Before I begin this post, I should probably start by saying that I am no authority on the subject. If you find this post looking for advice on how to follow the Church’s teaching, I am not competent to give that. Rather, the purpose of this post is to pose that very question: how may a Catholic work out the complex moral issues surrounding the “adoption” of frozen embryos. The process itself is this: there are embryos which have been created, but not used, in the process of in-vitro fertilization. Such embryos will either be discarded, used in research, kept frozen indefinitely, or “adopted” by couples or individual women who will implant the embryos and possibly bring them to term.
First, I will explain what many non-Catholic liberals think of “Snowflake” adoptions: the embryos are not people, and are therefore not adopted. Rather they are purchased (which is, in fact, what happens legally). Some of the more extreme sorts (who I read on the Daily Kos) seem to think Snowflake adoptions are a sinister plan by President Bush to reward Christian families with babies to indoctrinate, while denying children to gay couples (or something along those lines). The arguments against Snowflake adoptions from non-Christian perspectives are normally utilitarian (we could use them for research!) or ideological (this is being done by the Christian Right!).
The arguments about it from the Catholic perspective are somewhat different. I believe all faithful Catholics can acknowledge that creating embryos outside the act of sex inside of marriage is immoral. The debate comes in when we discuss how to deal with the embryos that exist. The Church has not spoken on the issue, though they have spoken on enough related issues that we can attempt to get the sense of what the Church would want us to do. I have heard faithful orthodox Catholics arguing about this issue, and I will repeat the three positions that were raised in the discussion here (mind you, no one in my recent conversation took any of these positions fully, but I will present each position in its “purest form,” so to speak.)
One position taken was this: these embryos never should have been created in the first place. To implant them in a woman who is not biologically connected with the embryo further seperates reproduction from sex (which is already one of the major problems with in-vitro). Implanting them is also likely to result in them being treated as property, an overabundance being implanted, and soforth. Leaving them frozen is contrary to their dignity as human beings, and it is not natural for human beings to exist for as long as a frozen embryo to exist. Therefore, they should simply be destroyed and entrusted to God’s mercy.
Another position was the following: the embryos’ creation seperated the sexual act from reproduction, and implantation would further seperate the two. Destroying the embryos would be an active killing of thousands of human individuals. Therefore, they ought to simply be left frozen until they are destroyed either by natural deterioration or disaster.
A final position was that they should be available for implantation. Destroying them and leaving them frozen are both contrary to human dignity, as is embryonic stem cell research. Thus, women who chose to have them implanted, and especially families that raise the children, are doing the right and heroic thing.
Each position seems to have certain problems. The first idea, to willingly destroy the embryos, has a fairly clear downside: namely, that we would be willingly destroying human beings. I suppose it would serve to eliminate the danger of further seperating the sex act from reproduction, but it would also spell the destruction of embryos whose existance, while far from ideal, does not seem to constitute any kind of torture or even unpleasantness.
The second idea has the huge advantage of being passive: it does not constitute taking a sinful action. Neither is it a sin of omission, as few would argue that women have a duty to adopt frozen embryos. However, leaving these embryos in existance but frozen seems to be contrary to their nature, as they are suspended, unable to die or develope.
The third idea seems to rest on one crucial hinge, and one more minor one. The crucial hinge is whether Snowflake adoption is seen as seperating the sexual act from reproduction, or whether the act of creating the embryos in the first place entirely caused that separation, and the adoptive mother is simply making the best of a bad situation. One could make legitimate arguments either way, though I tend to think that the sin is in the creation of the embryo, and not its implantation. The other problem is that often multiple embryos are implanted, usually far more than will likely be brought to term. The reason this is a minor problem, in my mind, is that using either of the other alternatives the embryos will die without any chance to develop. Perhaps this option accelerates their deaths, but it also gives them a chance.
I would be quite interested in anyone’s ideas or information on this issue. My suspicion is that the Church will not speak on it: any interpretation the Church would take would be frought with the possibility of misunderstanding and deliberate misinterpretation. If the Church sided with the first option (in my opinion the least likely), it would look like the Church out of every secularist’s nightmare, screaming “Sacrilege!” and destroying (babies/research opportunities). If it were to chose the second option (which is essentially what it choses by not clarifying this issue) confusion would continue, and Catholics would act according to their individual consciences, but sometimes without considering the Church’s teaching at all. If it were to chose the third, it would risk making it look like the Church approves of in-vitro now, and that a Snowflake-like plan can always exist just to keep things from getting out of hand. Here the Church risks appearing too liberal, and seeming to approve of in-vitro in certain circumstances.
I welcome anyone’s opinions on this issue, especially if anyone has thought of an alternative theory to the ones above. Again, I am no expert on the subject, so I am mostly looking to learn from those who might be.