National Catholic Register

Commentary

Adopting Embryos: Why Not?

BY Janet E. Smith

April 5-11, 2009 Issue | Posted 3/27/09 at 2:51 PM

 

While I generally am loathe to disagree with my good friends Monica Migliorino Miller (“Extremely Insightful,” March 15) and Donald DeMarco (“When Ethics Hits the Wall,” Feb. 22), I must weigh in with those who believe that embryo adoption is a moral way to deal with embryonic human beings who are in a state of frozen imprisonment. 

While Dignitas Personae (The Dignity of the Person) speaks against embryo adoption, at the press conference at which Dignitas Personae was promulgated, Archbishop Rino Fisichella announced that embryo adoption was still an open question, as did a question-and-answer sheet posted on the USCCB.org website.

I am relieved that it is still an open question.

I can understand the concerns of those who do not want to have any even apparent cooperation with the in vitro industry. Yet, I believe embryo adoption is an act of wonderful charity that rescues little human beings — orphans, as Dignitas Personae calls them — who otherwise will languish and die or be killed for experimentation.

Many scholars use principles articulated in Donum Vitae (The Gift of Life) to argue against embryo adoption: Donum Vitae maintains that spouses must become parents only through each other; it maintains that surrogacy is wrong; and it maintains that freezing embryos is wrong.

These principles, however, were invoked against the whole process of in vitro fertilization; there is no reason to think Cardinal Ratzinger had embryo adoption in mind.

Nor is there any reason to think Pope John Paul II had embryo adoption in mind when he remarked that there is “no morally licit solution regarding the human destiny” of frozen embryos. He may have believed the only available solutions were keeping them frozen, thawing them and letting them die, or donating them for research.

When Donum Vitae speaks against spouses becoming parents with any one other than each other, I believe it means that spouses should have sexual intercourse and conceive a child with no one other than their spouse. Certainly, spouses adopt children and become parents through adoption. I am one of those who think that gestation is a very different process from conception and that it is moral for a woman to gestate another woman’s child, much as it is moral for her to breast-feed another woman’s child.

I cannot see how gestating a child not conceived with one’s spouse breaks the marital bond in any way.

Couldn’t some forms of “surrogacy” be permissible? Consider this scenario: A pregnant woman discovers she has cancer and could survive the cancer with immediate treatment; otherwise, both she and her unborn child will die.

Suppose it were possible to transfer the unborn child to the womb of her sister or friend so that she was able to receive the treatment and the child could live. Would we not welcome such a procedure?

Is freezing embryos always wrong? Again, consider a pregnant woman with cancer. If her embryonic child could be removed and frozen and then implanted after her treatment for the cancer, wouldn’t we be thrilled?

We already allow a machine, an incubator, to gestate very premature babies. It is not inconceivable that someday machines will be able to gestate embryos from the very earliest stages of their existence. It is moral to do all we can to care for babies who cannot come to term in their mothers’ wombs. If we could gestate frozen embryonic orphans in an incubator, shouldn’t we do so?

Furthermore, I believe it would be much better for a real live woman to gestate embryonic human beings than to have machines do so. I believe a woman who offers to gestate a frozen embryo is a hero; she is saving a life; she is liberating a captive.

The possibility of “embryo adoption” is quite radically new; it will be some time, I believe, before we are able to evaluate all the arguments — pro and con — against embryo adoption as a solution to “orphan embryos.” But as my remarks above indicate, I think that even if we put an end to in vitro fertilization and the need for some solution to the problem of frozen orphans, embryo adoption may well be a wonderful solution to other pregnancy-related problems.

Janet E. Smith holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at the Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan.