Adopting Embryos?

New technology creates an interesting moral conundrum for Catholics.

I just read the most fascinating article.

Apparently, the Bush administration is planning to offer nearly one million dollars in federal grant money to promote “embryo adoption.”
You read it right. Embryo adoption.

Apparently, there are tens of thousands of human embryos currently in “cold storage” in the United States. These are actual, fertilized, need-nothing-but-nutrition-to-grow, tiny human persons who were created during their parents’ in vitro fertilization procedures, but are now regarded as “excess” because their parents have had all the children they want. Nobody seems to know what to do with these embryos. There are several options, of course. They could be destroyed. They could be left frozen indefinitely. They could be “used” for stem cell research.

Or they could be implanted into other women and brought to term.

The Bush administration is pushing for the latter, earmarking grants to be given for the express purpose of raising public awareness of the “adoption” option. It seems to me that, once awareness is raised, a lot of infertile couples will be interested in investigating this procedure. It has a lot of advantages over traditional adoption. The adoptive mother would be able to experience pregnancy and childbirth, and the bonding that comes from that experience. The natural mother wouldn’t have experienced the pregnancy and the bonding, and would thus be less likely to change her mind and try to gain custody of the child. And, in a world with long waiting lists for adoptions, tens of thousands of embryos would go a long way to satisfy the demand.

Those are the practical issues. Personally, I’m much more interested in the ethical issues. Because I think there’s a dilly of an ethical dilemma buried in this situation.
On one hand, in vitro fertilization is wrong. Situations like this, in fact, make it abundantly clear why in vitro is wrong. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that, “The act which brings the child into existence is no longer an act by which two persons give themselves to one another, but one that entrusts the life and identity of the embryo into the power of doctors and biologists and establishes the domination of technology over the origin and destiny of the human person.” (CCC 2377) That’s what has happened. Look what it’s left us – tens of thousands of tiny human persons frozen in suspended animation. We hear talk of “destroying” them, of “donating” them to be used for medical research.

This hasn’t exactly enhanced our respect for human life, has it?

So what about a Catholic couple? Say they’re unable to have children. They’re moved by the “plight” of these embryos. They’d like to do what they can to bring one (or several) of them into a full, family life. Would it be licit for the wife to implant some of these eggs into her own uterus? Or would that be participating in in vitro fertilization, and therefore sinful? 

I’m not sure I have the final answer here. But I have some observations.

First of all, it strikes me that it is the fertilization itself that is immoral. It is wrong to “play God” and create life outside of the marital sexual act. But, wrong as it was, that’s already been done. Now what do we do? The life has already been created. Do we finish the process, or do we just leave the life frozen, or destroy it, just because it was started in the wrong way? Is it immoral to implant an already fertilized embryo into the uterus of a woman willing to bring it to term and raise the child as her own?

It seems to me that such an act would be moral, even morally admirable. It would be a rescue situation – rescuing a human person from a non-life in suspended animation. I understand, on that level, why the Bush administration is encouraging it. It’s a very pro-life thing to do.

But here’s what bothers me. This is a heroic thing to do in an extraordinary circumstance. But I’m afraid that, if it’s seen as the “perfect solution” for infertility, it will be more likely to become the norm. The demand could fuel the supply. If infertile couples start clamoring for fertilized eggs, it will help to further “institutionalize” the practice of in vitro fertilization. 

If in vitro fertilization were going to stop tomorrow, I know what I’d do. I’d encourage every woman with a husband and functioning uterus to “adopt” one of these embryos. But in vitro isn’t going away. So what now? “If we can’t beat ’em, join ‘em?” Do we go into business with the “fertilizers”? Should we open “Embryonic Adoption Agencies,” indefinitely striving to finish the process the doctors and biologists have wrongly started? 

I honestly don’t know.

I always like to end a column with a neat little answer. But I don’t have one here. The best I can do is to open the discussion. I’m anxious to hear what the real experts have to say.

Because, to me, this looks like a heck of a conundrum.