Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The debated topic as to whether frozen human embryos can be ethically "rescued" through adoption is discussed in the latest Vatican Instruction, Dignitas Personae, which focuses on certain new bioethical problems relating to procreation and embryonic experimentation. The Instruction is from the desk of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and was published in December by order of Pope Benedict XVI.

"Adopting" frozen embryos is, of course, an entirely new issue in history, and a sign of the kind of unprecedented challenges bioethics has in store for us. As this issue was taking shape over the past few years, moral theologians, working well within the Church’s guidelines governing reverence for life and the sanctity of procreation, had already begun to voice warnings against allowing for adoptive procedures as solutions to the nightmarish problem of growing numbers of frozen, unwanted embryos.

The problem in this country alone has become enormous. The 4 December New York Times reported that at least 400,000 frozen human embryos are currently stored in our clinics. Meanwhile, those responsible for the embryos – the parents – simply cannot decide as to their fate – somehow sensing at least that they are being pressured into deciding whether or not to destroy what is unquestionably human life.

I read some time ago that in Britain, programs for "rescuing" such embryos, described as "snow flake babies," were being discussed because of the mounting numbers there, and because of laws requiring the destruction of these embryos after a set number of years.

Until Dignitas Personae was published in December, ethicists were seriously challenged as to a possible solution to this impossible situation; specifically, is there an ethical way of "adopting" frozen embryos? In a talk I was invited to give on this subject in South Meriden a few years ago, I simply outlined the positions of moralists and deferred to whatever guidance the Magisterium might provide in the near future. Evidently, the proposal that couples could "volunteer" to rescue embryos by adopting them prenatally was made by several persons active in the pro-life movement in 1996. But the various methodologies and protocols suggested by theologians are far too complicated and lengthy to include in this column. (For an excellent summary, read Dr. William E. May’s third chapter in his superb Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life; Huntington, OSV; 2000. Dr. May’s volume is the one I use when teaching bioethics.)

Whatever the arguments set forth, the Holy See has now intervened at length on this issue, and its message is clear and succinct. As one reads Dignitas Personae, one should keep in mind that the Church has from the beginning rejected so-called cryopreservation, or the freezing of embryos, on the principle that it is incompatible with the respect due to human embryos (e.g., it presupposes their production in vitro; it exposes them to serious harm or death; it deprives them of normal gestation; it exposes them to experimentation; etc.).

The document reads:

"It has also been proposed, solely in order to allow human beings to be born who are otherwise condemned to destruction, that there could be a form of ‘prenatal adoption.’ This proposal, praiseworthy with regard to the intention of respecting and defending human life, presents however various problems …

"All things considered, it needs to be recognized that the thousands of abandoned embryos represent a situation of injustice which in fact cannot be resolved. Therefore 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.’" (Sec. 19)

If one believes that the Church speaks for Christ – and I do – the answer to another bioethical question has been provided. All Catholic couples have an answer; so do Catholic ethicists; likewise, Catholic medical personnel and legislators. Human embryos should not be frozen; period. Nor is there any licit means of prenatally adopting them.

Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of

The Catholic Transcript, and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.