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Waiting in Joyful Hope

Embryo adoption

What is embryo adoption? It flows from the problem of "excess embryos" being held in freezer tanks. You see, when a couple goes to a fertility clinic and attempts an in-vitro fertilization, it isn't just one ovum that gets fertilized for eventual implantation in the mother's uterus. In fact, because the implantation process itself is often not successful, what usually happens is (1) several ova are harvested from the woman's ovaries, (2) many or all of them are fertilized with sperm, (3) some of these are frozen in liquid nitrogen for possible later use, and (4) the others are implanted in the womb of the mother, in the hopes that at least one of them will take and a baby will be born from it all.

Do you see the problem? Catholic moral teaching states that human life begins at conception, i.e. the moment of fertilization. It doesn't matter where that fertilization occurs -- whether it is in the woman's body or in a petri dish, it is still a human life with a human soul. So we can re-write the described procedure as follows: (1) several ova are harvested from the woman's ovaries, (2) many or all of them become new human beings, (3) some of those human beings are frozen in liquid nitrogen, and (4) the rest are implanted in their mother's uterus, knowing that many if not most will die anyway, but in the hopes that some will survive.

As grisly as point #4 is, point #3 is positively chilling (no pun intended). Because if Catholic moral teaching is correct, it means that there are thousands of human beings with human souls sitting frozen in liquid nitrogen tanks around the world.

Enter embryo adoption. The idea is that if the genetic mother no longer wishes to have children, they then allow another woman to adopt the embryos concerned. Such adopted embryos could then by implanted in the womb of the adoptive mother, to (hopefully) continue its natural development.

The idea is not as simple as it sounds, however, because the issue comes very close to the concept of surrogate motherhood, something the Church teaches is wrong. Some Catholic ethicists have decided that embryo adoption is therefore not morally licit, despite the obvious need of those human beings who need a womb for their continued development. This article by James McCoy is written in this vein.

All this being said, however, I have some difficulty with the conclusion that all those human beings are to be absolutely condemned to die. Perhaps this issue needs to be thought through a bit more thoroughly.

First of all, we need to separate the "embryo" concept from the "adoption" concept. Let's start with the second one first.

Adoption is a legal process by which persons who are is not genetically related enter into a family relationship, such that one becomes the legal parent of the other, with all the rights and responsibilities that entails. Usually the relationship is established between an adult and a minor child. Now with regards to the adoption of an embryo, I just can't see the Church having any objection to the establishment of such a legal bond. In the case of the embryos being slated for destruction, they have in effect been abandoned by their natural parents, so there is no violation of natural parental rights. The only way to raise an objection is if you don't believe that the embryo is a human being, in which case "adoption" just doesn't make any sense. But as it is, we *do* believe that the embryos are human beings — minor children, actually, and you don't get much more minor than that! So logically I just can't see any moral objection to the adoption as such of the embryonic children.

Once the embryonic child has been adopted, however, there is the question of what to do with him. There are really only 3 options: (1) suspended animation: leave him in the environment liquid nitrogen tank, (2) death: remove him from the liquid nitrogen tank and place him in an environment intrinsically hostile to him at his stage of development, or (3) the chance at life: try and place him in an environment conducive to his natural development. As for #3, there is only once place that can currently do this: a woman's womb. Perhaps one day an artificial womb might be invented, perhaps some kind of xeno-gestation might be possible (i.e. finding a way to implant the embryonic child in the uterus of an animal), but as far as I know this is still all just bizarre science fiction. So what is the responsible choice? It seems fairly logical to me.

Now I know that the Vatican is opposed to surrogate motherhood, but the difference here is that a surrogate mother has no relationship to the child she bears at all: no biological relationship, and even no legal relationship. She is acting first as a service provider, and only secondarily (if at all) as a mother. But in the case of an adopted embryo, the mother in question *is* acting as a mother. She, along with her spouse, is trying to help her newly adopted child to have a chance to live and grow. If she hired out somebody else's womb for the job, it would be wrong. But to use her own, for her own child...I don't see the problem.

As I see it, the argument can only break down if you believe that the parental bond of adoption is somehow intrinsically "less worthy" than the natural biological parental bond. I just don't buy that. Yes, it is a bond that needs to be built, but I am unwilling to accept that adoptive parents can't be expected to love their children as much as any other parents. And I think that adoptive parents would be with me on this one. I have two cousins who are adopted, and my aunt and uncle loved them as if they were their own...because they are! I have friends who have adopted, and I know they love their kids as much as any other "natural" parents.

What about if a set of "natural" parents did IVF, and had left-over embryos sitting in the liquid nitrogen tank, and later had a conversion and decided to try and have all of them? Would the Church object to those parents "reclaiming" their children? Even in the article I linked to earlier, Fr. Concetti concedes that "'reclamation' by the parents is less in contradiction to the moral order...The parents would only be...fulfilling the obligation to bring to term the life of a human being whom they brought into existence..." But unless we are going to argue that the womb of an adoptive mother is "less worthy" than the womb of a natural mother — which is nonsense — we need to concede that the adoptive parents have as much right (and obligation!) to see their child "brought to term" as any natural parents.

To conclude, I do think that Catholic theology needs to develop more thoroughly a genuine "theology of motherhood," and I think issues like this help push the envelope. Personally, I think the real problem with surrogate motherhood is that it refuses to recognize that a pregnant mother gives more to her child than nutrition and a place to grow. When a pregnant women receives communion, for example, are we to believe that the grace of that communion stops at the placenta and umbilical cord? Come on. The carrying of a child, in my opinion, is a profoundly spiritual function, so much so that Jesus needed for his mother to be entirely free of sin for him to be able to be "born of a woman". This implies that Mary not only fed Jesus' body for those 9 months, but also mysteriously contributed to the development of his human soul. But what exactly is this grace that is communicated from a pregnant mother to her child? I don't know, but it's worth reflecting upon.

For more examination of the moral question of embryo adoption, here is another article, this time more in tune with these opinions.