Thursday, June 12, 2008

Editorial: The Vatican to Consider taking a Position on Embryo Adoption

I've long since resisted commenting on the Vatican's Treatment (or lack thereof) of Embryo Adoption, knowing that some of my readers are Catholic, that some are IVFers, and that some are Catholic IVFers. In response to recent news I would like to post as an advocate of EA, with the caveat that I will treat it as sensitively as I can. While I am not a Catholic and we decided against IVF, I respect those who made different choices for their families and hope that I can communicate that, while maintaining my own convictions.

The Vatican, to date, has no official position on Embryo Adoption. I would post a link accordingly, but the Vatican's search engine is down. They have resisted taking a position largely due to conflicting debates among Catholic Bioethicists and Vatican Advisers.

However, the National Catholic Reporter reports that the Vatican Council may make a ruling this weekend. I will be so bold as to proclaim that I hope they take the right position, myself believing that under current conditions there is only one correct position.

Let's deconstruct the arguments of the the top objectors.

First, the Vatican's official position on human life reads:
The human being must be respected - as a person - from the very first instant of his existence...Thus the fruit of human generation, from the first moment of its existence, that is to say from the moment the zygote has formed, demands the unconditional respect that is morally due to the human being in his bodily and spiritual totality. The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life. ...Since the embryo must be treated as a person, it must also be defended in its integrity, tended and cared for, to the extent possible, in the same way as any other human being as far as medical assistance is concerned.

That position alone is enough to determine what their next logical step MUST be.

The Catholic Church denounces both IVF and Surrogacy, teaching that both violate the sanctity of the marriage relationship by introducing another party for procreation, that such creation violates the dignity of the life of the newly formed person, in the case of surrogacy that it violates the child's right to be born to its own genetic, married mother and father, and that any artificial creation of life removes the power to give and take life away from God.

Springboarding off of this teaching and course of thought is where the objections to Embryo Adoption are based.

Father Tad Pacholczyk, a leading Catholic Bioethicist and adviser to the Vatican, takes a negative position on Embryo Adoption. He says "my own opinion is that it is not moral to do this" (source). Summarizing an oral debate in which Fr. Tad argued the negative, the National Catholic Reporter reported:
Pacholczyk argued that the implantation of an embryo is an intrinsically evil act, because it separates aspects of procreation that should remain united. Procreation, understood as "collaboration between husband, wife and almighty God," he argued, extends from fertilization through conjugal relations to birth, and to skip one of those stages means instrumentalizing the process.

It also results, he said, in a "fissure in parenthood," since "spouses have an exclusive right to become mother and father solely through each other."

"One should not become a parent through any means other than one's spouse," Pacholczyk said. He also argued that since fathers are incidental to the process of embryo adoption, fatherhood "is gravely and intrinsically violated.

As a pseudo-Catholic on matters of the right to life (I find myself far more conservative and active than my own church tradition's action on the issue), I generally have great respect for Fr. Tad and I'm perhaps one of the few Protestants who is familiar with him. However, his general position befuddles me. I have read a much more extensive document on his position, but now after an hour of googling find myself completely unable to locate it again so I will react only to what I can find in print.

My first reaction to Father Tad is that even if everything he says is true, his position does nothing to answer the question of what to do with the embryos (precious human lives) already in existence, regardless of how they came to be, and as such, his position is insufficient.

Additionally, I do wonder about the logical consistency of this argument with the Catholic teaching (an argument with which I agree) that abortion is immoral under all circumstances, including rape. In that case, a woman is impregnated (though not willingly) by a man other than her husband, and the Church would have her carry that child to term and birth it. Father Tad's distinction may be in the complicity of the conception on the part of the mother, but as stated, his argument is full of holes.

Less far-fetched in frequency are children conceived through willing intercourse outside the bonds of marriage. Again, the church would advocate that said child be carried to term and birthed. To be clear, Embryo Adoption is not at all to be likened to a child conceived from rape or even out of wedlock. I introduce the comparison as far as both one of those situations and IVF/EA pertain to a child conceived outside the traditional marital relationship. The church protects one child. It ought to protect the other.

His response as cited elsewhere is, "Today we put preemies into very sophisticated incubators. It’s conceivable that one could do that for an embryo as well." (source). I fail to see how this solution honors the dignity of the life of the embryo more than a womb does and moreover, it still does nothing to preserve the lives already created, who wait in peril for the creation of said "sophisticated incubator."

Furthermore, Father Tad's position seems to contradict his own position on the fundamental worth of the embryo.
The moral teaching of the Church is that the human embryo must be treated as if it were already ensouled, even if it might not yet be so. It must be treated as if it were a person from the moment of conception, even if there exists the theoretical possibility that it might not yet be so...Human embryos are already beings that are human (not zebra or plant), and are, in fact, the newest and most recent additions to the human family. They are integral beings structured for matu ration along their proper time line. Any destructive action against them as they move along the continuum of their development disrupts the entire future time line of that person. In other words, the embryo exists a whole, living member of the human species, and when destroyed, that particular individual has perished. Every human embryo, thus, is unique and sacrosanct."

Condemning these "newest and most recent additions to the human family" to a life (or rather non-life) of indefinite freezing destroys them, thereby violating Fr. Tad's own injunction against such behavior.

Msgr. William Smith, a professor at St. Joseph's Seminary, likens Embryo Adoption to "high-tech surrogacy," declaring it thus immoral. What Msgr. Smith fails to recognize is the distinction that in Embryo Adoption, the mother intends to parent the child. The Vatican even defines a surrogate as
"the woman who carries in pregnancy an embryo implanted in her uterus and who is genetically a stranger to the embryo because it has been obtained through the union of the gametes of "donors". She carries the pregnancy with a pledge to surrender the baby once it is born to the party who commissioned or made the agreement for the pregnancy." (source).

As the Pregnancy Carrying Parents do not surrender the child and in fact parent it, the process is clearly different from surrogacy.

Msgr. Smith takes an even more grave position when he says,
"There is no moral way to implant a frozen embryo into a woman's womb and therefore, unfortunately, the embryos must be allowed to expire naturally in their unnatural state." (source)

Msgr. Smith's qualification of his condemnation of "unfortunately" hardly makes his position any less evil.

Dr. Daniel Sulmasy, lead of the medical-ethics department at St. Vincents Medical Center in New York, agrees when he says that pregnancy resulting from something other than intercourse with her husband:
"creates a situation in which there is in a sense a third biological parent, the 'adopting' mother. This introduces new complications and unfamiliar familial relationships which are in and of themselves problematic."
He agrees that allowing the embryos to die frozen is the only moral response. He writes "They will die as natural a death as possible given the unnatural course of their lives. (source)

Again, one could extend Msgr. Smith and Dr. Sulmasy's arguments to call for the expulsion of children resulting from any "unnatural" state or relation, including rape, incest, extra marital affairs and technology assists. The position is morally reprehensible and unsupportable. On matters of high tech procreation, the scriptures might be vague. On the issue of the value of human life (and the logical extension that we therefore must protect it), there is no obscurity. Additionally, difficulty (as he suggests exists in the relationships) is not justification for sin (in this case, inaction).

Another objection is the argument that the existence of Embryo Adoption could encourage or legitimize IVF. Bishop Elio Sgreccia, Vice President of the Pontifical Academy for Life said "The idea of a systematic organization of prenatal adoption of frozen embryos would, in fact, end up by legitimizing the practice which is substantially at the root of the whole problem." source quoting "The London Tablet" August 10, 1996 (original article not available online).

It may be true that a small majority of couples who otherwise wouldn't, decide to pursue IVF because they know about Embryo Adoption. However, even if you eliminated all those people from the equation, the fact remains that thousands of people go through IVF without reservation and a system must therefore exist to save the children who result from the process. We cannot allow innocent children who already exist to perish because we think their parents should have behaved differently at a previous time to which we cannot revert. The simple fact remains that they're here now, and deserve a chance at life. Their genetic parents will answer to God (positively or negatively depending on your opinion) for their actions in creating them but that does not excuse us from pro-action on their behalf in the meantime. A better response would be to regulate the amount of embryos created and to require immediate fresh transfer of all created embryos. But until or unless we arrive to that point, we must be equipped to save these innocent lives from a system that has failed them.

Just as premarital sex and extramarital sex, are denounced by the church and yet produce children whose lives the church would protect, the church should oppose the destruction of these artificially created children, regardless of their opinion on the original method of creation.

The most curious argument I've heard is the notion that in Embryo Adoption, the woman separates herself from her husband, and herself from her own womb, thereby allowing herself to be used. Brian Caufield, writer for Human Life Review, writes

to separate this inherent capacity [to become pregnant] from the intimacy of conjugal relations goes too far. It not only separates a wife from her husband, by interposing another impregnating party; it separates a woman from herself if she uses her womb merely as an instrument for the good end of saving a life. (source)

Bishop Sgreccia says:
The idea of [embryo] adoption, per se, has an end which is good. Theologians say it is licit, but there is an extremely high rate of failure. It seems that out of 100 attempts to implant, only three or four would work. We know this because of experiments on animals. About 90 percent don't work because when you unfreeze an embryo, it dies. Or it won't implant itself.

Even if it does work, there are no guarantees that the child won't have serious handicaps. The risk of handicap increases the longer an embryo is frozen: one or two years or five years.

Can we really counsel women to do this? It would mean counseling heroism. Many attempts would fail. Also, you would have to do it at certain periods of the month when the uterus is ready. And if the baby is born handicapped, she must still take care of it, because it would be cruel to abort it.

The issue is one big question mark. The point is, we should never have gone down this road to begin with. It is full of problems. (source)
To begin with, the mention of the risk for special needs again proses a logical breakdown with other high-risk cases where the church would call for full-term pregnancy and delivery.

Furthermore, as an Embryo Adoption mom-to-be, I fail to see how I could be instrumentalized against my will. If I am whole-heartedly and with the full consent of my husband, submitting my body and we our marriage to this process, we can hardly be called separated instruments. We have carefully considered the risks and sacrifices involved in Embryo Adoption. However, neither are reason enough to refrain from doing the right thing, in this case, answering God's call and blessing to grow our family and our hearts while also saving children in need.

There are many Catholic theologians who do support Embryo Adoption, among my favorite being Dr. William May, professor of moral theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and family. He argues that adoption is about providing a proper home for a child, and the only proper home for an embryo is a womb.(source).

His former student, Geoffrey Surtees, separates embryo adoption from procreation entirely (and therefore the Church's mandates on it) arguing that procreation took place during the already-completed IVF, and concluding
Respectfully disagreeing with Msgr. Smith's opinion on this matter, it appears evident, upon consideration of the many details, that a married couple who steps forth to rescue a frozen embryo through adoption is acting in and with the mind of the Church; indeed, as far as reason and faith are concerned, there seems nothing illicit about such an action. On the contrary: "To rescue and adopt this unborn and raise the child," as the original question stated, is nothing less than an extraordinary work of mercy. It reveals both a profound respect for the sanctity of human life and the powerful witness of love; a witness our culture of death so desperately needs to behold. (source)
I appreciate both of these gentlemens' sentiments. However, I would like to insist that we are not martyrs or heroes. Yes, what we're doing is a sacrifice. But our children are not a project or a cause or a political statement. As much as I believe that saving their lives is the right thing to do both conceptually and specifically, we are no less than completely committed to them as our children wholly loved for that reason alone. We at most consider ourselves obedient and blessed for this opportunity to become parents.

It is my prayer that as brilliant minds and faithful servants discuss this issue this weekend, that the Church would come to the conclusion that despite valid and legitimate objections to their origin, these children do exist and therefore are endowed with a right to life and deserving of our advocacy, protection and service.


  1. Your discussion is awesome! You brought up such solid we researched information, article info and presented both sides very well. Great job! As you know I am both a Catholic and an IVFer and have had a lot of my own struggles through the process. You presented info in a very compassionate and nonjudgemental light and I just wanted to let you know what a good job you did. I have read some of Dr May's exerpts when making some decisions. Our own Catholic priest is very pro - embryo adoption. The only way my husband and I were okay with doing IVF was knowing that for whatever reason we had leftover embryos from this cycle or another one, we could provide them to another couple who would give them every shot of being transfered and carried to develop into future children of God. I couldn't do IVF knowing we would destroy any left over embryos or just let them sit for years. In fact, that is why I contacted your organization long before we did our IVF cycle, because I wanted to know our options. I am so happy that you are going through this process. What a beautiful thing to do.

  2. Jen, I've been a silent reader for some time now, having made your "acquaintance" from All You Who Hope's blog. She and I have started an infertility support group together at our church.

    My husband and I are staunch Catholics who have made the decision to persue embryonic adoption with Nightlight as well. My husband is currently deployed - all adoption proceedings will be started sometime after his return.

    I want to thank you for providing such well thought-out entries, not just these last few days, but time and time again. My personal research has brought me into contact with most, if not all, of the articles you quoted here. You are extremely articulate and I've enjoyed experiencing your journey through/with you.

    All my prayers go to you over these next few months!

  3. this is great info. i did a lot of this type of research in my specific faith sources before we did IVF. we were extremely fortunate and God answered our prayers of just 'give us the family You desire' and we only had 2 no pre-transfer deaths...just 2 embryos and we transferred both...1 implanted and she is 13 mos old now. the other did not implant. We didn't have any additional to freeze since none of my eggs fertilized except for 2. we were worried at the time but now we know was God's hand.

  4. Great Post! Thank you so much for all the research you have presented here. I agree with everyone else that it was so useful and helpful!

    I am anxious to see what they decide! I hope they make the right decision too!