Why Adoption of Frozen Human Embryos Could Be Acceptable

2 Bioethics Experts Discuss a Lifesaving Means

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MADRID, Spain, AUG. 30, 2003 (Zenit.org).- The debate over the fate of human embryos is in focus again, after the Spanish government in July announced plans to change a 1988 law on human assisted reproduction.



The move, among other things, could open the door to research on human embryos stored at in-vitro fertilization clinics.

Consequently, the executive committee of the Spanish Catholic bishops' conference commented on the plan, but, like the proposed legislation, did not address the issue of prenatal adoption.

To analyze the morality of prenatal adoption of so-called spare embryos, two experts in bioethical issues agreed to an interview with ZENIT. The responses of the two, Mónica López Barahona and Father Ramón Lucas Lucas, were culled below.

Dr. López is a member of the Spanish National Ethics Committee and dean of the Faculty of Biology and Health Sciences of Francisco de Vitoria University of Madrid.

Father Lucas is a professor of philosophical anthropology and bioethics at the Gregorian University of Rome and a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

Q: As a result of techniques of assisted reproduction, hundreds of thousands of human embryos, which have not been implanted in the womb, have been stored at low temperatures -- cryopreservation -- for years. The reform of the 1988 Law of Techniques of Assisted Reproduction (35/1988), announced recently by the Spanish government, will permit the use of these embryos in research if their parents give their consent. This could lead to medical advances that save many lives. Does this objective make this option acceptable and worthy?

A: Before addressing the question, it is best to define some terms.

Cryopreservation is a suspension of embryonic development. Through freezing in liquid nitrogen, generated human individuals are preserved at very low temperatures in biological immobility. This is an abusive interference in the life cycle. A human life, once conceived, must continue its natural course, which no one can interrupt or "suspend."

Temporal and historic continuity is an intrinsic good to human corporeal nature, proper to the person, and a right, due to which an individual understands himself. Age is more than a temporal connotation: It is a coordinate of the personal life that identifies it in the corporeal condition.... To alter it, causing a void in time in a person's existence, is a choice and an imposition.

To put the life cycle of a human embryo on hold is an expression of the "will to power" with which one person decides on the fate of another who is weak and defenseless.

This does not "interrupt" the life: The latter is "there" -- frozen, deposited -- like a consumer product, next to many others, ready for when it is needed. Its dignity lies in the value of its use, also subject to expiration, given the fact that no one can guarantee the physical integrity and the very vitality of a frozen embryo, because of the times and techniques of freezing. Thus, power is followed by violence as it frees itself of "expired," "unusable" lives.

Human acts must be distinguished in the unfreezing of embryos. Cryopreservation is a negative moral act; unfreezing is another moral act, different from the previous one.

This second act -- independent of the first -- can be negative if it is done to manipulate or eliminate the embryo. It will be positive, on the contrary, if it is done to return it to its normal state of development in the maternal womb.

In the case of the lack of a maternal womb, to remain in the state of cryopreservation seems the only alternative to preserve the primary good, which is the life of the embryo. No appeal can be made to "extraordinary means," because, in fact, this is the only ordinary means of existence -- although "suspended" -- of the embryo. Comparison with terminal patients that uses extraordinary means does not seem licit because in these cases one tries to leave the patient to follow his normal course and to avoid therapeutic cruelty.

It is also necessary to differentiate the moral acts done by man, in regard to the adoption of embryos:

-- Cryopreservation is in itself a negative act.

-- Abandonment by the natural parents is another act, different from the previous one, but also negative in itself.

-- Adoption by adoptive parents is an act that is different from the two previous ones and in itself is positive.

Each one of the three acts is independent. The criterion that governs is the primary and principal good: the life of the embryo. From two acts that are already negative in themselves, one cannot impede that a positive one follow, nor can a negative character be attributed to the latter by the fact that the others are such.

Adoption, of course, cannot be imposed on anyone, but neither should it be impeded. Nor does this act of adoptive love imply justification of the previous negative acts, nor the affirmation of a "normal" process; it is different from them and is done as an extreme means to save the principal good: life.

Just as the adoption of an "adult" does not justify the abandonment committed by the parents, nor disparagement of natural maternity, neither is this true in the case of the adoption of embryos.

Q: It seems that you propose prenatal adoption as a solution for frozen embryos, but this is neither a complete nor a practical solution to the problem. Given that no one can be obliged to adopt frozen embryos, some embryos would remain in that state, and one would continue not knowing what to do with them ...

A: This shows the dead end to which the cryopreservation of spare embryos leads. The principal problem lies here, and the definitive solution lies in not producing them in vitro and not cryopreserving them.

Having said this, and to answer your question, a distinction must be made between "what is practical" and "what is ethical." It is one thing for a solution not to be obligatory; it is quite another thing to claim it is not a moral good.

Obviously, a solution must be found for all embryos. However, given that the evil is already done for having frozen them, any solution entails negative risks. It is a question of seeing which of those possible solutions is the least evil. And it will have to be carried out as soon as possible. And when it is not possible -- but not before -- the next least evil solution will have to be found.

Moreover, to be unable to resolve the problem completely does not imply that what is possible cannot be done; it must be done at least to resolve part of the problem.

It is one thing to have "the only acceptable solution" and another to have "the least evil." If we start from the fact that the moral evil is already there given the freezing, no solution is "acceptable" as good, but only as the lesser evil.

Q: Even if it were the only theoretical solution, it cannot be a practical solution, as it is not regulated by a public structure such as that for the adoption of those born.

A: It is from this perspective that one must look at the draft law that the government wants to approve. The intention "to reduce the harm" and to give a "practical solution" to a grave problem is laudable.

Although overdue, the effort must be appreciated to resolve situations of juridical insecurity and problems of considerable ethical and sanitary scope caused by law 35/1988. One should applaud the fact that, finally, action is being taken in a way that, given the present national situation, might be the only concrete "practical" way of doing it.

But what is practical does not always coincide with what is ethical. The ethical ideal is respect for all our fellow men and no experimentation with them. Even if we do so by stages, we must move toward that goal.

In the present stage, no experimentation should be guaranteed, all the more so when today science does not offer valid alternatives to obtain the "therapeutic" results that are desired through experimentation with embryos.

Moreover, the fact that prenatal adoption is not regulated, or, what is more, that it clashes with existing legislation which does not recognize rights for the "nasciturus" [the preborn], does not mean that adoption is illegitimate, but perhaps that it should be properly regulated. And this might well mean changing more than one unjust law.

In other words, it will have to be translated from theory to practice. The civil law should adjust itself to the objective good of the person.

In this connection, the proposal on the part of the Spanish government, to modify the law of assisted reproduction, contemplates the possibility of adoption. It must be admitted that this is a step forward.

Q: Given that the life of the frozen embryo is an intangible good, it cannot be inflicted with death directly nor can it be used as a means for scientific experimentation. Is the only possibility for these embryos, then, to allow them to die, removing them from that disproportionate, extraordinary and temporal means that is cryopreservation?

A: To allow the life to follow its "normal" course and to die is certainly the "lesser of two evils" when compared to keeping it indefinitely in freezers or killing it directly. But it is not the lesser of two evils when compared to prenatal adoption.

To let the embryos die means not to do anything so that they can develop the life they already have; however, prenatal adoption implies giving them a real opportunity of human development. It is not the highest possible good, because in the situation in which they find themselves there is no good at all, except for their existence itself; the evil, which is great and grave, has already been done.

But of all the options, the least evil is the one that intends to repair the evil caused, which can give them a worthy start, and which is most in agreement with openness to love.

Q: Could the "spare" embryo be considered as a "donor" of its own cells and so be used for research?

A: The embryo, whether "spare" or normal, is a human person. The moral criterion that governs donation is the same as for any other person.

Obviously, if it is alive, it cannot be killed so that it can become a donor, and if it is dead, its biological remains can be used with the same criteria applied to the mortal remains of any adult person.

The ethical criteria for donation are clear: 1) respect for the life of the donor and the recipient; 2) safeguarding of the personal identity of the recipient and of his descendents; 3) informed consent; 4) total gratuity, no commercialization, and a just allocation.

Q: Would not the adoption of embryos favor those who defend the practice of their freezing, given that the objection would be removed that such embryos would be destined to die? It would also open the door to the cession of embryos, giving way to another form of heterologous procreation ...

A: The one who is not well intentioned will always find justification for his unjust acts. But good must not be left undone for this reason.

A clear distinction must be made among the three types of acts implied here: Cryopreservation is, in itself, an illicit act; abandonment by the natural parents is another act, different from the previous one, but also illicit; adoption by adoptive parents is another act that is different from the previous two and licit in itself.

What must be done is to define well the terms of the moral justness of prenatal adoption, since the objective end, when it is proposed as a solution, is not justification of the evil, but the absolute opposite: One always begins from the premise that the door must be closed to the production of "spare" embryos. It is also proposed that it be strictly regulated.

In this point also, although in a very limited way, the proposal of the Spanish government is a step forward in relation to the present situation of total chaos.

Moreover, cryopreservation cannot have a solid argument here to sustain itself, as it is evil, not only because it "destines" embryos "to death," but because it is evil in itself as it illicitly puts on hold the development of a personal life.

Neither does it seem that, if the terms are well defined, it can be similar to heterologous procreation. But rather, as the term expresses it, it is similar to the adoption of those already born, as it does not justify the previous evil already caused, but tries to remedy it in some way.

Q: In regard to the terms, it seems that the expression "prenatal adoption" is inadequate, because in the strict sense, in an adoption the parents do not contribute to the biological development of the child, but take care of his life and contribute to his psychic and ethical development ...

A: It is not right to say that the adoptive parents do not contribute to the biological development of the child, given that they nourish and take care of him. A particularly relevant case is that of wet nurses or nursing-mothers.

The objection given can be turned around: The contribution of the mother during gestation would intensify precisely her "relation" with the adoptive child; a certain biological -- and psychological -- bond would be added to the affective bond.

Precisely because of this, the act of self-giving and love that it implies is much more intense, generous and heroic than the adoption of those already born.

Q: Prenatal adoption implies implanting an embryo in a woman who did not conceive it. What differentiates this act from surrogate motherhood?

A: The terms here are clarifying and indicate clearly the specific difference of two acts, objectively -- and not just subjectively -- different: Adoption is very different from rental.

The first is an act of love, generosity and self-giving. The second is a loan or "technical service" suitably remunerated, utilitarian, selfish -- "Things are not what they seem, but what they signify," said Chesterton.

To receive the life of a frozen embryo in love and self-giving is not to reduce maternity to a mere physiological function, but the total opposite: It is to help the embryo develop according to his personal human being, precisely by those biological and psychological connections that in another circumstance are presented as unfounded objections.

The woman who adopts a frozen embryo is never a surrogate mother for the simple reason that she does not rent anything.

The difference between renting a womb and opening one's womb -- and one's life -- giving it generously, heroically, to receive "gratis et amore" a life that is frail, denigrated and otherwise condemned to extermination, and to make oneself responsible for it from that moment on -- the difference between those two acts is so great that the mere comparison is disproportionate and inappropriate.

Q: If it is assumed that human life is an absolute value and is incommensurable, then it is necessary to do everything possible to save a person's life. Therefore, the adoption of embryos seems not only licit, but even obligatory. However, no one can be obliged to adopt ...

A: The answer can begin with an example. Everything possible must be done to save a person who is drowning. But no one is obliged to throw himself into the river to do so.

Responsible parenthood demands, obviously, that no one be obliged to adopt. But adoption, like normal generation of one's children, is left to the exclusive judgment of conscience of the couple, who in their choice must be guided by the criteria of responsibility and generosity.

But this very freedom implies that one must allow and favor those couples that freely, responsibly, generously and heroically wish to adopt embryos. Prenatal adoption is not obligatory for any one for the simple reason that heroism cannot be demanded of any one. But to impede heroism is to impede a moral good.

In regard to the embryos, their adoption is posed as the least possible evil, to the degree that it is possible -- namely, to the degree that those embryos can be effectively implanted. In regard to the couple, it is an extraordinary moral good, and, because it is extraordinary, it cannot be obligatory, and because it is a good, neither can it be impeded.

Q: In the same way, starting from the fact that human life is an absolute value and is incommensurable, and that it is necessary to do everything possible to save a person's life, the availability of a possible mother would be enough as a sufficient condition. In the absence of a couple of stable parents, recourse could be taken to single women or those with homosexual orientation -- so long as no problems appear in the reproductive realm -- since the life of the embryo is what must be guaranteed ...

A: Obviously, the life of the embryo is the first good and is the first thing that must be guaranteed.

But, to the degree possible, it must also be guaranteed proper personal development. And this means regulating prenatal adoption, as done in the adoption of those already born, so that embryos will be implanted in those women who can offer guarantees of good personal development to the child. The law that the Spanish government is about to modify, must keep this in mind.

Q: If human life is an absolute and incommensurable value, and if it is necessary to do everything possible to save a person's life, would not the following values, recognized by a personalist and Christian anthropology, remain subordinated: the right of the child to be gestated in the womb of his own mother; the right of the child to be born in a context that also guarantees the balanced growth of the personality; the value of maternity as a personal event which excludes as a line of principle the separation of the biological, physiological and emotional processes; the representation of human procreation as an interpersonal act of a triadic nature -- father, mother, child?

A: As said at the beginning, the difference must be made again, between moral acts and rights.

All those values recognized by a personalist and Christian anthropology are values that are arranged in order of importance according to a value that is original and prior to them all, as is the assumption and necessary condition for them to be present: [That value is] human life.

Human life has priority over these enunciated values. Otherwise, it would have to be concluded that the existence of those who have seen those rights violated has no meaning -- and this is absurd, among other things, because it would exclude a good part of humanity.

Moreover, the objection is untenable as, in fact, the frozen embryo has already lost those rights: Its biological mother has abandoned it; so has its family; the biological maternity has been completely perverted and subverted; the same has happened with the act of its human procreation. ... The evil is already done. Only prenatal adoption can, to a very limited degree, try to repair in some way such injustices.

Q: If the value of maternity is subordinated to the value of life -- as a personal event that excludes in the line of principle the separation of the biological, physiological and emotional processes -- and it is admitted that in exceptional cases it is licit to separate the biological bond to give preference to the affective -- as in this case the affective bond is the source of the biological -- one cannot see why the opposite is not also valid: the pro-abortion thesis that one can dispense with the biological bond where the affective is lacking ...

A: It is not a question of "previously" subordinating or separating, but of offering the best possible solution to an already existing separation.

Human existence is not a mathematical equation. The fact that in prenatal adoption -- as also happens in the adoption of those already born -- the affective bond does not "separate" -- because in fact such "separation" is prior to the affective bond -- but that it succeeds in making up for the original biological bond in no way must imply that when that bond is lacking, the biological bond must also be broken.

The biological bond generates inescapable responsibility. So does the affective bond. Moreover, there seems to be no proportion of equality between a case where the affective bond, which "is source" of the biological bond -- it would be more precise to say that it "supplies" -- contributes to the good of a personal human life and the other case in which, by eliminating both bonds, personal life is also eliminated.

There is no reciprocity, because it is not the same thing to do a good act as to do a bad act. The first means to increase the ontological weight of reality -- this is why the affective bond can, if made available, make up for the biological bond. The second is to deprive reality of a due good and, therefore, to impoverish it.

Q: If life, instead, is considered as a fundamental value -- because it is the condition of the same hierarchy of other human goods and a necessary, but not sufficient, condition to reach the specific end of man -- then the value of life can be commensurable in the line of principle. For example, one can give one's life for another, or one can give preference to fidelity to truth over the preservation of life. In this case, it is necessary to do all that is morally possible to save a person's life. Could prenatal adoption be considered within what is not morally possible, since the means to save that life are disproportionate, extraordinary and illegitimate?

A: Everything in regard to the question of frozen embryos is, from the beginning, in the realm of the disproportionate, the extraordinary and the illegitimate.

However, having understood this and seeking the least evil solution, it seems that, in the state in which they are in, there are means which are proportionate to save them in that state and, therefore, they must also be considered as "ordinary and legitimate," as they are the ones that can and must be applied.

In other words, the terms "disproportionate and extraordinary" are, in a certain sense, relative: For an embryo conceived and gestated in its biological mother's womb, it would be disproportionate and extraordinary to gestate it in another womb.

But for a frozen embryo that can be implanted in a womb which will allow its development, this can be proportionate and ordinary -- especially if there is someone who can "provide" that womb and "give order" to the poor embryo.

Moreover, it does not seem morally illegitimate to save a life that can be saved and it does seem illegitimate -- because of negligence -- not to save it when the conditions were there to do so.

Q: Does prenatal adoption transform the concept of maternity and filiation, inasmuch as it seems to legitimize the separation between the biological, affective and relational components of procreation?

A: Prenatal adoption does not legitimize the separation of the biological, affective and relational components of procreation. On the contrary: It assumes them and tries to make up for them when they are not there. This is because the embryonic child is received with self-giving love and openness in a community of life and love -- the family, which it does not upset but reaffirms.

The embryo has already been generated without the necessary bond of the biological, affective and relational components. It is an attempt to remedy that situation.

Q: Frozen embryos have not yet implanted in the womb and it is impossible to act in an ordinary way for them to do so, respecting the biological and anthropological relation between mother and child. Does this circumstance place them in a position that is analogous to that of embryos and fetuses that are miscarried?

A: The biological and anthropological relation between mother and child has already been tragically broken. Prenatal adoption tries to make that relation, to the degree possible, with another.

Moreover, the good implied in the biological and anthropological relation between mother and child is secondary in relation to the good of personal human life that the frozen embryo already has.

The only "ordinary" means that these embryos have in order to be able to attach [to a womb] is technical implantation. This implantation does not generate a new life -- and, therefore, this act does not commit an outrage against a dignity previously violated. It simply limits itself to help its development; it is, authentically, a mere therapy.

Moreover, there is an essential difference between the situation of these embryos and that of those miscarried: In the second case, there is no exercise of human freedom; in the first, there is. Those in the second case have not been able to implant; those in the first have been impeded from doing so. In the second case, human freedom can do nothing to avoid their death, in the first case it can -- and not to do so is negligence.

Q: According to natural moral law and Catholic morality, the only possibility for a woman to become pregnant is through the conjugal act. Prenatal adoption of cryopreserved embryos makes possible a pregnancy outside the context of the conjugal act. Would it be immoral?

A: In a normal situation, the beginning of pregnancy is the beginning of the life of a human being. In a normal situation, the pregnancy that follows the conjugal relation is the only licit way for the life of a human being to begin.

But in the case of cryopreserved embryos we are faced with an abnormal situation. The prenatal adoption of cryopreserved embryos does not imply the abolition of this principle; it is placed, rather, on another plane.

Human life has already begun in an illicit way. [In this case,] pregnancy is not dissociated from the conjugal act by the act of adoption; rather, it is already dissociated by the act of illicit artificial fertilization. The objection is valid if applied to artificial insemination, but it is not valid if applied to prenatal adoption as an extreme solution to the cryopreservation already effected.

The act of adoption is not done to dissociate pregnancy from the conjugal act, but to save an already conceived life, in which that dissociation has already taken place.