June 2009 . When I give talks on stem cell research or in vitro fertilization,
people invariably ask, "What should be done with all the frozen
embryos?" It is usually asked with a sense of urgency, even
desperation, as they reflect on the fate of the hundreds of thousands
of human embryos cryopreserved in liquid nitrogen at fertility clinics.
The simple answer is that ethically there is very little we can do with
the frozen embryos except to keep them frozen for the foreseeable
future. No other morally acceptable options seem to exist.
question of what to do with the frozen embryos, I sometimes remind my
audiences, is not in fact the most pressing question we face. A much
more urgent issue is how to stop the relentless manufacturing and
freezing of new embryos which is occurring each day, with
clockwork-like regularity, in every major city in the United States.
infertility industry has become an embryo mass-production line with
virtually no legal oversight or national regulation. Catering to strong
parental desires, it is a multibillion dollar business aptly described
as the "wild west of infertility." To start to bring this into check,
strong laws and regulations like those found in Germany and Italy are
urgently needed. In those countries, no more than three embryos may be
produced for each infertility treatment, and all three must be
implanted into their mother. Extra embryos may not be produced or
frozen; as a result, there are essentially no frozen embryos stored in
German and Italian fertility clinics.
those embryos that do end up abandoned in liquid nitrogen, the question
often arises: would it be morally permissible to give them up for
"embryo adoption," whereby other couples could implant, gestate and
raise them as if they were their own children?
is ongoing debate among reputable Catholic theologians about this
matter, and technically it remains an open question. A recent Vatican
document called Dignitas Personae expressed serious moral
reservations about the approach, without, however, explicitly
condemning it as immoral. But we can easily see reasons why the
promotion of embryo adoption would be imprudent. If embryo adoption
were to become standard practice in the current, largely unregulated
climate of the fertility industry, this could actually stimulate the
production of yet more embryos; IVF clinic operators would be able to
placate themselves by saying, "We really don't need to worry about
producing extra embryos, because there will always be somebody willing
to adopt any that are left over." It could offer the clinics an excuse
to continue and even expand their current immoral practices.
have suggested that a morally acceptable solution to the frozen embryo
problem might come through applying the principle that "extraordinary"
means do not have to be undertaken to prolong human life. They argue
that to sustain an embryo's life in a cryogenic state is to use
extraordinary means and this is not required.
fact, however, the decision to continue cryopreserving an embryo in
liquid nitrogen is probably not an instance of using extraordinary
means, since the burden and costs involved in taking care of embryonic
children in this way are actually minimal. When we have children, we
have a duty to clothe, feed, care for, and educate them, all of which
costs plenty of money. When our children are frozen, we don’t need
to clothe, feed, or educate them; our care for them can only be
expressed by paying the bill each month to replenish the liquid
nitrogen in their storage tanks. This way of caring for our children is
obviously unusual, but it does not seem morally extraordinary in terms
of achieving the desired end of safeguarding their physical integrity.
my opinion, parents have an obligation to care for their children in
this way until some other option becomes available in the future (maybe
a sophisticated "embryo incubator" or "artificial womb" of some kind),
or until there is a reasonable certainty that they have died on their
own from decay or "freezer burn," which may occur whenever frozen
embryos are stored for extended periods. Perhaps after a few hundred
years, all the stored embryos would have died on their own, and they
could finally be thawed and given a decent burial. This approach would
not involve us in the direct moral agency of ending their lives by
withdrawing their life-sustaining liquid nitrogen.
embryos, clearly, can never be donated to science. Such a decision
would amount to handing over not cadavers, but living human beings, for
dismemberment at the hands of stem cell researchers. This would always
be a radical failure in the parents' duty to protect and care for
These considerations indicate
the difficulty of answering the question about the disposition of
frozen human embryos. We are reminded how sinful choices have
consequences, and how the original decision to violate the moral law by
doing IVF invariably has grievous repercussions, including the kinds of
quandaries considered here, for which no moral resolution is apparent.
Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D. earned his doctorate in neuroscience from
Yale and did post-doctoral work at Harvard. He is a priest of the
diocese of Fall River, MA, and serves as the Director of Education at
The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. See