Article Review: “Cryopreserved Embryo Adoption. Not Now, Maybe Later”

Dana Pham (pronouns: who/cares)
6 min readMay 23, 2022

“If our religion is something objective, then we must never avert our eyes from those elements in it which seem puzzling or repellent; for it will be precisely the puzzling or the repellent which conceals what we do not yet know and need to know.”―CS Lewis

Review for a university assessment: Cara Buskmiller, “Cryopreserved Embryo Adoption. Not Now, Maybe Later,” National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly 16.2 (Summer 2016): 225–231

Assessor’s comments: The paper begins well, clearly identifying the moral issue at hand — the tension between wanting to save life of the embryo who remains in the indignity of cryopreservation, and the morality of the act of embryo adoption. You show keen insight into issues related to the marital state, and practical implications of the spousal right to become a parent only through the other. Your reflection ‘wanders’ a little in the latter parts, and your critical engagement with the article itself could be improved.

As someone who has been involved in the pro-life movement, my instant reaction to this topic was that of course it is moral to transfer a cryopreserved embryo into a woman’s uterus, regardless of whether she is married or not. That is, adopting the embryo in this manner is saving an unborn child, and that can only be good. And so I initially found the reasons for objecting to embryo adoption as outlined in Church documents such as Dignitas Personae (DP) and Donum Vitae (DV) to be frustrating to read.

Essentially, embryo adoption is praiseworthy for its strong pro-life intention, but cannot be licitly pursued because it is morally problematic in ways not dissimilar to surrogacy, and in-vitro fertilization (IVF). To add insult to injury, both documents acknowledge that there are thousands of abandoned embryos out there, and the numbers have probably increased over the years. Yet the conclusion is that this unjust situation cannot be resolved, that it should be accepted as an absurd fate due to licitness concerns, and therefore the embryo in question should be left to thaw and die naturally? I just found it difficult to believe that the Catholic position is less pro-life than I initially thought.

Nevertheless I do somewhat appreciate, after some reflection, why the Church has taken such a position. Since pregnancy as a result of embryo transfer is not the outcome of a conjugal act between the pregnant woman and her husband, the act falls short of fully realising the complementarity between both the woman and man. That is, there is an unnatural disruption to the prenatal developmental process, because there is a conjugal divorcing occurring at different levels. This results in the child being denied their conjugal father and mother, bounded by marriage, and denies the man and woman from becoming father and mother through consummating their marriage.

In accordance with Genesis 2:24, the wife co-owns her womb with her husband, because her womb allows the both of them to move towards becoming one flesh. In other words, marriage is not merely contractual, but is a rearrangement of bodily rights where husband and wife own each other for the purposes of marital fecundity. This belief is in contrast to today’s societal perception of the Catholic Church as being sexist, and the article is a timely reminder of this. Either way, whether it is embryo transfer, surrogacy or IVF, womb autonomy is impermissible for reasons outlined so far as per the article.

It is also why the man is prohibited from donating semen, because the autonomy of his reproductive organs would not lead to marital fecundity, the end of said organs. Therefore, even if the man and the woman proceeded with embryo transfer together, this process excludes the use of the man’s reproductive organs. Here, it is a technician who is transferring the embryo into the womb, and hence the difference between embryo adoption and conventional adoption is that conventional adoption does not conflict with marital fecundity. In this sense, the Church referring to embryo vitrification as an absurd fate, makes sense. DV summarised that a conceptive procedure that is not abortive in nature can still be considered morally illicit if it excludes the conjugal act and the dignity associated with it.

The author then proceeds to raise some ‘common sense’ objections in the article. She argued that embryo adoption is not exactly pro-life, and that continued vitrification is more pro-life, because the highest documented live birth rate following embryo thawing is 68 percent. Therefore, I ask, if there was a guarantee that an embryo would not be left to thaw and die naturally, this is the most Catholic response?

The author then clarified that the right to life does not include the right of unnaturally conceived embryos to be gestated in uteri since they were denied the dignity of starting life off in uteri to begin with. Dignity here is dignity in the sense of complete intimate connection between parents and their progeny, and God and His creative plan for all, which transcends objectifying materialism. Therefore, I ask, if there was no guarantee that an embryo will not be thawed for further indignity such as scientific experimentation, leaving it to thaw and die naturally instead is the most Catholic response?

A fertile couple who adopts an embryo forgo the woman gestating a progeny via the conjugal act of said couple, but the author noted that it has been argued that said fertile couple would be more motivated by charity compared to a couple using embryo transfer as an infertility treatment (of course, infertility is not an absolute evil). I do not have a moral response to this, other than it must be asked of the couple, fertile or otherwise: what are you doing in choosing embryo transfer? But even if the answer to this question is that the act is morally licit, the transfer could be argued to be an extraordinary form of surgical treatment, an argument that has been referenced in the euthanasia debate.

Therefore, the act of embryo adoption may even indirectly increase demand for frozen embryos, thereby furthering an (abandoned) embryo vitrification industry in a manner similar to the IVF, abortion and euthanasia industries, unless IVF becomes illegal because there is a crossover between the vitrification and IVF industries. It seems that even if the double-effect reasoning for an embryo adoption passes the principle of double-effect test, the accumulation of such adoptions over time, pass or fail, would risk having a societal or cultural effect that may overall fail the test. This is because all involved in this situation are at risk of occasioning grave sins.

To mitigate, the author provides a risk assessment template to consider by firstly stating that embryo adoption in itself is morally netural, because it is essentially passive locomotion of a human person unable to consent (what are you doing?). The accidental components of embryo adoption for consideration include legality, transfer techniques, and intention of adopting parent/s. For example, intention relates to the question: what are you doing in choosing embryo transfer? Is it selfish, like aversion to conventional adoption? What are you really doing?

The author asked the reader to be mindful that the absurd fate cannot be resolved, for now, because the illicit technologies may improve to become sufficiently licit in the future. Unsurprisingly, DP is less hardline than DV, and DV does not address embryo transfer. She also asked the reader to note that embryo adoption does not involve the surgical manipulation of reproductive tissues, just passive locomotion in essence. To clarify, life begins at conception, or at point of sperm–egg fusion, and fertilisation is a series of events.

The intention behind an embryo adoption is not necessarily the same as that of surrogacy, which its illicitness is more clear-cut — the intention could well be that of marital fecundity. If spouses can only become parents only through each other, it seems that marital fecundity could be achieved without sharing genetics, since the development of the parent-child relationship is what matters. That is, if it is willed by a father and mother who agree to raise children together, the same kind of will that drives the conjugal act. In this sense, biological and adoptive parents are parents alike if the generative powers were not interfered with.

Scandal is not necessarily based on truth. “Adoptive” is only added to the word “parent” to socially explain the child’s origins when required — the child’s identity is still based on his or her adoptive family. Whilst the Church still values the conjugal act, the adopted child remains a child of God (Eph 1:5). From an Australian perspective, this begs the question: why is the conventional adoption regime strict and disincentivising, considering there are no bioethical concerns for this type of adoption? It appears that adoption reform deserves attention in Australia, and that the bioethical concerns for embryo adoption ultimately relates to the IVF culture.

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Dana Pham (pronouns: who/cares)

Trans-inclusionary radical feminist (TIRF) | Liberal Arts phenomenologist from @notredameaus | Anglo-catholic | all opinions expressed here are my own