MISSISSAUGA, Ontario – Haley Bentham is 4 years old and lives with her family in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga. Her biological twin sister, Emily (not her real name) is just 9 months old and was born to Kate and Steve Johnson in rural Pennsylvania, not far from Philadelphia.

Welcome to the brave new world of embryo adoption, in which human embryos conceived in laboratory dishes and cryogenically frozen in fertility clinics – leftovers no longer wanted by their biological parents – are implanted into the womb of a surrogate mother who adopts them. It's a world in which twins can be born to different mothers, in different countries and years apart.

Embryo adoption is a growing phenomenon. Emily was one of at least 71 babies born by the end of March after being adopted as embryos through the Fullerton, Calif.-based Snowflakes program. And in April, 18 more women were pregnant with at least 24 more babies adopted as embryos, including a set of triplets.

It is a trend that is likely to continue to grow. In the United States alone, nearly 400,000 “spare” human embryos exist in a weird sort of limbo, frozen in glass straws of liquid nitrogen at minus 320 degrees Fahrenheit and stored in squat aluminum tanks in fertility clinics across the country. That is the “conservative” estimate of the Birmingham, Ala.-based Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology, which surveyed the nation's 430 fertility programs in conjunction with Rand Corp. of Santa Monica, Calif., and released the figures this month.

Each embryo, the size of a grain of sand, looks like a shiny soap bubble under a microscope. Each holds the complete human genome; it is a perfectly unique human individual who, given a womb, could grow into a child.

That is the outcome favored by President George Bush, who, after he banned federal funding in 2001 of further research involving the killing of human embryos for their stem cells, allotted a $1 million public fund to promote embryo adoption.

But Catholic moral theologians are sharply divided over embryo adoption. These are experts who agree on virtually every other issue regarding human life. They believe life begins at conception and recognize the sacred and inviolable status of the human embryo. They agree that in-vitro fertilization is an offense against marriage and God's procreative plan, and see freezing “spare” embryos as a grave offense against their human dignity.

They disagree, however, about how to deal with those that have already been created and frozen.

Germain Grisez, a professor of Christian ethics at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., and author of the book Difficult Moral Questions, firmly favors embryo adoption. Although wrongly conceived, he argues, frozen embryos must be nurtured and protected as the human individuals they are.

The proper place for an embryo is a womb, Grisez argues, and if an embryo's own mother's womb is closed, another woman's generous offer to nurture is not the same as surrogacy – which the Church has clearly condemned – because the adoptive mother intends to keep the baby for herself.

“I'm afraid if we can't accept embryo adoption then we have to go back and examine wet nursing,” Grisez said.

A single woman whose sister dies, leaving behind her frozen embryos, may even have a duty to carry those embryos, he added.

But Msgr. William Smith, a moral theology professor at St. Joseph's Seminary in the Archdiocese of New York, sees embryo adoption as an additional technological trespass against God's procreative plan, tantamount to the artificial conception itself.

He cites Donum Vitae, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's 1987 document on new reproductive technologies, which states, “Those embryos which 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 which can be licitly pursued.”

Embryo adoption is surrogacy, Msgr. Smith maintains, and as such degrades natural family and sexual relationships.

“I am as adamant as anyone about defending the personhood and life of the unborn, but that does not mean we have a free-fire zone,” Msgr. Smith said. “Marriage and family cannot be stepped on as if they are afterthoughts.”

“We must not do evil that good may come of it,” said Brian Scarnecchia, a bioethics professor at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, in agreement. “We cannot end atrocities by partaking in them. We cannot build up a culture of life by adopting the ways of a culture of death.”

In that case, there is no reckoning the “absurd fate” of frozen artificially conceived embryos. Msgr. Smith believes the only licit response is to thaw them from their unnatural (“extraordinary”) cryogenic state and let them die naturally. Not even their biological mother would have a duty to carry them.

What Is Pregnancy?

The debate seems to hinge on the pregnancy itself: Is it a sacred part of procreation that cannot be introduced by technicians and doctors – in which case embryo adoption violates the one-flesh communion of husband and wife? Or is procreation complete upon conception, and pregnancy merely sustenance, like wet nursing?

These are questions Scarnecchia wishes the Church would speak to directly, because he has been approached on more than one occasion by Catholic couples considering embryo adoption. “If it is inherently wrong, no matter how good the intentions, there will be consequences,” he said.

They were questions certainly not considered by the Benthams and thousands of others like them on a technological quest for children. “We didn't even think about the extra embryos at the time,” Karen Bentham said.

The Benthams had been trying to have a child for 10 years by the time Haley and Emily were conceived in a laboratory with the help of Toronto fertility specialists.

Haley was selected out of the nitrogen by the unwitting power of a technician for implantation into her mother's womb, and her brothers and sisters were left behind.

Within a few months after Haley's birth, the Benthams unexpectedly conceived a son naturally. They had finally got their fertility faucet turned on, and they wanted it off. “We had always only wanted two children,” said Karen, 37. “Then, when we had two children we realized it was a handful. It was enough.”

What to do with the five “spare” embryos in the freezer, then? Born-again Christians, the Benthams did not want their “surplus” embryos destroyed for research. “But we didn't want five children, either,” Karen said.

They heard about the Snowflakes program on a Focus on the Family radio show. The agency matched the Benthams with the Johnsons, a couple in their 40s without children because Steve Johnson had been paralyzed in a biking accident.

For about $4,000 the Johnsons signed a contract taking possession of the Benthams’ embryos and had three of them implanted into Kate Johnson. Only Emily survived.

But Karen Bentham said news of the Johnsons’ pregnancy was an “emotional roller coaster” ride she hadn't expected.

At first she was excited to have helped another infertile couple, but then it began to bother her: “It weighed on my heart for some time.” She arranged to meet the Johnsons, hoping to be reassured by a “face-to-face” encounter. “It was awkward,” she said.

Emily's birth hit her genetic mother even harder. “I felt like, ‘That's my baby.’ There's a sense of attachment there,” she said.

Had it not been for her own trouble conceiving and her personal experience of a failed adoption, Bentham said, she may have considered a court battle to regain her child. “It's probably just a matter of time before that [litigation over adopted embryo babies] happens,” she predicted.

Despite the debate about embryo adoption's licitness, there is a consensus among the moral theologians that it is a long way from God's original plans. And it underscores the gravity and depravity of conceiving children in test tubes.

“A barrier is broken,” Msgr. Smith said. “Now, we're in a Never-Never Land, walking through the consequences. We should never have gone down this road.”

Perhaps no one feels that more keenly than people such as Karen Bentham.

“There are times when I think, ‘Oh, what have I done?’” she said. “I'm certainly better than I was before, but I don't know how I'll feel eight years from now and further down the road. I can't see the overall picture.”

Far better, she added, “if we never had to decide at all.”

Celeste McGovern writes from Portland, Oregon.