Today’s question has been a hot topic lately. In fact, I have received about 10 inquiries on this subject a day in the past week! “Would embryo (snowflake) adoption justify In-Vitro Fertilization (IVF)?”
Moral theologians have different opinions about the question of the adoption of embryos that were not used during IVF attempts, and the Church has not yet settled this question. What is clear, of course, is that an embryo may not be deliberately killed nor donated to research. It seems to us that adopting these embryos is morally acceptable.
A May 31, 2005 news article in the Washington Post highlighted this debate in Catholic medical ethics. The article quotes three orthodox Catholic thinkers who, in good conscience, do not agree on the topic. Below are the four pertinent paragraphs from the article.
But the debate over embryo adoptions is just beginning to take shape. "There are very few moral issues on which the Catholic Church has not yet taken a position. This is one," said Cathy Cleaver Ruse, chief spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities.
One of the leading voices in the church in favor of embryo adoptions is the Rev. Thomas D. Williams, dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome. "It's reaching out to another human being, albeit in an embryonic state, in the only way that that little being can be helped," he said.
But the Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, who has a doctorate in neuroscience from Yale and is staff ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, argued that embryo adoptions would make Catholics complicit in test-tube fertilizations, which the church considers illicit. Moreover, he said, artificially implanting an embryo in a woman's womb is a "grave violation of the nature of marital sexuality."
When counseling Catholic couples on the issue, Pacholczyk said, he is careful to point out: "The Vatican could prove me wrong tomorrow. But I don't think the church will ever give them permission for this."
As Fr. Tad has stated, one threat of allowing embryo adoption is that it will nullify (at least in public opinion) the Church's teaching against IFV. However, the adoption of embryos does not promote nor condone IVF. On the contrary, it is similar to other pro-life ministries that do the "clean-up job" for the sins of the Culture of Death. Because a child may have been conceived by an act of fornication, this child still has human rights and a human soul. He or she is still worthy of dignity despite the sins of his or her parents.
IVF is frequently purported as pro-life because it is pro-birth. In reality, it is a grave offense against life because it separates the act of procreation from the conjugal act. IVF is used by well-meaning couples who desire to be parents despite fertility problems. The act of IVF has a language of its own, however. It is a language that says that parents have the right to when and whether to have children, similar to the "contraceptive mentality" that also separates the conjugal act from procreation.
IVF is not only a means of causing fertilization (procreation) in a clinical environment, but eliminates the conjugal act's role in procreation. This is a grave offense against the human person, the marriage covenant, and the plan of God. The language of love in the conjugal act is the proper place for the procreation of a human being. Pope John Paul II spoke of this at length in his Theology of the Body and Love and Responsibility.
With that said, we can analyze the morality of embryo adoption. While it seems that the only viable option for these little babes is to implant them in the womb of a woman who will bring them to birth, it is rightly debated whether this act of artificial implantation is morally licit. As Fr. Tad explains, artificial embryo transfer is a "grave violation of the nature of marital sexuality." It is important that the ends are not used to justify the means.
One of the most comprehensive statements by the Church on the dignity of the human embryo is "Donum Vitae". The key section from this document is the following:
“In consequence of the fact that they have been produced in vitro, those embryos that are not transferred into the body of the mother and are called "spare" are exposed to an absurd fate, with no possibility of their being offered safe means of survival that can be licitly pursued” (Donum vitae, I.5.).
Two articles from 2001 that were published in "Ethics and Medics," a publication of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, provide some more thought on this complex subject: Theological Debate over Embryo Adoption and On the Disposition of Frozen Embryos. This is a password-protected site; access is available with a subscription to the publication.