Bookmark and Share
My Photo


    Opinions expressed on the Insight Scoop weblog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Ignatius Press. Links on this weblog to articles do not necessarily imply agreement by the author or by Ignatius Press with the contents of the articles. Links are provided to foster discussion of important issues. Readers should make their own evaluations of the contents of such articles.


« What do you get when you mix together British gangsters... | Main | The Blessed Virgin in the History of Christianity »

Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Clare Krishan

Carl the immoral act does not predate the adoption as in the case of the two birthed babies you adopted, but would be required "after the fact" to fulfil a quite licit moral "intention", in that the implantation of the frozen babies would require a "repeat" of the illicit sex so to speak, introducing a mechanical process to replace the natural one. In vitro can't be deemed "bad" and then we hypocritically find an exception to the "sinful conduct" to cater to those with "good intentions."

You cannot do evil that good may come of it -

It's a real catch 22!


This is a good debate to have. I'm not sure the curial theologians are all operating with all the bulbs on. Adoption and other issues always seem to be lensed through the actions of the adults involved, not always with concern for the children without parents. What is needed is a thorough examination of adoption from the viewpoint of the child. Additionally, the theology of adoption needs to be expressed in concrete actions, both by individual couples and by the larger bodies andapostolates within the Church.

Shaun G

Here's what I think the Church is afraid of:

If the Church says that surgically implanting an embryo into a uterus is not in all cases immoral, then a woman contemplating surrogacy might say: "Hey, I disagree with IVF. But as long as I don't know for sure whether the embryo being implanted in my womb is being 'rescued' or whether it's being specifically commissioned for me, I'm in the clear. So keep me in the dark until after implantation!"


Forgive the long answer, but it's a very tricky question.

The problem is that the CDF document references natural law, and the biblical ideal of marital birth, as the only considerations when differentiating between moral and immoral acts in the area of embryo adoption. The CDF does not list "intent" as a factor when determining the morality of the act. Instead, it implies that regardless of the actor's intent, it is always immoral for someone other than a child’s mother to carry that child to term. If this is correct, then frozen embryos are condemned to live in suspended animation, with no chance at life, and since they cannot die, no chance at an afterlife.

While natural law is a good moral indicator in the area of marriage and human sexuality, natural law does not answer all of our moral questions. There are times when an act may appear contrary to nature, but still moral because of the actor's intent.

For example, organ transplants do not occur in nature and God created our bodies to reject transplanted organs. To prevent rejection of another’s organ, we must take a specific regiment of anti-rejection drugs for life. Therefore, organ transplants are contrary to the way our bodies were designed to work, and arguably, contrary to nature. However, willfully participating in an organ transplant is not immoral. Instead, we recognize that while its not always successful, it is the only chance for many to live a full life.

Likewise, there are times when acts can appear to contradict a Biblical ideal, but still be moral because of the actor's intent. For example, God wants kids conceived, born, and raised by the same married couple. However, we realize that as long as sin and death are in the world, this is not always possible. Thus, it is moral to choose to be an adoptive parent, or to raise a child apart from an abusive father. In those circumstances, sin has made the Biblical ideal either impossible, or actually worse, and chosing a different path is a moral good.

Embryo adoption is similar. Yes, it appears to go against the natural order, but that, in and of itself, should not be the sole basis for condemning it. Neither should the fact that it requires a woman to bear another’s child, which goes against the Biblical ideal of marital birth. I realize some of the worse things come through good intentions, but let's let God judge whether the intent justified the act.

It is not the perfect way for a child to come into this world. It is not what God originally set things up to be, but we live in a fallen world where the ideal might be unavailable. Like self defense as an exception to “thou shalt not kill,” God allows for exceptions in specific and narrow circumstances when the moral norm cannot occur because of sin. Embryo adoption should be one of those rare exceptions.


I think embryo adoption could be morally good (even the act of implantation). My understanding is that the Church opposes the conception of a new human person through any means other than marital intercourse. The IVF procedure (where a couple take semen and eggs and combine them in a test tube) is something the Church can never condone. But with embryo adoption, a new human person is not created but rescued from a freezer. Just as child who is born from an immoral act (non-marital intercourse) can be brought into a loving home (an adoptive parents' house), so too can a child created through an immoral act (created in a test tube) be brought into a loving home (an adoptive mother's womb). The frozen embryo is just as much of a human person as the 2 year-old in an orphanage, one just needs more care and a different environment than the other.

Ed Peters

I wish some of the folks at higher levels in the Vatican would not do so much thinking out loud. These are not particualrly times in which the tentative nature of such ruminations are going to be kept in perspective. Ya know?

Jeffrey L Miller

"But according to that reasoning, Smith said, "How is the traditionally adoptive couple not also participating in an immoral act -- in many cases they're assisting the unwed mother who had sex outside marriage."

I think there is a gigantic difference in working in the aftermath of something immoral and adding something immoral to that chain of events yourself. As Dignitas Personae says:

"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."

Embyro adoption is same medical process as IVF and it seems to me to be a moral evil to manipulate pregnancy like this. This is not conception within the marital act and is totally divorced from the unitive act of marriage. Those seeking IVF seek the good of having children, but it does not override the evil. Those who would rescue these children also want to do good and quite an act of self-sacrifice, but again they manipulate fertility and pregnancy to do so.

This is such a sad state of affairs and is a total injustice. The Church was right to condemn IVF and the use of IVF has only lead to more evils such as scientists wanting to experiment with unused human embryos. We also have IVF now used for trying to pick children for some trait or to be missing some genetic problem. I think the CDF has the right of it on this very difficult problem and we can't do evil to do good.

It is the Church being consistent once again and it is because people are inconsistent in understanding what she teaches that problems follow.

Ed Peters

btw, i meant to second Carl's let's-start-by-defining-more-exactly-what-embryo-adoption-is-before-we-try-to-debate-it line.


"(W)e can't do evil to do good."

Let's note the Church accepts this as a line of reasoning when it applies moral standards to the conduct of war. A person may refuse military service, taking an absolute pacifist stance. The Church permits this, but it also accepts a circumstance in which a lesser evil is chosen (military violence) in order to prevent a greater one (unjust conquest).

Sandra Miesel

I recall reading the following debates:

2 Msgr. Smith and Fr. Tadeusz Pacholczyk argue that this is the case. See Msgr. Smith, "Rescue the Frozen?" 72-74; "Response," Homiletic and Pastoral Review, 96:11-12 (August-September, 1996), 16-17; and Fr. Pacholczyk, "Frozen Embryos Adoptions Are Morally Objectionable," in The Catholic as Citizen: Debating the Issues of Justice. Proceedings from the 26th Annual Conference of Catholic Scholars, ed. Kenneth Whitehead (St. Augustine’s Press, 2004)

William May is another theologian who argues in favor of embryo adoption.

What happens when true ectogenesis is developed? Embryos rescued from the freezer (or the uterus of a woman wanting an abortion/facing death herself) could be artifically grown to term bypassing surrogacy entirely. How is this really different from saving very premature babies by medical intervention?

How does this recent document apply to those sad cases where a woman sues to have her frozen embryos implanted in her over the father's objections?

Science fictional speculations on such matters might be useful to explore.

Carl E. Olson

Speaking of defining terms, which is essential (as Ed reiterates), part of the debate is whether or not "embryonic adoption" is actually "adoption" or "surrogacy," a point the CNS article touches on. It's an interesting and significant issue. My strong inclination, of course, is to call it adoption, not surrogacy. Surrogacy by its very nature involves an agreement to have a baby for someone else; it is, in essence, the sale of a pregnancy and child. Adoption, it should go without saying, is completely different. A birth mother and/or father who choose to place their child for adoption are surrogate parents. Nor does it make sense to me how a woman who gestates an embyro and gives birth to a child is somehow involved in surrogacy, unless she were to then give or sell the child to someone else.

Secondly, I think Sean is right on the money when he states, "The frozen embryo is just as much of a human person as the 2 year-old in an orphanage..." The argument is made by some that a woman who undertakes embryonic adoption is not conceiving a child by someone else (since the child already exists and is not biologically from her) but is, in essence, providing the child with food and shelter until the child is able to be born. That makes a lot of sense to me. Yes, there is a serious issue with cooperation with the IVF industry. But I don't see how an embryonic adoption can be equated, wholesale, with IVF. And, obviously, if it were, the CDF would have flatly and rightly said so. Another analogy used by supporters of embryonic adoptions is that of buying slaves from slave owners. That only goes so far, but is worth considering.

Clare wrote,"... in that the implantation of the frozen babies would require a 'repeat' of the illicit sex so to speak, introducing a mechanical process to replace the natural one." That is, it seems to me, at the heart of the question. While the woman who participates in an embryonic adoption is not using natural means, how accurate is it to say that she is engaging in "fertilization"? Or to what degree is she taking part in the process of IVP? How is that to be measured? Difficult questions, undoubtedly.

Thanks, Sandra, for mentioning the articles. I need to do some more reading before I can offer much more by way of meaningful comments.

By the way, I just came across this long and well-written post on the "Father Joe" blog about embryonic adoption, written back in 2006.


I don't see a compelling case against adopting embryos in extraordinary situations. However, I think there is at least a practical/prudential concern about the role the normalization of prenatal adoptions might serve in furthering the status of human embryos as a commodity; absent adequate legal status for the embryos it is very unlikely that they would be treated in the same way as ordinary post-natal adoptions.

In some respects it is similar to the question of whether it is appropriate to buy a consecrated host from an online auction in order to rescue it: in that case, one issue is that (regardless of one's intent) it does create a very bad economic incentive by rewarding the behavior, never mind the possibility of contributing to the formation of a market.

Adopting an embryo is also a little bit different to the relatively similar case of buying a slave in order to free him: embryonic transfer carries a significant risk of death for the embryo, and it is much easier for an unscrupulous company to simply manufacture as many embryos as people are willing to "rescue".

For example, if the Obama administration lifts restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, we are likely to end up with biotechnology firms manufacturing embryos for experimentation and pharmaceutical feedstock. When these firms discover that there is an additional source of demand for these embryos (people wanting them for implantation, for a variety of reasons), their natural response would be to open a side business selling them for that purpose.

Mark Brumley

One point of distinction, I think.

There are people who donate their gametes for various reproductive purposes that are at odds with sound morality. There are others who use reproductive technologies that, as part of their use, bring unwanted embryonic human beings into existence. Both of these activities are part of a reproductive industry and people feel free to engage in the aforementioned activities, indeed, they are encouraged and facilitated in engaging in those activities, because of that industry. If embryo rescue becomes common, it may have as an unintended consequence the further legitimization and encouragement, even financial incentivization, of the aforementioned activities.

I may be mistaken, and if so I would like to know about it, but I do not think there is a corresponding large-scale industrialized interest in facilitating out of wedlock pregnancies, or even pregnancy within marriage, on the grounds that doing so will provide a steady supply of children for others to adopt. For this reason, I can see why CDF and others are concerned about embryo rescue in a way that they are not concerned with adoption. Whether in the long run that concern turns out the be well-founded is another issue.

It seems to me that the issue of whether embryo rescue is, in principle, acceptable or unacceptable, needs to be distinguished from whether, in practice, it winds up materially cooperating with evil to such a degree that there is not a proportionate reason to justify it. Of course if embryo rescue is, in principle, wrong, then it may not be done, period. If it is not, in principle, wrong, there is still the question of whether it entails cooperation in evil. And if it does, whether such material cooperation can generally be justified. These are the issues, as I see it, that need further discussion. I don't mind people in charge saying as much. However, I concur with Dr. Peters that it would be helpful if people in Church authority, when exercising that authority, would avoid so much "thinking out loud". It seems fine enough to say, as the Church has said, in effect, on certain matters, "We do not intend at this time to address issue X, even though we know it is an important one". However, we have gotten into problems in the past with theological and ethical obiter dicta cluttering up the magisterial landscape.


"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."

I think Jeffrey Miller nailed it. I am not sure where the alleged ambiguity lies in Dignitas Personae.

Do we like the answer? Does it go against what we viscerally feel? I think for most of us it is a difficult answer to swallow, and we would love to find the moral "out." However, I don't see the Church, who would love to save these babies and who has the analytical capital to find ways, offering a way to save them morally.


Here is a summary of May's position on Heterologous Embryonic Transfer (HET), note his definition of surrogacy refers only to the nuturing and protection of human life and he relates it to the means of becoming pregnant, I think it is clearer than the one put forth in DP: While there are different views by Catholic theologians on the subject, and it is intrinsically evil to generate human life by means (IVF, fornication, etc.) other than the conjugal act, it is not intrinsically evil for a woman to become impregnated by means other than the conjugal act. Surrogacy, in this sense, refers to the protection and nurturing of life. Adoption of the frozen embryo, used as a form of surrogacy relating to the latter, is not analogous to IVF and its immoral making of human life. The issue at hand is not the generation of human life, but the protecting of human life, the good of the personhood of neither the parents nor the child is violated with HET and it is completely compatible with the love and respect for every good that is perfective of the human person. The object of the moral act is to have the embryo transferred into her womb, the means she chooses to save the life of the child. This freely chosen object requires pregnancy so that the child can be nurtured in her womb, and this object supports the good of life itself (the life of the child) and does not oppose it. Nor is it opposed to the generation of human life as are IVF and other reproductive technologies that choose to substitute for the marital act. The child that is being transferred to the womb has immeasurable worth. Again, the primary issue is not the means by which the child is conceived which we know to be immoral, but the life of the child itself. The adoption does not oppose the either good of marriage or the good of the marital act since she is not choosing to give herself in a genital act to someone other than her husband. She is not choosing to engage in the conjugal or any sexual act, instead the choice is to protect and nurture the good of human life.(Catholic Bioethics, p. 100-113)

tony foley

The Church has 2 reasons for opposing IVF.

First, the procedure violates the personalist principle that a human being should spring up from an act of mutual donation, namely the maritial embrace and not through a mechanical process involving a team of technical experts.

Second, the IVF procedure instrumentalises other being by bringing into being surplus embryos who will be cast aside, so to speak.

Now, the couple that adopt the frozen embryo are not directly infringing the second priciple but surely they violate the first principle, namely the personalist principle.

This is an issue we could all do with John Crosby's help on!

Jeff Miller

Here is a good recent article by bioethics expert Msgr. Ignacio Barreiro Carámbula.

Carl E. Olson

First, the procedure violates the personalist principle that a human being should spring up from an act of mutual donation, namely the maritial embrace and not through a mechanical process involving a team of technical experts.

An important point, no doubt. But, then, what of a child born to a 15-year-old girl who had sex one or two times with a 17-year-old boy she hardly knew and no longer has a relationship with? What sort of mutual donation and marital embrace is involved there?

Jeff: Thanks for the link. Frankly, I find both Monsignor Carámbula and Ms. Browns' comments to be confusing and unsatisfactory. Monsignor Carámbula states, "Thus, I am very glad the Magisterium has decided that it is not permissible to adopt babies in the womb." I don't see that clearly articulated in the document. Also, he writes, "On several occasions I insisted that it was in accordance with nature for a woman to gestate her own conceived babies — not alien babies with whom she did not have any biological relationship." But if this sort of approach is taken to its logical conclusion, it would result in people saying that it's unnatural and even immoral for a couple to adopt a child since they don't have a biological relationship with that child. Sadly, there are quite a few people, including some Catholics, who hold that nonsensical and offensive view. (I'm not saying that Monsignor Carámbula does; only that his thinking could logically lead to that conclusion.)

Ms. Brown writes, "...but the real question is, why are they there? Why were they produced/manufactured?" Well, that is A real question, but I don't see how it's the only question. That's like saying, "The real question is why some people still own slaves, not what we should do about slavery." She also states, "Each of those frozen embryos is a person; each deserves to be taken home by their own parents and each deserves to have a home, that is, if they survive the thawing process." Here again we come across an attitude that is, if followed to its logical end, an offense against adoption: the belief that only "biological" parents are real parents. Yes, I'm probably a little sensitive about it because I'm an adoptive parent, but this attitude is, frankly, offensive to me.

She adds: "What's wrong with their parents? These parents have indeed orphaned their own children because their self interest has been satisfied and, to my mind, they could care less about their children yet to be welcomed into the family, yet to be given a chance at life." Well, she just answered her own question! The problem with those biological parents is that they don't want to be real parents. And there is, sadly, often a difference. You don't have to be biologically related to be a real parent; likewise, you can provide the sperm and egg and never be a real parent. As I sometimes say, "It takes no talent, hard work, or commitment to have sex." Being a parent, of course, most certainly does.

Ms. Brown then states, "This is not the Church's fault." Okay. But no one said it was. Anyhow, that's beside the point, which is: is there something that the Church can do? That's the question being asked here. After all, we don't say, "Hey, it's not the Church's fault that there is rape, murder, and fornication" and then wash our hands of the matter. Or do we?


In regards to those comments about the Vatican "thinking out loud," I don't think the Holy See really has a choice. They must provide some sort of guidance to us, no matter how undeveloped it is. Thus, I see the statements of DP as warnings that people can only over-step after MUCH thought and prayer.

Two thoughts:
(1) Just to summarize, people are making the distinction between fertilization and implantation. This seems correct. The (main) problem with IVF is the creation of human beings in a lab instead of a uterus. The intent to implant ANY embryo is not in itself wrong, but the act of creating embryos in a laboratory absolutely is. However, the act of implanting an embryo from the outside doesn't appear to be completely moral either. It's certainly an extreme interference with natural pregnancy, somewhat akin to artificial insemination, which IS morally wrong.

I think the only thing to be said is "the embryos exist (for now), and they will die if they are not implanted." Thus, it seems reasonable for Catholics to go ahead and do this unless the Vatican comes down decisively on the issue.

(2) The problem of embryonic adoption is a sub-problem of IVF. Thus, the problem under consideration would simply not exist if it weren't for IVF. Couldn't the Vatican defer on the question of embryonic adoption while emphasizing the immorality of IVF? In other words, IVF (the original evil) has created a situation that cannot be morally resolved, the solutions to which are seemingly good or bad depending on a calculus of considerations. Thus, the only way out is to eliminate IVF.

In addition, eliminating IVF would force those who REALLY want children to adopt, thereby undercutting the arguments of abortionists involving "not enough parents to go around." It would also eliminate the abominations of the modern world such as homosexual people birthing their own children from their own (or others') DNA material.

In summary, focus on IVF and all the rest falls into place. I'm amazed at how little this technology is discussed today.

Ed Peters

"I don't think the Holy See really has a choice." You can't mean that the way it came out. Of course the Holy See has a choice here.

"They must provide some sort of guidance to us..." Says who? Says where?

" matter how undeveloped it is." That is precisely what they should avoid, undeveloped advice on a very complex issue, that, dollars to donoughts, they do not have a grasp on yet at several levels.

I don't understand this assumption that the Holy See (or worse, various bureaucrats within same) must have near-instant comprehension of the science and moral ramifications of every new technology as soon as it comes out. Nothing in Church history suggests Rome operates, or could operate, that way. The discussion on this board alone is proof that strong arguments can be made on both (better, all) sides of this one, and so my original point, that premature comments from Church leadership is imprudent, still stands.

Mark Brumley

Carl writes: "But if this sort of approach is taken to its logical conclusion, it would result in people saying that it's unnatural and even immoral for a couple to adopt a child since they don't have a biological relationship with that child."

It seems to me that one need not go to that extreme and yet can still raise questions about whether it is morally permissible to place an embryonic child into the womb of a woman who is not the child's biological mother. We may ultimately decide that it is ethical to do so, but it seems to me that the issues raised by the personal intimacy that is involved in a woman nurturing the life of a child within her body-person, and what could be regarded as an instrumentalization of a woman's womb, even for a good purpose (saving the life of an embryonic person), are not answered simply by referring to the fact that adoption is ethical.

I'm not sure about phrasing the issue in terms of whether embryo rescue is "natural" or "unnatural", because the term "natural" is susceptible to a lot of different meanings here, some of which are irrelevant to the ethical evaluation of the issue. It is not "natural" to do a lot of things that are not for that reason unethical, depending on what we mean by "natural". It is not "natural" for men to fly, etc. I am not sure what the alternative language should be and I know that ethical discussion in the Christian tradition often has recourse to the term "natural", but unless we carefully define what we mean by "natural", this sort of language is likely to confuse the issue.

I do not argue here that transferring embryonic human beings into the wombs of women who are not their biological mothers is unethical. However, it does not seem that those who raise the question of the instrumentalization of women's wombs are ipso facto talking nonsense, even if, ultimately, the procedure to which they object or about which they have concerns is morally justified, or the survival of certain embryonic human beings justifies resorting to a procedure one would otherwise not be justified in undertaking. (Not to imply that you, Carl, thought they were necessarily talking nonsense.)

With respect to the question of children conceived outside of wedlock, and/or children springing into being from mutual acts of self-donating love, it seems to me that that does not directly address the issue of the moral liceity of embryo rescue in itself. That seems to be the issue of what may or may not be done, once human beings have already been brought into existence by a mechanical process, rather than by an act of mutual self-donating love between husband and wife. Even if it is agreed (as it should be, at least by Catholics) that children should come into being in this "personalist" way, does it follow from this fact that children already brought into existence in another way may not be implanted into the womb of willing women, in order to save them from death or from suspended animation?

On the other hand, it does not seem to follow that just because some children have been conceived in morally illicit ways, such as through fornication or adultery or with indifference to the life-begetting meaning of the act of sexual intercourse, rather than through an act of mutual donation of spouses, that therefore other children may be gestated in a way that does not respect the "personalist" nature of motherhood and of a woman's womb--assuming, simply for the sake of argument, that embryo rescue violates necessary personalist ethical requirements. Opponents of embryo rescue would likely respond, "Two wrongs don't make a right."

Embryo rescue seems to me to be a complex issue, one the mind of the Church has not yet come to clarity on. It is good to discuss and debate the issue. Moreover, as a subject it seems legitimate, in itself, for CDF to have brought up. However, if CDF did not think it was in a position to resolve the debate, it seems to me that it would have been prudent either to have said nothing about it in the first place, or, if the topic had to be addressed, for CDF to have indicated that it was not in a position at this time to resolve the issue and that the question should continue to be discussed, without CDF hinting or acting in a way as to implying a certain judgment should be anticipated by the rest of us. Whatever CDF's intention, that is how it seems its language is likely to be taken by many Catholics. Indeed, that is how many Catholics have taken it. As it is, many people have come away confused and troubled, and you have some opponents of embryo rescue claiming that they have been vindicated and some supporters of embryo rescue wondering if they have been indirectly chastised. And yet the document leaves the matter open.

Mark Brumley

Telemachus writes "In regards to those comments about the Vatican 'thinking out loud,' I don't think the Holy See really has a choice. They must provide some sort of guidance to us, no matter how undeveloped it is. Thus, I see the statements of DP as warnings that people can only over-step after MUCH thought and prayer."

I think I agree with what I take to be the underlying sentiment of your comment about the Holy see having no choice. Certainly, this is a grave issue, with far-reaching implications. As such, it isn't "optional" for the Church to examine it and to try to come some resolution on the matter. However, let me ask whether you would agree that that there is a difference between that and saying that CDF had to issue a statement now, even if it had only "undeveloped" teaching to offer.

Wouldn't you agree that such "guidance", being derived from "undeveloped teaching", risks being misguidance and creating bigger problems?

Deacon Harold

This is one of the most thought-provoking and important posts I’ve ever seen on Ignatius Insight. I agree that Dignitatis Personae’s statement on embryo adoption is ambiguous and could lead to further confusion. Personally, as I read the document, I was anticipating this section and I was left disappointed with what the CDF presented.

Mark Brumley’s comments got me thinking about a “pastoral provision” the Church allows for a spouse who wants to remain faithful to the Church’s teaching regarding the fecundity of the conjugal act (e.g. NFP) while the other spouse continues to engage in the intrinsically immoral act of contraception.

We all know what the Church teaches on this issue:

“Periodic continence, that is, the methods of birth regulation based on self-observation and the use of infertile periods, is in conformity with the objective criteria of morality. … In contrast, "every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible" is intrinsically evil:

Thus the innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other. This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life but also to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love, which is called upon to give itself in personal totality. . . . The difference, both anthropological and moral, between contraception and recourse to the rhythm of the cycle . . . involves in the final analysis two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and of human sexuality.” Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), 2370.

Back in 1997, the Pontifical Council for the Family promulgated a document entitled, “Vademecum for Confessors: Concerning Some Aspects of the Morality of Conjugal Life” that stated, in part:

13. Special difficulties are presented by cases of cooperation in the sin of a spouse who voluntarily renders the unitive act infecund. In the first place, it is necessary to distinguish cooperation in the proper sense, from violence or unjust imposition on the part of one of the spouses, which the other spouse in fact cannot resist.46 This cooperation can be licit when the three following conditions are jointly met:

1. when the action of the cooperating spouse is not already illicit in itself;47
2. when proportionally grave reasons exist for cooperating in the sin of the other spouse;
3. when one is seeking to help the other spouse to desist from such conduct (patiently, with prayer, charity and dialogue; although not necessarily in that moment, nor on every single occasion).

14. Furthermore, it is necessary to carefully evaluate the question of cooperation in evil when recourse is made to means which can have an abortifacient effect.48

Footnotes are included to show the proper context:

(46) "Holy Church knows full well that not infrequently, one of the parties is sinned against rather than sinning, when for a grave cause he or she reluctantly allows the perversion of the right order. In such a case, there is no sin, provided that, mindful of the law of charity, he or she does not neglect to seek to dissuade and to deter the partner from sin" (Pius XI, Enc. Casti Connubii, AAS 22)

(47) 3 Cf. Denzinger-Schönmetzer, Enchiridion Symbolorum, 2795, 3634.

(48) "From the moral standpoint, it is never licit to cooperate formally in evil. Such cooperation occurs when an action, either by its very nature or by the form it takes in a concrete situation, can be defined as a direct participation in an act against innocent human life or a sharing in the immoral intention of the person committing it" (John Paul II, Enc. Evangelium Vitae, March 25, 1995, n. 74).

Regarding life conceived outside of the conjugal union of spouses, the CCC teaches (again, footnotes included):

2377 Techniques involving only the married couple (homologous artificial insemination and fertilization) are perhaps less reprehensible, yet remain morally unacceptable. They dissociate the sexual act from the procreative act. The act which brings the child into existence is no longer an act by which two persons give themselves to one another, but one that "entrusts the life and identity of the embryo into the power of doctors and biologists and establishes the domination of technology over the origin and destiny of the human person. Such a relationship of domination is in itself contrary to the dignity and equality that must be common to parents and children."168 "Under the moral aspect procreation is deprived of its proper perfection when it is not willed as the fruit of the conjugal act, that is to say, of the specific act of the spouses' union . . . . Only respect for the link between the meanings of the conjugal act and respect for the unity of the human being make possible procreation in conformity with the dignity of the person."169

168 CDF, Donum vitae II,5.
169 CDF, Donum vitae II,4.

My point: is it possible that a “pastoral provision” could be developed for embryo adoption? What does embryo adoption say about the dignity of marriage and the conjugal act? Does embryo adoption violate the Principle of Double Effect?

It seems to me that the focus needs to be on the cessation of homologous and heterologous embryo production, and then decide what to do with the remaining frozen embryos knowing that the practice of creating life artificially outside of marriage and the conjugal act is no longer an issue.

Mark Brumley

Sandra raised the issue of ectogenesis, which simplifies some things and complicates others. It relieves us of the question about instrumentalizing women's wombs, for an artificial womb is precisely an instrument to bring a baby to term. Does it also wind up eliminating the elements of personalism that implantation in a woman's womb retains (regardless of whether the procedure is morally licit)? Lots to think about. I remeber Father Robert Brungs, S.J., founder of ITEST, urging Church leaders and others to be thinking through these issues. Now they are upon us.

Ed Peters

Brungs was prophet, part of that amazing circle of Jesuits (like Quay) who studied under the resourcement theologians a decade either side of the Council.

tony foley

Jeff Miller cites my first principle and then makes a comment which I have repeated below.

"First, the procedure violates the personalist principle that a human being should spring up from an act of mutual donation, namely the maritial embrace and not through a mechanical process involving a team of technical experts. An important point, no doubt. But, then, what of a child born to a 15-year-old girl who had sex one or two times with a 17-year-old boy she hardly knew and no longer has a relationship with? What sort of mutual donation and marital embrace is involved there? "

My reply to Jeff would be that the scenario he narrates is indeed an imperfection in the act of mutual donation but it is not a negation of mutual donation whereas the implantation of an embryo appears to be a complete negation of the personalist principle.

Fr. Thomas

In re: Dr. Peters and "imprudent" comments

Dr. Peters responded to the comment that the Church needed to supply guidance on certain issues like embryo adoption, even if that guidance was somewhat inconclusive, by saying, "Says who? Says where?"

While I agree with Dr. Peters that actual, explicit statements calling for the Vatican's response would be helpful in justifying its inclusion in the document, I believe that there was an implicit desire on the part of theologians and the faithful for the Vatican to speak about embryo adoption and other issues. We can see this desire when we look at the reactions to the document from the perspective of the issue of rape protocols. While the document did touch on issues regarding emergency contraception, it did not lay out any specific statement regarding the use of such drugs in cases of rape. This lack of comment has been a common issue among theologians (including some that I have spoken to) who are disappointed with the lacuna: "Why didn't the Vatican say anything specific about this?" But such a comment would not make sense unless those theologians were hoping that the Vatican would say something about the topic. My conclusion, then, via negativa, is that theologians did implicitly want the Vatican to speak about this and other issues, and that the Vatican was responding to that perceived desire.

And, yes, I also agree that Rome can certainly take her time in responding to and commenting on the morality of scientific advances. She's been around 2000 years; what's another year or two? And, as Dr. Peters mentioned, there are good arguments on all sides of this debate. So, what's wrong with the Vatican recognizing that and saying that there is no clear moral solution to this problem? Could not the document's pronouncement on embryo adoption be seen principally as a statement of fact? And, furthermore, basing her reflection on previous established teaching regarding IVF and surrogacy, what's wrong with the Church expressing caution regarding the issue of embryo adoption? I think, in this regard, that the document did provide some good, sound guidance with the issue: err on the side of caution and restrictiveness in the face of a dilemma that seems to have no clear moral solution. Better to send up a yellow light now than to regret a green or red light later.

El Zorro

Great discussion. Just a couple of responses to comments made so far:
CHARLEY seems to confuse "natural law" with what occurs naturally/in nature, citing the example of organ donation as morally acceptable even though it works, "arguably, contrary to nature." Natural law is not so much about what happens naturally or in nature, but is the law "written on our hearts" (Romans 2:15), the law ingredient in our human nature. Without plunging too deeply into a difficult area, it should be added that it follows that artificiatlity by itself is not intrinsically evil or contrary to natural law.

Why is this important? Because making a case in which embryo adoption is acceptable "even though it is contrary to natural law" would be in violation of one of the two most basic moral principles:

We cannot perform an evil action in order to achieve a good purpose.

TODD seems to question this principle in his post, the heart of which is the following: "Let's note the Church accepts this as a line of reasoning when it applies moral standards to the conduct of war. A person may refuse military service, taking an absolute pacifist stance. The Church permits this, but it also accepts a circumstance in which a lesser evil is chosen (military violence) in order to prevent a greater one (unjust conquest)."

Military service--even when it involves violence--is not intrinsically evil, and so it is not accurate to say that "a lesser evil is chosen (military violence) in order to prevent a greater one (unjust conquest)." A soldier may not choose any evil, nor may those with authority over armed forces and decisions about whether to wage war. A just war (in which waging war was justly chosen and the war is justly waged) by definition cannot involve the choosing of evil. That is not to ignore, of course, that some degree of material evil is accepted according to the correct application of the principle of double-effect. At the heart of this argument is that it is murder (the intentional killing of an innocent human being), and not mere violence, that is intrinsically evil.

There is a great deal at stake in these points, because once a person allows for morally evil actions to be performed in the pursuit of good goals, the battle for morality is lost. Here I am not weighing in on the morality of embryo adoption, but only about HOW we must deliberate: either embryo adoption is morally good (perhaps according to the principle of double-effect) or it is evil and needs to be rejected. This is why the Church must proceed with such care in forming her official teachings, as others have noted.

Ed Peters

"So, what's wrong with the Vatican recognizing that and saying that there is no clear moral solution to this problem?"

Nothing, would that they had merely said that (clearly and simply). Instead, we also got a "but we're leaning against it" comment.

When a judge accepts a case (greatly simplifying here), he says basically, "There's plausible arguments both ways here, so let's have trial." He does not say, "Oh, I'm leaning toward toward the plaintiffs." For obvious reasons. My only objection is to the obiter dicta above.

Gail F

This is certainly a thought-provoking post. I sympathize with the couple in question, and others like them who have done this or are thinking of doing it.

The number of people willing to do this is much smaller than the number of frozen embryos. The fact that people supposedly willing to do anything to have a child then let their conceived children be frozen and kept around "just in case" astonishes me. The fact that these same people (again, supposedly willing to do anything to have a child) would let someone else raise the brothers and sisters of their own living child or children is repulsive. We are not talking about people who can't care for additional children, but people who have enough money for IVF treatments -- people of some means. Surely it is better to eliminate the production of these "extra" embryos in the first place.

Of course that does not change the urgent question of what to do about the ones already created, and I can see that to a couple who cannot bear a child that this seems an ideal solution. However, to have this solution they must participate in and financially support the very institutions that create the "extra" embryos. Adoption agencies do not (or should not) have anything to do with creating children who need to be adopted, but this is a very different situation. Add to that any number of required, morally compromising decisions (do the "adopting" couples choose which embryos are implanted? do they have several implanted at once to see if some don't make it? etc.), and the very real possibility that their "adoption" lends legitimacy to the industry and to couples who use it, and the possibility of materially cooperating with evil seems to me to be quite probably, if not inevitable.


"We cannot perform an evil action in order to achieve a good purpose. Todd seems to question this principle in his post ..."

It might seem so, but as a pacifist, I accept Church teaching in a more demanding way when it comes to violence. What I question is the imbalanced approach to principles like this, what seems to be a lack of curiosity on how the Church has applied its judgment in the past.

Let's face it: even enemy combatants are children of parents, parents of children, friends, spouses, and loved ones of people back home. Killing such a person is certainly an evil in the experience of those who are innocent bystanders of such violence.

That said, let's not kid ourselves this is a very complex issue, and that the curial and other theologians have a lot of work ahead to resolve this. The great potential for good and evil must begin and end with an examination not of the desires of parents, but the with reality for the children. And not just the frozen embryos, but the living children who wait for adoption worldwide in the millions. The Church has yet to develop a theology of adoption that is sufficiently child-centered. When it does, it will find the path comewhat cleared of clutter.


I think that Tony Foley is on the right track.

Bottom line is that it is intrinsically evil to begin conception outside the marital embrace and it is intrinsically evil to begin a pregnancy outside the marital embrace. Children have an absolute right to be conceived in a marital embrace.

Thanks be to God for the Church. She sees better than most that women are persons, not objects, whether any particalar woman (or man) recognizes that for herself. She is not to engage in rent-a-womb even if it saves an embryonic life. The good achieved is not worth the evil of the "surrogacy" or "adoption".

There is no answer other than the condemnation of all artificial conceptions other than those which help the marital embrace in its embrace.

Carl E. Olson

Ann: Your comments are confusing to me. We all agree that "it is intrinsically evil to begin conception outside the marital embrace" (I take that by "intrinsically" you mean "objectively"). We all agree, I think, that it is sinful to begin a pregnancy outside the marital embrace. But saying, as you do, that "Children have an absolute right to be conceived in a marital embrace," presents problems. For example, what about children who are conceived and born outside the marital embrace and are then adopted? Are the adoptive parents participating in or encouraging the sin of sex outside the marital embrace? Of course not. And we know the Church supports and encourages adoption; Dignitas Personae states: "In order to come to the aid of the many infertile couples who want to have children, adoption should be encouraged, promoted and facilitated by appropriate legislation so that the many children who lack parents may receive a home that will contribute to their human development."

The phrase "rent-a-womb" seems both unfair and flippant. My wife, for example, mothers two children who are not biologically related to her, were never in her womb, and were not the result of our marital embrace. Is she, then, a "rent-a-Mom"? Isn't the term "rent-a-womb" a put-down of those married women, who cannot conceive, who pursue embryonic adoption because they both want to have a child and want to save a child? Are we to believe or conclude that directly allowing the death of unborn children is better than carrying to term children already conceived, even if the conception was by sinful means? I have a very hard time reaching that conclusion. In fact, it bothers me a great deal.

For the record, I am ardently opposed to IVF and have sought, even before becoming Catholic, to follow diligently and faithfully the Church's teachings on marriage, sexuality, and reproduction. I don't have an easy answer to the question of the moral veracity of embryonic adoption. But I think we have to be really careful of how we talk about it, because the logic of our remarks sometimes leads to deficient conclusions.


Carl, I apologize for my words which seem flippant and insulting to adoptive moms. I should have been not only more delicate, but also more clear.

I will try to do better here than in my first post about what I see as a real problem.

First I must say that adoptive moms of children conceived out of wedlock or abandoned for some reason are moms in a very special way and are to be admired and encouraged. That said, I think that most adoptive moms were first inclined to have their own biological children. This is because there is something very special about God's gift of biology and in the ideal situation all children would be born in an intact biological family of a married mother and a father.
We recognize that ideal by virtue of the fact that we never encourage out of wedlock births, or as Catholics, surrogate motherhood.

I realize that adoptive parents love their adoptive children as much as bio parents, often more.

Frankly, I am reluctant to get personal, but your admirable wife's womb was not "rented".

Surrogate mother's wombs are rented in the sense that they are not carrying their own biological children conceived in an act of intercourse (here I think I am being more careful with my words). This does not apply to an adoptive mom.

I think the Church condemns surrogacy for one reason because it separates the act of intercourse from the pregnancy and birth. To so separate is intrinsically evil. I use that term because I believe it is evil regardless of motive or intent and is never allowable.

I think that a woman who allows her body to be subject to a pregnancy begun in any manner other than by her own personal act of intercourse (ideally in a marriage) is still a surrogate and still participating in that intrinsic evil. The motive of saving snowflake babies, although admirable, is not enough to make the separation not evil.

I also believe that there is great wisdom in the Church's position, that She recognizes implicitly, although She has not yet explicitly articulated it that women are not just possessors of wombs which are to be used any which way, but are persons with wombs which are sacred spaces for the gestation of their own biological children.

I realize we are on the verge of new thinking in the realm of our bio-tech world, but I think that regardless of motive women are not to use their wombs for any other than their own children.

Please feel free to argue. I appreciate it that you are forcing me to try to be more clear.


Ann, I agree with you 100%.

As if there are not enough babies languishing in orphanages throughout the world. I would venture a guess that adopting an embryo is motivated more by a strong impulse to experience pregnancy than it is to save an embryo. It is also a rejection of an already born human in need who is being denied the nurturance of parents. An embryo in a frozen state has no emotional needs as does an infant. As a woman who has experienced the agony of infertility, let it be known that it is truly a dark night of the soul and the obsession to become pregnant can become overwhelming. By the grace of God, I studied Church teaching and knew IVF was evil. In my anguish I turned to intense prayer and one day I just knew there was an infant, somewhere in the world that needed me as much as I needed him/her and the journey of adoption began. The fate of frozen embryos is best left to God.


A few more thoughts... We've been very up front, as parents, in explaining adoption to our children since they were quite young. One beautiful reassurance I can convey to them is that their "biological or birth mommy" loved them so much that she gave them the gift of life. What can the parent of an adopted embryo tell her child?..."Your biological mother loved you so much she consigned you to a deep freeze". The child who is a product of an adopted embryo will forever know that he was consigned to the freezer by his biological parents. This is a huge trauma. IVF with the creation of several embryos is evil and adopting them just promotes the practice. I work with a devout Mormon woman who announced her daughter is contemplating IVF. When I questioned the disposition of the extra embryos created, she told me that her daughter was comforted by the thought that she would have the option of putting them up for "adoption". So, that is seemingly what swayed her to go ahead with the procedure. When I mentioned that there are hundreds of thousands of embryos out there that are not being adopted, and that isn't there something wrong about creating human life and relegating it to the deep freeze, she just shrugged and looked at me as if I was from Mars. I say Catholics should just say "no" to participating in anything to do with IVF or its consequences. I believe Holy Mother Church is moving in the direction of making that explicit.



I agree with you. Have you noticed that no women engaged in thought about this seem inclined to support adoption of snowflake babies?

The same can be said for Mary Geach, the daughter of Peter Geach and Elizabeth Anscombe.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Ignatius Insight


Ignatius Press

Catholic World Report


Blogs & Sites We Like

June 2018

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
          1 2
3 4 5 6 7 8 9
10 11 12 13 14 15 16
17 18 19 20 21 22 23
24 25 26 27 28 29 30
Blog powered by Typepad