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What Does the Catholic Church Say About Adopting Embryos?



Bioethics Observatory - published on 12/11/14

There are good arguments for and against the practice.

Hundreds of thousands of frozen embryos left over from in vitro fertilization are waiting in storerooms of clinics and hospitals around the world for their future to be decided. Faced with this terrible situation, many Catholics ask themselves how they can help improve the situation, and many well-intentioned people point to the possibility of prenatal adoption—that is to say, that women could offer to bear these embryos and thus adopt them, before they are born, as their own children.

What does the Church say about this? It is true that there is no definitive decision regarding this difficult subject. However, in the latest Instruction on the dignity of the person in scientific matters, Dignitas Personae, (point 19), the Holy See indicates that prenatal adoption isn’t an ethically acceptable solution.

What is the reasoning behind this?
Dr. Justo Aznar, president of the Bioethics Observatory of the Catholic University of Valencia and member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, explains that the problem is that, in order carry out the adoption, it would be necessary to use techniques and procedures that are not ethically acceptable—the same ones used for "wombs for rent" or for "in vitro" fertilization.  Therefore, although the ends are good, th
ey do not justify acts that are intrinsically wrong.

"It’s not easy to admit that saving the life of a frozen embryo is an ethically incorrect stance," Dr. Aznar recognizes, "which is why some experts with well-formed consciences defend it. Anyway, since it is, in my opinion, still an open subject, it is possible that we might come to understand it better. This is why we will have to wait longer to know the definitive stance of the Magisterium on this topic."  Yet it isbeyond a doubt that the Magisterium’s stance for the moment is against the adoption of frozen embryos.

What arguments are used by those in favor of adopting embryos?
Among the defenders of pre-natal adoption, there are highly prestigious Catholic researchers and doctors, such as Dr. Monica Lopez Barahona or Dr. Ramon Lucas, who have publicly shown support for this kind of adoption, since it means giving these embryos an opportunity to live. They are considered human persons with all their dignity and rights, despite having been conceived in a morally unacceptable manner.

The embryo’s life would therefore be a primary good which should be saved in order to make reparation for the injustice that has been committed against it when it was "produced" in a laboratory and then abandoned.  Relative to its already disproportionate and "abnormal" situation, the means used to try to save the life should be seen as a "lesser evil."

In fact, for several years (especially between 2004 and 2006) in various Catholic media outlets and in Catholic universities that specialize in bioethics (in the USA and also in Italy and Spain), there was a heated debate about prenatal adoption. In 2008, the Instruction Dignitas Personae was therefore not the starting point, but the end point (although perhaps not the definitive one, but certainly a key one) of a wide and deep debate on the subject.

What are the arguments against it?
Dr. Aznar explains: "The Church is not in favor of this practice because, according to its judgment, it breaks the unity of the conjugal act, which is constituted by the conjugal relation of the spouses, the openness to life implied in this act, and the possibility that fertilization and then the corresponding pregnancy may occur. The Church believes that separating pregnancy from this integrated group of biological acts breaks that unity and therefore is not morally acceptable."

Besides, if the adopting couple is not the same as the biological parents, it is also considered morally unacceptable that an embryo engendered by its biological parents be implanted in the womb of another mother, in this case the adoptive mother, which could be an act similar to surrogate motherhood – although not motherhood for rent, because in the case we are discussing an economic compensation is never requested for the woman who will bear the thawed embryo. She is doing it out of the desire to form a family with the adopted child and also, possibly, the desire to save one of those frozen lives.

Undoubtably, from a moral point of view you can never do something evil to attain something good, as very important as that good may be. This is a basic moral principle. Therefore, if thawing and implanting a frozen embryo is not morally acceptable for the reasons explained earlier, as very positive as it may be to thaw the embryo to save its life, which doesn’t always succeed, it doesn’t seem licit to carry out this action. Along these lines, the Church encourages people to adopt children who are already born, as there are thousands of them waiting to find a family who will welcome them."

What, then, is the ethically acceptable solution for frozen embryos?
Dr. Aznar explains that the only way to solve the problem is to limit the production of embryos per cycle during in vitro fertilization, avoiding the situation of their being "leftovers." "As is well known, there are many embryos left over from in vitro fertilization, which are frozen. Right now in Spain there are certainly more than 400,000. The alternatives for these embryos are: a) leave them frozen; b) use them for biomedical research; c) give them up for adoption, whether to the biological mother or any other couple; or d) leave them as they are, frozen, so that the process evolves naturally. Alternative d) seems the most ethically acceptable, as it doesn’t interfere with the life of the embryo."

"In any case, the only solution to put an end to prenatal adoption is for there not to be frozen embryos that need to be adopted. Laws should be promoted along these lines in different countries to prohibit fertilizing more ova than those that will be implanted later. If this were done, there would be no leftover embryos and there would be no need to freeze them. The problem would be solved at its root."

To learn more:
Dr. Justo Aznar: Is it morally acceptable to donate embryos for adoption?
Angela Carrasco Barraza: Saving and adopting cryopreserved embryos: solidarity or encouraging reproductive cruelty?
In favor of prenatal adoption (2006): Drs. Monica Lopez Barahona, Ramon Lucas, Salvador Antuñano: The moral licitness of embryo adoption

Translated from the Spanish byMatthew Green.

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