The world's first frozen embryo baby was born in Melbourne, Australia, in March 1984. The child's mother, as a result of superovulation, produced 11 eggs. Ten of these eggs were fertilized. Of the fertilized eggs, three were lost in unsuccessful implantation attempts, and the remaining seven were frozen. One of the frozen embryos was rejected as being unsuitable, while four did not survive the freezing process. The two remaining embryos were implanted. One survived, was delivered by Caesarian section, and was named Zoe Leyland.
The Leyland case well exemplifies both the many things that can go wrong with embryo freezing (six of seven perishing for three distinct reasons) as well as the one thing that can go right (the birth of Zoe Leyland).
Embryo freezing has been criticized on the grounds that a doctor should not create a situation in which he has more patients than he can possibly keep alive. Others have criticized the procedure because of its extremely low success rate. Dr. William Karow, for example, director of the Southern California Fertility Institute, where embryos are routinely frozen, estimates that the chances of producing a "freeze-thaw" baby are about two to three percent. Nonetheless, he is not discouraged by this paltry success rate: "My philosophy has always been to try everything that's possible."
Dr. Karow's enthusiasm for trying everything that's humanly possible is not one that is shared by the Catholic Church since that timeless institution firmly believes that not all actions that are humanly possibly are respectful of the dignity of the human person.
On Dec. 12, the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, America's Patroness of Life, the Vatican released Dignitas Personae. This document once again, as in Donum Vitae (1987), put forth the argument that human actions, specifically, in the sphere of human procreation, must be consistent with and respectful of the dignity of the human person. In this light, it should be acknowledged that the document is not against reproductive technology as much as it is a defender of the dignity of the human person.
The Leyland case would not be consistent with the Church's teaching because it involves masturbation, in vitro fertilization and embryo freezing (all of which are deemed "illegitimate"). Nonetheless, a child was born. Would it not be legitimate to offer a frozen embryo its only hope of being born by thawing and implanting it either in its own genetic mother or in a surrogate? The broader question that the Zoe Leyland case poses is whether "prenatal" adoption is ethically permissible.
Dignitas Personae has answered this question rather decisively. Although it finds the intention to save the child "praiseworthy," it prohibits such an action because of the "intrinsically illicit nature of surrogacy." Accordingly, it states: "The proposal that those embryos could be put at the disposal of infertile couples as a treatment for infertility is not ethically acceptable for the same reasons which make artificial heterologous procreation illicit as well as any form of surrogate motherhood."
Donum Vitae had stated that the "freezing of embryos, even when carried out in order to preserve the life of an embryo 'cryopreservation' constitutes an offense against the respect due to human beings . . ." Furthermore, it maintained that the "procreation of a new person . . . must be the fruit and the sign of the mutual self-giving of the spouses."
It should not be altogether surprising, then, that Dignitas Personae prohibits all forms of surrogacy, including prenatal adoption. What, then, is to be done for the many thousands of frozen embryos? There is no answer to this question. It represents an instance where ethics hits a wall, the document tells us: "It needs to be recognized that the thousands of abandoned embryos represent a situation of injustice which in fact cannot be resolved."
Those who trust that for every ethical problem there is an ethical solution, at least in the form of "the lesser of two evils," may object. John Paul II warned against creating such a situation when he 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 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."
When justice is violated, traditionally, people seek rectification, even though the form of justice they seek is compensatory. Now, we are faced with a form of injustice to human persons, as in the case of frozen embryos, where no justice is possible. It becomes all the more imperative, therefore, not to create a situation in which there can be no ethical solution. The stark question that may be asked is this: Are bioethicists creating situations that embody a veritable hell on earth?
Dr. Donald DeMarco, an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, is a member of the American Bioethics Advisory Commission and a corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.