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Embryo Adoption: Is it OK?

October 12, AD 2012 14 Comments

The short answer to the very complex question posed in the title of this article is this: We actually don’t know, yet.

That is to say that the official teaching body of the Catholic Church, the Magisterium, has not yet issued a final stance on this specific topic. The debate among Church theologians began in earnest after the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published Donum Vitae in 1987. It opened a Catholic can of worms when it stated “those embryos which are not transferred into the body of the mother and are called ‘spare’  are exposed to an absurd fate, with no possibility of their being offered safe means of survival which can be licitly pursued.”  The question of licit circumstances and the unending possibility of scenarios that could possibly justify the practice of human embryo adoption (or Human Embryo Transfer, HET) piqued many ethicists interest and started a 20+ year debate that still has not resolved itself.

In 2004 the Pontifical Academy for Life declined to comment on the morality of embryo adoption, citing that it was premature to make any statements with the rapid changes in technology.

The only time the Vatican has spoken directly on this issue (to my knowledge) was in the 2008 document Dignitatis Personae.  In it the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith called embryo adoption “a situation of injustice which in fact cannot be resolved.”  While the Church acknowledges the “absurd fate” of humans halted in their growth at the embryonic state, it has never come to a final teaching on the matter and whether it can be deemed morally licit in some circumstances. That means that we as faithful Catholics are free to debate this issue and even disagree upon it until the Church has evaluated carefully all the arguments and discerns the moral Truth.

I recently read a wonderful book on this topic put out by The National Catholic Bioethics Center called Human Embryo Adoption; Biotechnology, Marriage, and the Right to Life. This book consists of twelve essays by some of the most respected, current theologians and minds within the Catholic Church.  Each essay and position was carefully and prayerfully researched so as to present the authors’ best interpretation of what the teachings of the Catholic Church can be taken to mean in regard to human embryo adoption.

It also has the Imprimatur, or official declaration from a Church authority that the work is free of doctrinal error. This is a very important thing to look for in any book claiming to present truths of the Catholic faith. Make sure you become accustomed to looking for it.

What came in my reading of this compilation of essays by leading Catholic theologians and ethicists is an eagerness to see how the Church’s Magisterium will ultimately rule on this issue. (For anyone wanting a wonderful example of how the Church is able to have honest and candid debate on topics that have no official teaching yet, this book will give you hope for humanity’s ability to respectfully disagree with one another.) The authors were humble in their presentation of their opinions, with all of them saying that if the Church ultimately decides a position opposite to their opinion they will gladly surrender their arguments with dedication for the authority of Christ’s bride.

Basically the arguments in this book fell into three categories of 1) those who generally oppose human embryo adoption (HET), seeing it as a violation of the Sacrament of Marriage; 2) those who approve of HET on the ground of embryo “rescue” with no commitment to parent the child; and 3) those who approve of HET on the grounds of subsequent adoption of the child only. The essays each support one of these three positions, with five of them expressing a negative view of HET, five of them expressing a positive view with regards to “rescue”, and two with a positive view in the situation of adoption of the embryo by the woman carrying the child to term.  (A very good review and synopsis of the arguments is offered by Rebecca Taylor at

While I find all the arguments very interesting and am fascinated by watching our Church come to a conclusion on an official teaching, I cannot help but wonder what the debate says about women’s bodies, motherhood, and our fertility in general.

As a New Feminist I subscribe to the belief that God created women’s bodies to cooperate with the Divine in the very natural physical acts of nourishing new human life through conceiving, gestating, and lactating for the benefit of our offspring. Suppressing or altering these natural female abilities for matters of convenience is unethical in that it violates the natural order and diminishes the great contribution of women to our world. So it would seem that based upon these preliminary tenants of New Feminism that the natural process of reproduction is grossly altered in creating these embryos, thus the resulting practice of embryo adoption is immoral.

However, New Feminism also emphasizes the contribution of women as “mothers of humanity”.  We see motherhood, either physical or spiritual, as the ultimate fulfillment of woman’s purpose. Our bodies were made to mother; as were our spirits created to be in tune to those in need. No matter where a woman is called vocationally (the home, the office, the convent), she is equivocally called to infuse her environment with her feminine gifts. She is called to bring the unconditional love, acceptance, and hospitality towards others that physical mothers offer their own children.

So it would seem that with the situation of human embryos, humans who have been abandoned and for which there is currently no technology capable of correcting the great injustice that has brought about their frozen imprisonment, women would be called by their natural inclination to mother to embrace these discarded people and offer the hospitality of their wombs as the moral response to their need.

Many women will undoubtedly feel pulled by their God-given natural feminine genius to step forward and provide for these children as physical mothers. Just as many adoptive mothers are able to offer their breasts to children which were not raised in their womb, so too can women offer their wombs to children who were not conceived there. These children are truly the poorest of the poor among us, abandoned and completely dependent upon others for life and we women were created to mother and provide for such as these. But is this the moral responsibility of women, or should the violation of nature in the first place override these womanly inclinations?

There really are only two options for the tiny frozen humans in this sad situation; either we allow these embryos to naturally die through the thawing process and give them a proper burial and the respect due to any fellow human, or we take a chance on letting them live by implanting them into the wombs of willing women.

Allowing them to die when there seems to be a possibility for saving their lives strikes sadness in my feminine mother’s heart. I want to hold these little forgotten people and tell them they are loved because they exist. I want to show them the beauty of the earth we live on and hold their hands as they grow to learn what it means to be a human. I want to mother because that is what I was created to do.

But as a New Feminist I must also fully acknowledge that God created men to complement women’s gifts and that my feelings and emotions about this issue may not bring me to the best solution without the logic and reason of my counterpart; man. Together man’s detached logic can meld with women’s intense empathy and the voice of God can be heard through the combination of those who were created in His image and likeness. Only when we look at both men AND women do we see the fullness of the character of our Creator.

Now let me be clear; I DO NOT think that women are incapable of coming to logical conclusions or that we must bow our reason to another simply because he is a man. I simply am saying that women are not meant to make all the decisions alone, especially about issues as personal and intimate to ourselves as this, without the input from the men in our lives who will ultimately be greatly affected by the outcome. Sometimes you are so close to an issue that the solution springs from almost within you. It wells up in the emotions of our heart and pours forth in an act of love, or empathy, or even sometimes tragically in revenge or malice. It is always prudent to have the eyes of another who would not be personally as invested in the issue as you to offer their insights.

And because I am only half of the equation needed to think like God, I am grateful that we have a Church to put in the time and effort needed to discern God’s will, all while considering both the feminine desire to mother and the masculine desires for dignity and respect for all.  Fortunately for me, I know that this topic is being discerned and disputed by many capable and intelligent people who are faithful to the same teaching authority that I subscribe my life and formation to.

Looking more closely at this issue gave me great confidence that when the Catholic Church finally does come to a definite conclusion on the matter, it will be after much debate and deliberation, and the decision will be one that I am able to live with and subscribe to. The beauty and wisdom of the Church is something I trust in fully, and I am thankful that it is home to scholarly debate and open discussion and communication on matters that have not yet been determined doctrinally.

Filed in: Bioethics • Tags: , ,

About the Author:

Leah Jacobson, foundress of The Guiding Star Project, is dedicated to creating a Culture of Life through the implementation of Guiding Star Centers nationwide. These centers will promote New Feminism and Natural Law and are the next stage for the pro-women and pro-life movements to collaborate in a holistic, comprehensive approach.
  • Thought provoking article, Leah. As a mother of twins adopted through embryo adoption, I greatly appreciate your balanced presentation of the topic. I also am glad to hear of your book recommendation – I’ve read “The Ethics of Embryo Adoption and the Catholic Tradition” but hadn’t heard of the book you mentioned.

    I have a lot more I could say but am badly in need of my afternoon coffee. As a side note, if anyone has questions for me about the actual process, fire away!

    • Andrea,

      Thanks so much for making yourself available for questions. This is a procedure that I think many devote Catholic women feel attracted to but really have no idea what it all entails. Can you share just a little bit about the physical process your body goes through when you adopt in this way?

      • Leah,

        I’m so sorry I haven’t responded before now. For whatever reason, I never got email notification of responses! I started typing up a response to you immediately and then got carried away. Let me sleep on my response and get back to you soon!

      • I’d be happy to share what I know. First off, it’s important to know that embryo transfers can take place either when the embryos are three days old or when they are blastocysts (have begun the hatching process – days 5-6 typically). The embryo transfer takes place x number of days after ovulation would have taken place. For example, a day three transfer would take place three days after ovulation; a day six transfer would take place six days after ovulation.

        There are two different routes to an embryo transfer: the natural route, or the medically controlled route. In option one, the adopting mother goes to the clinic frequently for ultrasound monitoring so that the transfer can take place on the appropriate day. Progesterone supplementation will most likely be given, but not many other pharmaceuticals. In option two, the clinics prescribe some sort of ovulation suppression drug (low dose Lupron; estrogen/progesterone patches; etc) and then carefully prescribe a drug regimen to prep the uterine lining for transfer on the appropriate day. Most fertility clinics prefer to medicinally control the woman’s cycle in preparation for the embryo transfer because this allows the clinic greater control over the cycle and less chance that the ideal transfer date be missed.

        Though option two may sound bizarre, remember that a lot of fertility patients do not cycle regularly or ovulate regularly on their own. The clinic needs to provide some sort of “help” to get the body prepped for the embryo transfer. Or, in my specific scenario since I cycle regularly, a transfer date was chosen that worked with my natural cycle even though I was following the medicinal protocol.

        My husband and I are very familiar with NaPro Technology; I’ve given myself hormone injections previously. Nothing I did for the transfer prep was very different physically.

        Here are my thoughts, as recorded in my journal, from our first transfer (pregnancy ended in miscarriage in July 2009):
        “The transfer itself was quite a production. One nurse kept the ultrasound going so we could all see. Another nurse served to hand items off as needed. The doctor was there to do the transfer. And the embryologist was pushing around a cart that essentially looked like an incubator.

        “We were given a picture of our remaining two embryos [two didn’t survive the thaw] prior to the transfer. After the embryologist wheeled his cart in, he let my husband look at the embryos under the microscope. A mock transfer was done first – empty catheter placed into position. Next the embryos were loaded into the catheter and inserted in the uterine cavity. The way the ultrasound was set up, we could actually see the insertion of the embryos (or at least the solution they were in).

        “After the transfer, I was instructed to remain on the bed for a half hour before getting up and getting dressed. During that time my husband and I prayed together and just chatted. It was only during our prayers that I got a little teary eyed. I felt remarkably composed otherwise.”

        After the transfer takes place, one continues progesterone supplementation (injections, patches, suppositories, etc.) as needed. Given that the transfer takes place so close to ovulation, I would argue that my pregnancies have been no different than an average woman. Actually, given the close monitoring by the fertility clinic through the first trimester (bloodwork and ultrasounds), I probably received more early obstetric care than a typical fertile obstetric patient. Assuming a pregnancy has resulted from the transfer, one normally switches over from the fertility clinic to regular obstetric care towards the end of the first trimester.

        I struggle a bit with writing this information. On one hand, I feel as though I am simplifying the embryo transfer process. However, I have honestly and simply answered your original question. On the other hand, there is so much more one needs to know about the embryo adoption process. I’d recommend reading my “Common Misconceptions about Embryo Adoption” blog post as a starting point. And then fire away with any questions you have!

      • Oops, I had hoped that my blog entry would have been hyperlinked in my response. Here’s the link for it:

      • Andrea,

        Thank you so much for taking the time to write so openly and candidly about this! I truly appreciate your honesty.

        Thank you also for the wonderful link to your blog writings about this topic. Like I said earlier, I think many women are attracted to the “rescue” aspect of embryo adoption because we can’t stand the thought of not giving these children a chance at life.

        Was this the way you approached HET? What were your personal motivations to go through with this? And also, can I ask how much this process costs? Similar to IVF in terms of cost? And do you identify with women who have undergone IVF, or does this feel completely different to you? (I’m sorry I have so many questions about this! I understand if you do not have the time to answer here. If you have previously written about these questions, can you simply direct me there?) Thank you.

      • Thanks for your interest! You ask some great questions, some of which require quite lengthy responses. I think I’ll split up my answers into four parts so as to more coherently address your queries.

        First, as background knowledge, please read my blog entry “What is Embryo Adoption?” This contains some vital information both for this segment of my “mini-series” and some of the following parts as well. I apologize in advance for my overload of information. 😉

        In my mind, there actually four Catholic “proposals” for embryos that are currently frozen, assuming the genetic parents cannot transfer and/or parent these embryos. Option 1: Leave the embryos frozen. Option 2: Purposely thaw the embryos. Option 3: Rescue for gestation only and then place resulting child(ren) for adoption. Option 4: Adopt. These four proposals do NOT have equivalent merit.

        Option 1: While nothing further is actively being done to these embryos, they cannot stay in stasis forever. Since IVF and the subsequent freezing of excess embryos are still fairly new technologies, there are a lot of unknowns. We really do not know how long embryos can stay frozen before they lose all chance of viability or when they start to regress or break down on the cellular level. Leaving the embryos frozen indefinitely does not solve any problems. At best, it buys time for another solution to be derived. However, this endless time in stasis may be more than some embryos can afford.

        Option 2: I do not see how it is licit to purposely thaw embryos with no intent to transfer them to an awaiting womb. The only possible outcome of such thawing is death of the embryos. I don’t see how it can be morally licit to take part in an action that has only one possible outcome – death. When one makes the decision to remove the embryos from their cryogenic solution without subsequently placing them in a womb, one definitively choses death as the fate for all the embryos in question. And if we truly believe that each embryo is a life, how is this not murder? The end goal (freedom from frozen stasis) does not justify the means (the removal from what could be considered “life support” for these embryos).

        Option 3: Embryos cryopreserved in England have a very limited life span as most (if not all) cryo-banks have a strict three year freezing time limit. When the last cryo-bank “cleansing” came up, many many individuals, couples, and even nuns offered their wombs so that these orphaned embryos would not suffer such indignity at the bidding of the government. However, these well intentioned individuals were offering their wombs just for the sake of gestating the endangered embryos. After birth, the women planned on offering the newborns for adoption.

        This scenario is fully an act of “embryo rescue” and is a far cry different from embryo adoption. Furthermore, these actions constitute surrogacy. The “adoptive” mother raises the embryo only for the duration of the pregnancy. In the end, the embryo has been spared death, but is left abandoned once again. “Prenatal adoption” that is solely rescue and devoid of concern for the post-birth life of the child is not granting the child the dignity he/she is due.

        Option 4: There are many nuances to what it may mean to “adopt” embryos. For the sake of clarity, let’s just say a married couple comes together and decides to become “owners” (legally speaking, as embryos are considered “property” – as such, the custodians of the embryos would be “owners”) of a set of embryos. The married couple commits themselves to those embryos for the duration of those embryos’ lives, be it mere moments or decades. In a Catholic setting, the adoptive couple is committed to the physical and spiritual wellbeing of the embryos and their resulting family.

        In my mind, adopting embryos is the proposal with the most merit. This option contains the most respect for each embryo’s human dignity.

      • Aaaannnddd, part II! (little by little, I will get my responses out of my head and onto “paper” for you!)

        My husband and I have previously had long conversations about the selfish desires inherent in adoption. Not necessarily selfish to the point of being sinful, but a lot of the adoption journey focuses inward on oneself. I don’t know if it’s just my personal emotional make-up, or just part of being a woman, but I want to rescue everyone. I want to donate funds to orphans on Reece’s Rainbow, if not adopt many of the children in the first place. I get emailed lists of “waiting children” from some of the agencies we’ve worked with in the past – I want to adopt all of those children. Like all mothers, I can’t stand to see a child hurt or hurting. And yet, when you get down to the facts, all forms of adoption contain at least some element of “rescue”. Every available child, in some way, is in a less than desirable circumstance and needs “rescue”.

        Similarly, I have always wanted to be a parent. We got married right after college, six days after graduation, actually. And I hoped we would get pregnant right away. It didn’t happen. I begrudgingly taught year after year, when all I really wanted was to be a stay-at-home mom. To me, the path to motherhood didn’t matter. I just wanted to get there. Adoption was never a second choice for me; my husband and I had even discussed it during our engagement.

        Once we received a quasi-diagnosis (we think my husband has azoospermia, though it’s never been confirmed), we began to fully research what type of adoption was right for us. As I said, I want to rescue everyone. It’s my husband’s job to anchor me back to earth, to remind me of my earthly limitations (like finances!) that cannot be ignored and have to factor into our adoption quest.

        My husband is an officer in the military. This means we have job security, good health insurance, deployments, and semi-frequent moves. We have no guarantee of living near family. All of these factors and more contribute to our adoption decisions. International adoption is out due to costs and required travel. Domestic adoption is increasingly iffy due to long wait times and expenses. Embryo adoption is favorable at this time in our lives for a multitude of reasons: it’s much faster than the other forms of adoption; lower costs; my physical health (I’m in great health); need of the embryos. Unlike traditional infant adoption in which there are frequently more parents waiting than available children, embryo adoption sees the reverse odds – more embryos waiting than available adoptive parents.

        Dignitas Personae came out right as we were entering into the matching phase for the first time. We literally stopped in our tracks for a few days and reexamined our motivations. Were we putting our will, our desires, above the precepts of the Church? We analyzed, we prayed, we discussed, and then repeated the process. After an exhaustive few days, we felt confident that we could move forward with the process and state “not our will be done, but God’s will through us.” Some of my research can be seen in my blog entry “Basic Defense of Embryo Adoption, Part II” originally written during our discernment process.

        Ultimately we realized that one has to look both inwards and outwards throughout the adoption process. We have to balance the decisions made for the “good of us” with decisions made for the good of the child(ren). No adoption process is easy. Embryo adoption was simply the best option for us during “Round One” (2008-2009) and is currently our best option as we proceed toward “Round Two”.

      • Thank you again for continuing to share your story with us. I understand that much of this is very personal to you and potentially opens you up to spiritual and emotional vulnerability. Your insights on this matter are of vital importance to other couples discerning the possibility of embryo adoption. Your willingness to share your decision making process and your continued discernment about the morality of such decisions is humbling indeed.

        This article was also posted at Catholic Lane this past week and there has been some good discussion there by Kevin, who is convinced the Church IS already speaking out against HET. Do you often come up against this sort of disagreement from other Catholics?

      • My response, part III, keeps disappearing on my end. I’m very sorry if I end up posting oodles of times, the same thing over and over! Feel free to delete the duplicates.

        At any rate, I ended up posting my response regarding fees over on my blog. I hope it’s not too much trouble for you to hop over there and read my response:

        And regarding your latest question (generated by Kevin’s information), I can give a fairly quick response later – not books like I have been 😉 at a later date. Time to enjoy having my sister in town visiting!

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  • Complex topic, great article. Thank you, Leah.

    • Thank you Cindy. It is certainly a topic I look forward to having guidance from our Church on.

  • Finally, my response, part IV. Hopefully I can give my thoughts on Kevin’s position in a much more timely manner!

    We lived in Virginia for almost six years. We learned pretty quickly that there must be some sort of special deal on vanity license plates for vehicles because we saw custom plates everywhere. Some were witty, some silly, and some were bizarre. One cheerful favorite was “HIHOWRU”. Though we never purchased vanity plates for ourselves, we often talked about what we say in seven letters or a seven letter/number combination. How would we choose to identify ourselves in seven characters? It’s a simple step in my mind from custom vanity plates to custom bumper stickers. My next internal discussion point would invariably be, “how would I choose to express myself to the average passerby?”

    I have long considered myself first a Catholic woman. I am next, at least chronologically speaking, an Army wife. And then an adoptive momma.

    And yet even that simple labeling is a challenge. I am an adoptive mom and the birth mom. At the same time.

    Like the traditional adoptive mother, I had no role in, or even knowledge of, my children’s most intimate beginnings.

    Like the traditional biological mother, I sheltered my children in my womb for nine months.

    Like the traditional adoptive mother, I submitted myself to the home study process. A third party had to deem me qualified enough to be a parent.

    Like the traditional biological mother, I went to regular OB check-ups. I labored and pushed out into the world not one, but two babies.

    I am the same but different.

    Perhaps a graphic might help. Picture a three-way Venn Diagram. Label one circle “biological mother”. Label a second “adoptive mother”. Label the third “snowflake mother”. We each have things in common. And yet we each have a fair share of wholly unique characteristics.

    I view cooperation with the ART (assisted reproductive technology) industry as a necessary evil in this embryo adoption process. If there were any way to circumvent the involvement of the clinics, then I would. We chose to pattern our embryo adoption process as much as possible on a traditional domestic infant adoption. We have interpreted the Church documents to mean that every possible step must be taken to preserve the dignity of each embryo.

    Even after having successfully pursued embryo adoption, I have a hard time identifying with couples going through IVF. Simply put, my husband and I did not create life. We did not commission the creation of life. We did not reimburse the genetic parents for their efforts. We still condemn IVF procedures and pray for both the end of IVF and the continued development of true infertility cures. All that being said, our current children were created three years before we even knew of their existence. Halting IVF today does not help those frozen embryos already in existence. And thus there is a need for those women like me, pulled to fill that unique position of both adoptive mom and birth mom.