Catholic Bioethics
An Insoluble Dilemma

  Artist's depiction of a frozen embryo,



The current number of frozen human embryos in the world is unknown, but it probably totals in the hundreds of thousands.  The plight of these frozen, innocent human beings is a source of ongoing controversy and uncertainty.  Clinics have been created that specialize in the so-called "adoption" of these forlorn embryos, whose fate would otherwise likely be either deliberate destruction or use as involuntary subjects in scientific experiments.  An example is the following:

The magisterium of the Catholic Church has reiterated the condemnation of the practice of freezing human embryos, but declared the practice of embryo-adoption problematic, part of a situation of injustice which in fact cannot be resolved:


C.D.F. Dignitas Personae (2008) on Embryo Adoption


19. With regard to the large number of frozen embryos already in existence the question becomes: what to do with them?  Some of those who pose this question do not grasp its ethical nature, motivated as they are by laws in some countries that require cryopreservation centers to empty their storage tanks periodically. Others, however, are aware that a grave injustice has been perpetrated and wonder how best to respond to the duty of resolving it.

19. Circa magnum numermn embryonum congelatorum, qui iam ad vitam vocati sunt. quaeritur quid de his faciendum sit. Nonnulli talem quaestionem sibi proponunt quin intellegant ethicum momentum, unice impulsi necessitate legis servandae, quae praecipit ut vacuefiant post certum tempus cryoconservationis sedium repositoria, quae denuo postea repletura sint. Alii autem sibi conscii sunt de gravi iniustitiae vulnere patrato et sibi quaerunt quomodo possint reparandi officio obire.

[19.1] Proposals to use these embryos for research or for the treatment of disease are obviously unacceptable because they treat the embryos as mere “biological material” and result in their destruction. The proposal to thaw such embryos without reactivating them and use them for research, as if they were normal cadavers, is also unacceptable.

Certo recipi nullo modo possunt proposita adhibendi huismodi embryones ad pervestigationis fines vel ad therapeuticos usus. quia subest aestimatio de embryonibus tamquam de mera «materia biologica» et eorum secumferunt exstinctionem. Nec, insuper, admitti potest consilium huiusmodi embryones decongelandi absque eorum reactivatione ad fruendum utendumque de iisdem ad instar cadaverum. 37

38 cf. Dignitas Personae, no.s 34-35


[19.2] 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;38 this practice would also lead to other problems of a medical, psychological and legal nature.

Propositum quoqne eos suppeditandi coniugibus infertilitate laborantibus, tamquam « therapiam infertilitatis ». illicita est. ratione ethica spectata, propter easdem rationes quae illicitam faciunt et procreationem artificiosam heterologam et quamlibet formam maternitatis surrogatae;38 quae methodus praeterea secumfērt innumeras alias difficultates generis medici, psychologici et iuridici.

38 Donum vitae, II, A, 1-3: AAS 80 (1988), 87-89.


[19.3] 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.

Consilium praeterea a quibusdam in medio est positum. ad unum finem opportunitatis nascendi dandae creaturis humanis, quae sin aliter certo exstineturae essent, quandam instaurandi formam « adoptionis pruenatalis ». Huiusmodi propositum. dignum quod laudetur propter intentionem observandi et defendendi humanam vitam, secumfert tamen varias difficultates. non alias ac supra enumeratas.

All things considered, it needs to be recognized that the thousands of abandoned embryos represent a situation of injustice which in fact cannot be resolved. Therefore John Paul II made an “appeal to the conscience of the world’s scientific authorities and in particular to doctors, that the production of human embryos be halted, taking into account that there seems to be no morally licit solution regarding the human destiny of the thousands and thousands of ‘frozen’ embryos which are and remain the subjects of essential rights and should therefore be protected by law as human persons”. 39

Oportet in summa declarare quod tot milia et milia embryonnum in statu derelictionis talem definium conditionem iniustitiae de facto irreparabilis, ut Ioannes Paulus II appellaverit « ad conscientiam auctoritatum orbis scientiarum, potissimum autem medicis, ut mora detur quod attinet ad creationem humanorum embryonum, considerans nullam viam patere quae sit absque delicto de humana destinatione tot milium et milium embryonum « congelatorum ». qui sunt et manent semper adhuc titulares iurium fundamentalium et ideo qui sunt iuridice tuendi utpote humanae personae. » 39

39 John Paul II, Address to the participants in the Symposium on “Evangelium vitae and Law” and the Eleventh International Colloquium on Roman and Canon Law (24 May 1996), 6: AAS 88 (1996), 943-944.



Embryo Adoption: A Catholic Controversy


The fact that so-called “embryo adoption is not condemned outright in this Instruction has been taken by some to imply tacit, if grudging and unofficial, approval of this practice.  Those who support it describe this practice as a form of self-sacrifice on the part of the adopting parents in order to save a human being who would almost certainly otherwise die.  Those who oppose this practice note that it differs only in intention from the use of these embryos as a treatment for infertility, which is specifically condemned in the Instruction as illicit: illicita est..  Thus this practice would represent the use of an unlawful means to achieve a good, even heroic goal - a principle that has never been acceptable in Catholic moral theology.

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