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Dignitas Personae and the Question of "Embryo Adoption"
A Debate on Dignitas Personae, Part Two, nn 18-19

Stephen Napier, Ph.D. says Yes
John M. Haas, Ph.D., S.T.L. says No

The National Catholic Bioethics Center offers the following exchange between two of its ethicists to illustrate how certain moral questions are still open to further theological reflection.

Does the Vatican Document Dignitas Personae (DP) of September 2008 allow for the adoption of frozen embryos remaining from in vitro fertilization procedures?

Stephen Napier, Ph.D., says, Yes.

In Section 19, DP says the following:

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 not dissimilar to those mentioned above. (n. 19).

Some have taken this note to reject embryo adoption. I do not think that is correct.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops says, “The document raises cautions or problems about these new issues but does not formally make a definitive judgment against them.” Also, the current president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, has said that the issue of embryo adoption was still an open question. If the USCCB and the President of the Pontifical Academy for Life got the interpretation wrong, the Vatican would have corrected them publicly. But there has not been any correction; consequently, the question on embryo adoption remains open.

Embryo adoption is clearly an act by which a young human being is saved. The fact that the woman must gestate the child in order to save the child does not change the moral quality of the action. Childhood adoption, after all, is not only permissible but is encouraged by the Church. Adopting a child that happens to be younger, and thus requires implantation in a mother’s womb, means only that the woman must sacrifice more, thus growing in charity. But it also means that the woman can form a greater bond with the child.

Those who say that embryo adoption violates the conjugal act or that it achieves procreation apart from the marital union misunderstand the obvious fact that the child already exists! The child has already been procreated. He or she awaits a loving couple to save him or her.

It is true that the Church says that the child has a right to be gestated by his or her own parents. But who violates that right? Clearly, the parents who went through IVF, and abandoned him or her to life in a freezer. In fact, the embryo-adopting couple cannot violate this right. The right to be gestated by one’s own parents places duties on one’s own parents, and no other.

Adopting an embryo is a way to love a child in a very vulnerable state. Additionally, it gives witness to the inherent dignity of all human beings no matter how small.

John M. Haas, Ph.D., says, No.

DP states in Section 19:

The proposal that these 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; this practice would also lead to other problems of a medical, psychological and legal nature.

The Holy See acknowledges the good motivation of those proposing pre-natal adoption of frozen embryos but states that not even an infertile couple may have them implanted for the various reasons already stated: that in vitro fertilization, artificial heterologous procreation and surrogate mothering (a woman not the mother the child “renting” out her womb for gestation) are wrong. The “problems not dissimilar to those mentioned above” are fundamentally the fact that embryos are manipulated and subjected to the decisions and actions of others that do not respect the inviolability of their personhood.

First of all, some frozen embryos will be chosen to live while others will be allowed to die. What will be the criteria used as to which will live and which will die? Would just boy embryos be chosen, or just Asian or Caucasians ones? These are arbitrary criteria used to decide who will have a chance at life and who will not.

Second, the “thawing” process itself will result in the deaths of some embryos. And then, after they have been thawed, the surviving embryos will be judged as to which will have the greatest chance of survival. Again, arbitrary judgments will be made as to which will be given a chance to live and which not. And how are the ones not chosen for implantation discarded?

Third, single women have advanced the same arguments for rescuing the embryos by offering their bodies to gestate them even though they do not have husbands. This would deny the child the good of an integral family.

Finally, husbands and wives give the procreative powers of their bodies to one another as a gift to be open to the engendering of new life between them. As St. Paul said, “The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but to his wife.” To place someone else’s child into the body of the wife would violate the integrity of the marital union unique to that husband and wife.

As regrettable as it is, as DP says, “ it needs to be recognized that the thousands of abandoned embryos represent a situation of injustice which in fact cannot be resolved.”