption?

The arguments focus on two issues: first, the essence of the action, and second, the circumstances and consequences around it. I’ll start with the circumstantial part.

You might hear opponents argue about “cooperation with evil.” Some say embryo adoption formally participates in the evil of the fertility industry and the commodification of persons. Adopting embryos increases demand for the sale of embryos, encouraging fertility clinics to push even more couples to use in-vitro fertilization.

Proponents counter that Catholics could openly and vocally express their disapproval of in-vitro fertilization and embryo freezing, fighting for laws against it and discussing its wrongs with employees of the clinic, while purchasing the embryo and performing the transfer. The cooperation, therefore, would be material rather than formal, and it is remote from the evil of IVF and freezing, which likely occurred years ago at the hands of total strangers.

Opponents will also say that embryo adoption violates the dignity and right of the child to and integrity of parenthood. Children have a right to be gestated and raised by their genetic parents. Furthermore, embryo adoption admits of mixed motives. Some might adopt the embryo for their own fulfillment or to treat their own infertility, rather than as an authentic work of mercy.

Proponents rejoin that the child’s situation of injustice has already been created, and we have a duty to reverse as much of that injustice as possible. Even if we cannot perfectly restore either procreative integrity or a recognition of the child’s dignity, embryo adoption treats the child as unconditionally valuable and at least allows for integrity between the gestation and raising of the child.

The hinge of the whole debate, however, is embryo transfer itself. Is it intrinsically evil to transfer an embryo from the freezer into a woman who is not the biological mother of that child? Opponents say, yes, embryo transfer is always wrong. They base the argument on magisterially defined principles of Catholic sexual ethics. Embryo transfer is an act of an impregnating kind, a use of the procreative faculty. The Catholic Church has stated in many places, including Donum vitae, that the procreative faculty cannot be used in separation from conjugal intimacy. Embryo transfer uses the procreative faculty apart from the marital act. Embryo transfer, therefore, amounts to technological adultery.

Proponents of embryo adoption reply by saying that the object of the act isn’t “procreation apart from the marital act.” The procreation, proponents argue, has already happened. We have a living person who needs a home, nurture, care, and love. A woman’s womb is that home and can offer that nurture. The woman’s whole self offers the care and love, both during gestation and after birth with adoption. The essence of the act is a work of mercy, namely fulfilling Jesus’ plain-sense command to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit those imprisoned and sick.

You've written about this issue in ways that draw on the Church's tradition of rescuing or redeeming the captives. Let's finish with a brief summary of your argument.

It’s pretty straightforward. In an academic article and a shorter piece I point to the Mercederian and Trinitarian religious orders of the 13th century. The Church supported these orders, who paid the ransom of Christians captured and enslaved by Muslims at sea or in land raids. These men even traded places with additional captives—not infrequently suffering death for their pains.

Buying embryos from the fertility clinic and putting one’s body completely at the disposal of this former captive strikes me as analogous to buying back Christian slaves and offering oneself in the place of those slaves. On this count, then, the essence of embryo transfer might not be “technological adultery” but rather the radical gift of one’s body and one’s life as adoptive parent for the freedom of an enslaved person, a person who will otherwise never come to know the goodness of God and his saving love.

Whatever the Church, in her wisdom, determines to be the truth of this matter, I will certainly accept. Since she has not yet so declared, it seems our duty to make sure we don’t ease our consciences unduly when it comes to the absurd fate of frozen embryonic persons.

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