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‘Souls on Ice’: With Frozen Embryo Technology, Life’s Sanctity Is Lost

Moral theologians decry procedure as 'buying and selling' of human beings

BY Brian Caulfield

January 4-10, 1998 Issue | Posted 1/4/98 at 2:00 PM

 

NEW YORK—A new form of “adoption” is not only unethical, it may run afoul of anti-slavery laws, said a prominent moral theologian.

The children in the adoption are frozen embryos and couples have been paying bargain rates—less than $3,000—to have one or more of these new human beings implanted in the woman's womb. In keeping with the commercial aspect the couple gets to pick the pedigree of the embryo from profile charts of the “parents,” in this case the egg and sperm donors.

Although the fee charged may not be written up as the sale of embryos by the doctors, the whole procedure sounds very much like a traffic in human persons, said Msgr. William Smith, one of the nation's leading moral theologians and a professor at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y.

“It's against the law to buy and sell human beings. That was settled in this country after the Civil War,” he said in an interview with the REGISTER. “But I'm not surprised this is happening in our culture. People think that they can do what they want as long as they can pay for it. As a people we have been generally against the sale of organs, but this leap frogs that whole issue.”

This brave new world of “souls on ice” is well under way, and a leader in the market is Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City, affiliated with Ivy League Columbia University. It is not the first time the medical facility has entered a potentially lucrative form of bio-technology. It was one of a handful of centers around the country chosen to test the abortion drug RU-486 for U.S. consumption. The Federal Drug Administration is expected to approve the deadly drug concoction next year.

The difference between this new form of fertility procedure, or “adoption,” and the more familiar practice of in vitro fertilization (IVF) and implantation is that in the latter case a couple seeking the implantation of an embryo starts from scratch, so to speak, using their own sperm and eggs or those of carefully screened donors. The adoption method is a direct outgrowth of this IVF practice. The fertilized eggs that are not implanted in IVF are frozen and stored. These “pre-mades” are then chosen by couples for implantation. The term “adoption,” used euphemistically by fertility professionals, is not far off the mark since the couple receives an already living, albeit formerly frozen, human being.

The Church's stand on the issue is clear, though ignored, by the bio-pioneers. The first step, in vitro fertilization, is illicit, said the Church, and each subsequent step is also illicit in itself as well as wrong as part of the process.

The definitive document of bio technologies, Donum Vitae, published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in 1987, was prescient in scope, addressing issues that were not much debated at the time, and laying down a firm standard for judging technologies. The procreation of new human life must be the result of an exclusive conjugal act between husband and wife, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which draws upon the CDF document:

“Techniques that entail the dissociation of husband and wife, by the intrusion of a person other than the couple (donation of sperm or ovum, surrogate uterus) are gravely immoral. These techniques … infringe the child's right to be born of a father and mother known to him and bound to each other by marriage.… Techniques involving only the married couple … dissociate the sexual act from the procreative act” and places technology above concerns about the origin and destiny of human persons (2376-2377).

The frozen embryo procedure raises a host of legal questions, as well. Experts say no federal or state laws directly regulate the freezing of embryos or their “adoption.”

“Many aspects are involved,” said John Margand, a New York medical malpractice lawyer and board member of the Legal Center for the Defense of Life.

“There's family law, covering the custody of the child and possible siblings who are children of the biological parents [the egg and sperm donors], and the fact that the biological mother is different from the birth mother. There is contract law [covering] what agreements have been made between donors and clinics, and clinics and the ‘adopting’ couple. Then there is property law, which involves a whole different set of rules. Who owns the embryo? That's just the legal aspect, without even considering the morality of the practice.”

Embryo adoption “is another bizarre application of technology, which underlines the truth of Cardinal [Joseph] Ratzinger's remarks” said Msgr. Smith, referring to the statement last year by the prefect of the CDF about the moral status of frozen embryos. “He said that we are condemning them to an absurd fate and there is no perfectly satisfactory solution to the problem. The whole arena of in vitro fertilization is a path we should not have gone down in the first place.”

The same point is made by Clarke Forsythe, attorney and president of the Chicago-based Americans United for Life, which develops strategies for litigation and legislation in the areas of abortion and euthanasia.

“The problems start with the creation of excess embryos. You don't need to freeze them if you don't make them,” he said. “They are human beings, offspring of human beings, and individual members of our species, and by and large they are mistreated—frozen, stored, discarded, abandoned, allowed to die.”

A crisis hit England last year when the government announced that it would cut off money for storing embryos. Some suggested destroying the embryos, arguing that they were “potential” lives. Others argued for letting the embryos thaw and die. Others said the only moral thing to do was to find women to accept the embryos into their wombs. Many well-intentioned female pro-lifers offered to rescue the embryos and bring them to term.

Msgr. Smith said that the Church was almost forced out of the debate from the beginning with its prohibition of each procedure: in vitro fertilization, the freezing of embryos, and their implantation. This sounded irrelevant to both those on the cutting edge of technology and others who sought the “compassionate” way.

Msgr. Smith's own opinion is that the best course of action in this difficult situation was to allow the embryos to die.

They would die anyway if kept refrigerated long enough, and keeping them alive through refrigeration certainly qualifies as “extraordinary” means that the Church teaches do not have to be used to keep a person alive, he states, adding that removing embryos from extraordinary life support is preferable to violating the moral law by implanting them in a woman's womb.

The Church's teaching on the sanctity of life however, is not likely to guide physicians like Mark Sauer, who heads Columbia-Presbyterian's infertility clinic and is developing a growing market for “adoptions.” Since the “pre-made” embryo costs only $2,750, as opposed to the more than $16,000 that IVF and implantation could run, in his own eyes he is making an expensive procedure affordable for couples of lesser means.

In a New York Times story, Sauer said he freezes embryos for later “adoption” only after an infertile woman who has contracted for implantation changes her mind. The fertile female donor at that point has multiple ova and, Sauer said, “it would be a waste of eggs not to retrieve them.”

He takes the donor's eggs and unites them with sperm from a sperm bank. The resulting embryos are frozen and made available for adoption.

Not only are the new embryos placed in a precarious position, the female egg donors also go through a potentially dangerous hormone treatment. A drug injected to stimulate their ovaries sometimes does the job too well and pushes up estrogen to crisis levels, with attendant fluid retention. The Times article reported that egg donors, in severe cases, have had kidney failure and, in rare cases, have died.

These tragic incidents have not stopped the infertility doctors, nor have they been cause for regulation or legislation. The infertility business, much like the abortion industry, goes largely untouched by restrictions. This has led pro-life activists to direct efforts on this new front.

“This is just another reason to keep up the pressure on Columbia-Presbyterian,” said Christopher Slattery, director of Expectant Mother Care in New York, which yearly counsels more than 1,000 abortion-bound women in two centers.

He has organized a dozen rallies outside the medical facility and leafleted the Columbia University homecoming football game this fall in protest of the RU-486 testing.

“They are basically in the baby killing business and now are entering the baby selling business, and they'll do whichever makes more money,” Slattery said of the medical center. “It's sad that the medical and scientific community has been silent about these new atrocities against human life.”

Brian Caulfield writes from New York.