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 MaryMeetsDolly.com)
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.