Frozen in Time: Catholic Ethicists Discuss the Fate of the Estimated 1 Million Human Embryos on Ice

One of the grave evils of the IVF industry is that ‘Rip Van Winkle’ human embryos are trapped in suspended animation.

The Catholic Church has long condemned the IVF process and the production of these embryos, but those warnings have gone unheeded, and there are now an estimated 1 million frozen embryos in the U.S. alone.
The Catholic Church has long condemned the IVF process and the production of these embryos, but those warnings have gone unheeded, and there are now an estimated 1 million frozen embryos in the U.S. alone. (photo: Corona Borealis / Shutterstock)

Imagine learning that you were conceived a year or two after the woman who gave birth to you and that you had been trapped in a clinic freezer for three decades before coming into the world. This is now the fate of twins who were born in October 2022, after being conceived in 1992 through in vitro fertilization (IVF), frozen as embryos and then adopted.

Philip and Rachel Ridgeway adopted twins Lydia and Timothy, in addition to four children conceived naturally. The Christian couple felt embryo adoption was in God’s plan for them, telling CNN that they wanted “the ones that had been waiting the longest.”

One fertility specialist likened these babies to Rip Van Winkle, the villager who slumbered in the forest for 20 years in the famous short story by Washington Irving. However, these little Rip Van Winkles faced a more perilous path to awakening, as many embryos created through IVF are discarded, used for medical experimentation, or die in the thawing-and-implantation process. Some have even died due to mechanical problems with the freezer, as occurred in one clinic in Cleveland.

The Catholic Church has long condemned the IVF process and the production of these embryos, but those warnings have gone unheeded, and there are now an estimated 1 million frozen embryos in the U.S. alone — giving rise to profound and continuing moral dilemmas. 

In 1996, Pope John Paul II made an “appeal to the conscience of the world’s scientific authorities and in particular to doctors, that the production of human embryos be halted, taking into account that there seems to be no morally licit solution regarding the human destiny of the thousands and thousands of ‘frozen’ embryos which are and remain the subjects of essential rights and should therefore be protected by law as human persons.” 

In the 2008 document Dignitas Personae, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith addressed the question of what to do with the existing frozen embryos, rejecting “proposals to use these embryos for research or for the treatment of disease” because they treat the embryos “as mere ‘biological material’ and result in their destruction.”

They also rejected the proposal “that these embryos could be put at the disposal of infertile couples” because the practice “would also lead to other problems of a medical, psychological and legal nature.” 

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote in the 1987 document Donum Vitae that even an IVF and embryo-transfer procedure that is “free of any compromise with the abortive practice of destroying embryos and with masturbation remains a technique which is morally illicit because it deprives human procreation of the dignity which is proper and connatural to it.”

Addressing the idea of “prenatal adoption” in order to save the embryos left frozen in IVF clinics, Dignitas Personae called the proposal “praiseworthy with regard to the intention of respecting and defending human life,” but concluded that it “presents however various problems.”

In a press conference shortly following the release of Dignitas Personae, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, head of the Pontifical Academy of Life at the time, said that the Vatican was not ruling out embryo adoption entirely, but was leaning towards that position due to prospective parents being forced to participate in an immoral process.


Illicit Act or Radical Hospitality?

In a 2009 letter shortly following Dignitas Personae, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops acknowledged “serious moral concerns” regarding embryo adoption, “particularly as it requires the wife in the adopting couple to receive into her womb an embryonic child who was not conceived through her bodily union with her husband.” 

The bishops wrote that “the Church’s teaching authority has acknowledged the moral concerns associated with this practice. The terrible plight of abandoned frozen embryos underscores the need for our society to end practices such as IVF that regularly produce so many ‘spare’ or unwanted human beings.”

Dr. G. Kevin Donovan, a bioethicist and former director of the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University Medical School, told the Register that in the discussion of the fate of these frozen embryos, the dilemma is that “a wrong has occurred in bringing them to life, and it would require another moral wrong to put them in a situation where their life could be continued safely.” In light of this, “You have to say, ‘Which is the greater wrong here: to leave them perpetually frozen or to proceed with implantation, which itself is not the proper pathway of procreation?’”

He believed that there could be a scenario where embryo adoption was “set up so that it would be an act of pure charity” and “decrease the self-interest” of the couples involved to exclude those seeking embryo adoption as a treatment for infertility, something forbidden in Dignitas Humanae, and to avoid any attempt to select specific sex characteristics or other traits of the child. He said that such a scenario “wouldn’t get entirely around the problem of what we’re doing is an unnatural and therefore illicit act, but it saves a life.”

Kent Lasnoski, a bioethicist and associate professor of theology at Wyoming Catholic College, told the Register that he sees embryo adoption as an act of “radical hospitality” that could potentially be done in line with the teachings of the Church. However, he said that due to the current lack of clarity on the issue, it is a “safer moral position” for Catholic couples to refrain from actually participating in embryo adoption while it is debated in theological circles. 

Regarding objections about the separation of procreation from conjugal intimacy, Lasnoski said that, in his view, by the time a couple contemplates embryo adoption, “procreation has already happened in its most essential definition,” and it has been “done in a way that already separated the act from the conjugal gift.” He said that the “object of the act” of embryo adoption is not “procreating through inappropriate means,” but rather “a work of mercy” in providing the conditions for the embryo to live.

Roughly 80% of embryos survive the thawing process, according to CNN. Lasnoski said that the survival rate for thawing “depends on what protocols are used for the thawing process” and “on the health of the mother and the age of the mother and a lot of different factors.” He saw that risk as “proportionate to the amazing good of that child having a chance to be gestated and born and live a full life and come to know the Lord Jesus and live forever and be baptized and receive the sacraments.”

Father Tad Pacholczyk, director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, expressed a somewhat different opinion. 

He told the Register via email that be believes Catholics “should never be involved in embryo adoption” because of the teaching in Dignitas Personae. He sees the practice as “likely always morally unacceptable.”

Father Pacholczyk highlighted “concerns regarding the embryo-thawing process itself, as it appears to be a step by which many embryos perish, not to mention the implantation step, which often fails, resulting in significant loss of life for the entire procedure of embryo adoption.” 

He made an analogy between that and a scenario in which there was “a school with 100 children being held hostage by terrorists, and you devised a plan that would predictably result in the immediate rescue of 60 of the children but the deaths of the remaining 40 versus simply waiting for a very long or even indeterminate amount of time but knowing that all 100 remained safe and alive in the school, even as you sent in food to sustain them (or liquid nitrogen to sustain the embryos).” 

Could a plan resulting in the deaths of 60 children, he asked, “really be framed as ‘the right path to take?’” 


Artificial Wombs?

Father Pacholczyk said that “it will probably always be the case that there will be no morally licit solution regarding the fate of frozen embryos” unless the Church were to one day sanction artificial wombs, which he called “improbable.”

Donovan said that if artificial wombs became a reality, “many of the same objections might be raised to this artificial process and environment” as those raised regarding embryo adoption. He said that regardless of any such technological development, the embryos “are still never going to be produced and gestated normally” because “of the way they've already been produced.”

Lasnoski said that in the case of an artificial womb, a new injustice would be created since the embryos are “not going to be gestated by their genetic mother, they’re not going to be gestated by any human,” and “that whole process of gestation is a loving relationship between the mother and the child” that is unjust to deny a child. 

Father Pacholczyk also raised the concern that the option to rescue abandoned embryos, whether through an artificial womb or an adoptive mother, could “give IVF clinic operators an excuse to produce and cryogenically store even more embryos (they can always be ‘rescued’ later).” 

Lasnoski referenced a historical analogy to address concerns about cooperation with the IVF industry. He compared rescuing these embryos, captive in a frozen state, to the Church’s tradition of rescuing captives in the 12th and 13th centuries. At this time, he said, there were “two religious orders, Mercedarians and the Trinitarians, who would raise money and then go to Muslim countries and buy back Christians who had been enslaved in piracy or in wars.”

If members of the order couldn’t afford to buy someone back, they would “put themselves in jail in exchange for whoever they couldn’t buy out.” In these orders, people were “willing to buy back and put their body on the line for those people,” and the Church officially supported the practice. 

These rescues did raise prices for Christian slaves, he said, and “in a certain material sense, participate and cooperate in the evil of the Muslim piracy and enslavement of Christians. Nonetheless, the Church supported it and said this was a noble thing to do.” Similarly, Lasnoski posited, couples could voice their objections to the IVF process that brought about the evils of the existing frozen embryos, while being willing to put their bodies and money on the line to save them. 


Staying Vocal on the Issue

Father Pacholczyk said that Catholics should be directing efforts towards “shutting down the assembly-line production and freezing of human embryos that is taking place each day in every major city in the U.S.” He said the Church needs “to do a better job of teaching and explaining why in vitro fertilization itself is always morally unacceptable.” 

He said that there should also be attempts to pass “damage-control” laws, like those in Germany and Italy, that “restrict the number of embryos that may be produced during a cycle of IVF to a maximum of three, none of which may be frozen, and all of which are implanted into the mother.”

Lasnoski said that scenarios where children are born after decades of being frozen point to “the gravity of the injustice that we’re faced with: that there have been people enslaved on ice, making money for the fertility clinics for 30 or more years.” He said that it is becoming “more and more important for the Church to clarify its position” on the issue, and “we owe it to these children to get this argument figured out.”

Donovan also saw the urgency of the Church speaking more clearly on the issue. 

“To not decide is, to a certain extent, to decide because we know that there is no real likelihood that they will be kept frozen and potentially viable in perpetuity,” he said. “When you have an imperfect, uncertain way to try and save these frozen embryos as an act of charity, isn’t failure to act going to be seen as an even greater failure of charity?”