Follow-up: Rescuing Frozen Embryos

E. Christian Brugger
Spring 2010
Reproduced with Permission
Culture of Life Foundation

This question is very insightful and well formulated. Although I believe that embryo adoption is in principle legitimate and even can be praiseworthy, the problem of unintended harmful consequences is very real.

Rome, March 31, 2010 (
Follow-up: Rescuing Frozen Embryos
The March 17 column "Rescuing Frozen Embryos" elicited this response from a reader:

Question: Thank you sincerely for your recent extensive article on embryo adoption and its morality. I was looking for further on comment on a possible quandary I see in this debate. In considering embryo adoption I am wondering if an unintended consequence to the promotion of embryo adoption would be the creation of a market for embryos.

Considering if the embryos currently frozen are less and less viable over time, maybe those considering embryo adoption would eventually want embryos frozen for less and less time. So the IVF industry could possibly see the opening of a new market and embryos would be created solely to sell in adoption. The issue of those already long frozen embryos would not be addressed. In fact the problem could become larger.

I am definitely not an expert on this issue and so would greatly appreciate your insights on this. Thank you so much for all the work you do in defense of life. PAR; Naperville, Illinois.

E. Christian Brugger, a Senior Fellow of Ethics at the Culture of Life Foundation and associate professor of moral theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado, offers this response.

Answer: This question is very insightful and well formulated. Although I believe that embryo adoption is in principle legitimate and even can be praiseworthy, the problem of unintended harmful consequences is very real.

It is possible that if large numbers of people begin to choose embryo adoption, it will lead to the creation of more human embryos created by IVF and abandoned by their parents. This could happen for several reasons.

First, couples reticent about choosing in vitro fertilization (IVF), because they doubt the legitimacy of freezing their "spare" embryonic children, might say to themselves, "Well, our little embryos will be adopted by a loving family," and then go ahead with IVF.

Second, as suggested in the question, if IVF clinics smelled a potential market for abandoned embryos, they might prompt IVF couples to create more embryos than they otherwise would have done, precisely in order to increase the numbers of "extras."

Further, IVF clinics in the United States are almost entirely unregulated. They can create and store as many human embryos as their clients are willing to create and pay for. But the appalling fact that hundreds of thousands of embryos are frozen at those clinics is beginning to draw negative attention, putting pressure on the clinics to begin limiting the numbers of embryos they create.

If a market develops, these clinics might fashion themselves doing a service to the community by storing and making available abandoned embryos, giving the sordid practice a sheen of social legitimacy. If the U.S. adopted laws such as already exist in Germany, Italy and even Switzerland, which limit the number of embryos permitted to be created in any IVF cycle to those only that can be implanted (Germany and Italy also prohibit freezing embryos), then the second and third harm envisaged here could be mitigated.

Moreover, if large numbers of Catholics start adopting abandoned embryos, they (or their health care providers) will necessarily need to enter into contractual agreements with IVF clinics in order to have the embryos transferred for implantation. (I think it would be a bad idea to have the IVF clinic doctors perform the implantations.) This contracting, not evil in itself, could give the impression that the Catholic Church is complicit in the evil of IVF. If Catholic bishops soberly assessed the situation and judged that such contracting would cause scandal in the formal sense (i.e., be a cause of people beginning to believe that the evil actions in question are legitimate or choosing those actions), they might justifiably render a pastoral judgment that Catholics should not engage in embryo adoption.

Catholics, therefore, who believe that Jesus might be calling them to rescue one or more of our brother and sister embryos have a duty to factor into their considerations reasonable measures to minimize the possibility that these harmful side effects will occur.

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