A Brief Defense of Frozen Embryo Adoption
A Moral Analysis

Helen Watt
Reproduced with Permission

Is it ever right to "rescue" a frozen human embryo? Some Catholic writers hold that frozen embryos may be "rescued" or "adopted" by a woman who is not the genetic mother, but who is willing to gestate them. Others, while recognizing that this may offer the only hope of postnatal life for these embryos, claim that such a choice is intrinsically immoral. A woman should not become pregnant in this nonsexual way.

In defending, albeit with some uncertainty, the 'rescue' of abandoned frozen embryos, I am not defending all forms of rescuefor example, the use of surrogate mothers who plan to give up the child after birth. Pregnancy is not just another way of nurturing a child, like breastfeeding a baby. Being a wet-nurse does not make someone a mother, and has never been seen as morally wrong in itself. Postnatal care of a child, including breastfeeding, can be shared without too many problems, whether practical or moral.

In contrast, pregnancy is normally caused by intercourse, while becoming pregnant with another woman's child requires a clinical procedure. Pregnancy has a specifically maternal significance: a public meaning which, in the normal case, relates both to the child's origin end to care of the child afterbirth. Through pregnancy and birth, a child is publicly established as the child of one woman and, by means of her commitment to her husband, as her husband's child as well. The 'givenness' of natural parenthood is important to a child's sense of identity, as the problems so often experienced by adopted children and adults bear witness. While it is not wrong to give up a child for adoption, for compelling reasons, it would be wrong to conceive a child deliberately for the purpose of doing this. In the same way, it is wrong to become pregnant with another woman's child with the aim of giving the child up after birth. One should not deliberately become a mother -- genetic or gestational -- without a commitment to the child's future care.

If a child has already been conceived, may it be gestated by an unrelated woman who will raise it as her own? I will begin with an argument against embryo adoption, based on one advanced by Mary Geach.1

Dr. Geach describes embryo adoption as a choice opposed to reproduction integrity: a separation of elements that should be held together in the marital act. In this act, a woman makes herself available (if she is fertile) to become pregnant. Of course, sex directly causes only the initiation of pregnancy: any subsequent positioning of the embryo is caused by the mother and embryo, not the mother and father. However, both the initiation of pregnancy, which normally takes place in the fallopian tube, and the continuation of pregnancy in the womb are events the woman should be willing, or not unwilling, to have occur when she has sex.

Just as it is wrong to prevent conception, it is also wrong to prevent implantation, even if one plans to have the embryo transferred to another woman by means of embryo flushing. Such acts violate reproductive integrity, and are opposed to the virtue of marital chastity. The same is true of the choice to have a pregnancy initiated by nonsexual means, whether by artificial insemination or by transfer of an existing embryo. These choices fragment reproductive integrity by separating what should be held together, in much the same way as masturbation separates sexual pleasure and sexual union. Both artificial insemination and "embryo rescue" are immoral, in Dr. Geach's view, as nonsexual ways of becoming pregnant.

Against this position, I would argue that a woman's intention in permitting embryo transfer is significantly different from her intention either in the case of marital sex or that of artificial insemination. In the last two cases, her intention is, or can be, that a child be generated inside her body. In the case of embryo transfer, her intention is to have a child transferred to her body. Is it therefore so obvious that embryo transfer, as opposed to artificial insemination, is a perverse variation on the generative act? Why is embryo transfer not sufficiently removed from the generative act to make it, not a perversion of that act, but something else entirely? And while it would be wrong to conceive a child with the intention that another woman gestate it, is this not because one would then be planning in advance to fragment the maternal role -- like a woman who conceives a child with the aim of giving it up for adoption?

Moreover, what should we say about the genetic mother of frozen embryos? Does she not have a moral responsibility to have her embryos transferred to her body? And if she does this, will she not become pregnant by nonsexual means, albeit with her own existing child? Or what should we say about an attempt to remove an ectopic embryo from a pregnant woman's body and replace it in her uterus? Before the embryo is re-implanted, such a woman is no more pregnant than any other woman who has had her embryo removed. Is the choice to have the embryo re-implanted, which could be made separately from the choice to have it removed, a perverse variation on the marital act? To complicate matters, we could imagine that the woman originally became pregnant with a child genetically not her own, for example, after in vitro fertilization (IVF) using another woman's ovum.

There are, it is true, important differences between these cases and that of embryo adoption. In the case of ectopic pregnancy, the woman who chooses to have her embryo transferred to her uterus does not become pregnant for the first time with that embryo. In the case of the genetic IVF mother who has her own embryo transferred, she is, at least, already a mother, who has maternal responsibilities to the embryo. Moreover, like the mother of the ectopic embryo, she has a health interest herself in giving birth to that child: the present separation of mother end child is not a healthy state for either.

In contrast, embryo adoption is a way of assuming, not continuing, maternal responsibility for the child one adopts. Nor is there any reproductive health interest to lessen the disvalue attached to becoming pregnant in this way. Nonetheless, if we allow embryo transfer in the case of ectopic pregnancy and/or that of the genetic IVF mother, we must admit that it is not always wrong to become pregnant by nonsexual means.

The woman who adopts an embryo becomes a mother by means of a clinical procedure. This is not, of course, the ideal way to become the mother of a child. However, we should remember that postnatal adoption is also far from ideal. In the case of postnatal adoption, birth lacks the significance it should have with regard to future care, while retaining its significance with regard to the child's origin. In contrast, in the case of prenatal adoption, birth has its normal significance with regard to future care, but loses its normal significance with regard to origin. Ideally genetic, gestational, and social motherhood should all go together: one should not plan in advance of conception to separate these aspects of motherhood. However, it is, perhaps, only a genetic mother that one should never become except by sexual means.

It might be objected that the division of biological (that is, genetic and gestational) motherhood is more serious than the division of biological and postnatal motherhood, since it falsifies what has always been an absolutely reliable sign of origin. While throughout history women have cared for other women's children, the significance of birth as a sign of maternal origin was never in dispute until now. One might argue that the natural significance of pregnancy and birth must be protected, as must the genetic mother's willingness to assume maternal responsibility for her child. To encourage maternal commitment may be more important early in the mother-child relationship than after the woman has bonded with the child. For this reason, one might argue that the mother's role in gestating the child is morally irreplaceable, to prepare her for the postnatal period when she is hard to replace, and will not want to be replaced. However, this still leaves us confronting situations where a woman is already gestating a child who is genetically not her own. Such a woman seems to have all the rights and duties of any gestational mother, including the duty to have an ectopic embryo transferred to her womb, if this can be easily done.

Care for a child after birth may be shared with other people, at least to some extent. In contrast, pregnancy is a more exclusive and private relationship, establishing a bond between the parents and child before the child's more public life. Pregnancy is a sign of the uniqueness of the parents' relationship to the child. However, it should be remembered that embryo adoption does not involve the use of surrogate mothers, since a woman who adopts a frozen embryo thereby assumes all maternal responsibility for that child. Perhaps, therefore, the meaning of pregnancy in terms of the uniqueness of the parent-child relationship would be sufficiently protected.

Despite the importance of encouraging maternal responsibility for a genetic child, there are situations in which this responsibility may rightly be relinquished. A mother of IVF embryos who develops cancer might be excused from having her embryos transferred, at least if someone else is willing to assume responsibility for them. However, it would normally be wrong to have another woman gestate and bring up one's own genetic child. This being so, it would seem to be wrong to approach an IVF mother for permission to do what she should do herself.

If the mother has already abandoned the embryo (for example, because she is an ovum donor, or already has an IVF baby), then the situation is different. There would still tee the problem for the would-be adoptive parents of making clear their opposition to IVF, at the same time as they are asking to adopt an IVF embryo. They might, for example, tell the IVF doctor, "We don't agree with how these children were created, but we want to give them a chance now they are here. But we don't want you to ask any woman to abandon her embryos. We only want embryos who are already abandoned." The doctor might see this statement in a rather cynical light, especially if the couple were infertile. It would, however, be a way of confronting the doctor with the way embryos are treated in his clinic: the lack of concern shown towards them by doctor and parents alike. Embryos who are not immediately destroyed often face years of suspended animation, and/or death by exposure when their storage time expires.

It might be objected that it is only through experimentation on embryos that doctors have learned how to freeze and thaw embryos. Would it not be scandalous to make use of these skills now, even to save an embryo's life? Here we might think of the Nazi hypothermia experiments: If the Nazi doctors were still in medical practice, would it be morally permissible to make use of their skills to save hypothermia victims? On the face of it, this would be hard to defend, as it would give the impression that these doctors' skills, however acquired, are now valued and accepted. However, it might make a difference if the people saved were the very people the doctors endangered in the first place. In this case, we would be saying not "You have acquired useful skills, which we need at this point," but rather, "You have endangered these people's lives: the least you can do is save them now."

Embryo adoption is a difficult issue, which needs more exploration. Opponents of the practice will point to the clause in Donum vitae which states that embryos who are not transferred to their mothers have "no possibility of their being offered safe means of survival which can be licitly pursued" (I.5). However, those who see embryo adoption as immoral must take a position with regard to other nonsexual ways of causing pregnancy, such as embryo transfer to the genetic mother, a practice not condemned in Donum vitae. Whatever our views on embryo adoption, we should be unequivocal in our rejection of IVF: A procedure whose alienating nature can be seen clearly in the abandonment of so many of the lives it creates.


1 Mary Geach, Ph.D. "Are there any circumstances in which it would be morally admirable for a woman to seek to have an orphan embryo implanted in her womb?" in Luke Gormally, ed., Issues for a Catholic Bioethic (London: The Linacre Centre, 1999), 341-346. [Back]