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Dignitas Personae


Dignitas Personae on Freezing Oocytes and Genetic Selection:
A Commentary on Dignitas Personae, Part Two, nn 20-22

Father Alfred Cioffi, STD, Ph.D., NCBC Senior Fellow

Dignitas Personae (DP), in paragraphs 20, 21 and 22, discusses the freezing of oocytes, the reduction of embryos, and preimplantation diagnosis. Though none of these procedures is new, all of them have been the subject of ongoing concern by the Vatican.

Freezing Oocytes

Sperm banks have been freezing and thawing sperm (cryopreservation) for over 40 years. Freezing and thawing eggs (oocytes or ova), however, has been much more difficult, mostly due to their much higher water content ―which tends to expand and contract during the process, thus destroying the cell. But, in the early 2000s, scientists began reporting success in cryo-preserving human eggs, to the point that there are now also egg banks.

Theoretically, freezing human eggs is not intrinsically evil, since one can conceive of some clinical settings in which a woman might benefit from such technique (say, for example, to evaluate some aspect of her fertility that is otherwise impossible to ascertain). That is why, in making its moral evaluation, DP focuses on the intention for freezing a human egg. If the purpose is for in vitro fertilization (IVF), then the procedure is morally tainted. In the words of DP, “In this regard it needs to be stated that cryopreservation of oocytes for the purpose of being used in artificial procreation is to be considered morally unacceptable.” (No. 20, emphasis in the original)

In addition, there are serious risks involved to the woman seeking to freeze her eggs: ovarian hyperstimulation and egg retrieval are dangerous―and at times even fatal. They can only be justified for extremely grave reasons. There is also the danger that women will be exploited for their eggs through financial incentives.

The Reduction of Embryos

In a normal IVF procedure, typically three to four embryos (blastocysts) are inserted into the woman’s uterus; on average, only one implants. The other two or three are discarded by her body. There are times, however, when two, three, four or even more of the embryos implant. As the woman or couple only wanted one child, they are offered the choice to terminate the “excess” embryos. In order to make an informed choice, the embryos or fetuses in her womb are tested for genetic defects and for gender. She can then select to abort the ones that might be carrying some genetic defect or are the the ‘wrong’ gender.

To intentionally kill a human being ―no matter how early in development―is a grave moral evil. When this is done on the basis of the intentional selection of inheritable traits, this is called eugenics, and has serious consequences for all of society. In the words of DP, “From the ethical point of view, embryo reduction is an intentional selective abortion. It is in fact the deliberate and direct elimination of one or more innocent human beings in the initial phase of their existence and as such it always constitutes a grave moral disorder.” (DP No. 21, emphasis in the original)

Preimplantation Diagnosis (PID)

PID is a type of prenatal diagnosis involving the three-to-four-day-old embryo (at the morula stage) before implantation (thus, PID is associated with IVF). Typically at the 8-cell stage, while the embryo is still growing in a Petri dish in a lab incubator, a single cell is plucked out and sent for genetic testing (karyotyping) and gender determination. The results can be used to choose for or against implanting that particular embryo.

This too is a form of eugenics. In addition, there are further grave considerations for condemning PID: First, since all of the cells (blastomeres) of the morula are totipotential (that is, that each cell has the capacity to develop into a whole new embryo), extracting a blastomere from a human morula could in fact be creating a new human being, who will then be destroyed during the genetic analysis: another procured abortion.

Second, there is no solid evidence yet that extracting a blastomere from a human morula or blastocyst does not cause significant damage to the early embryo. And, to find out with certainty would require even more human embryo experimentation ―which would be a gross violation of human rights.

Third, PID genetic testing is not a very accurate science, leading to the real possibility that many ‘normal’ embryos will be killed due to false positive results (that is, that they indicate anomalies where there are none). Also, lethal selection based on gender is a grave intrinsic evil which should be self-evidently abominable.

In the words of DP, “Preimplantation diagnosis ―connected as it is with artificial fertilization, which is itself always intrinsically illicit― is directed toward the qualitative selection and consequent destruction of embryos, which constitutes an act of abortion.” (DP, No. 22, emphasis in the original)

All three procedures ―egg freezing, embryo reduction, and preimplantation diagnosis― are closely associated with IVF, which has drastically negative consequences for human embryos, the parents who choose this method, the medical profession, and society at large. Hence ―especially for people of influence, and all peoples of good will―it is imperative to speak up against the IVF industry and its associated technologies, which is leading the contemporary developed world into eugenics. What makes the nefariousness of this eugenics even more urgently condemnable is the fact that IVF gives the appearance of being pro-life, but is not.