This article appears in the November 2001edition of the Catholic Medical Quarterly

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Theologians Argue Frozen Embryos' Fate

by Grace MacKinnon

A Debated Issue

In seeking a solution to this grave moral issue, a number of moral theologians-all faithful to the Magisterium of the Church-are currently debating what has been termed the "rescuing" of frozen embryos. This refers to the transferring of frozen embryos to a volunteer's womb- a matter that the Magisterium has not as yet issued a judgment on. There exists a division of opinion among these theologians, all of who firmly assent to the teaching of Donum Vitae, regarding this issue. Some argue that attempting to rescue such frozen embryos is intrinsically immoral. Bishop Elio Sgreccia, vice president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, was quoted as saying, "The idea of a systematic organization of prenatal adoption of the frozen embryos would, in fact, end up by legitimizing the practice which is substantially at the root of the whole problem" (cited in The London Tablet, 10 August 1996). Others, however, assert that it is morally licit to transfer the embryo from what Dr. Jerome Lejeune called its "concentration can" into a volunteer's womb in order to protect its life.

These theologians give different arguments to support their positions. All the theologians involved in this discussion accept the Church's teaching that: "Techniques that entail the dissociation of husband and wife, by the intrusion of a person other than the couple are gravely immoral. These techniques infringe the child's right to be born of a father and mother known to him and bound to each other by marriage" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2376).

A recent personal interview in Washington, D .C., with noted Catholic moral theologian Dr. William E. May of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family revealed how serious and controversial this topic is. In his latest book, Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life, May undertakes a thorough and well organized analysis of the various positions held on this crucial issue by some of the leading moral theologians and philosophers of the day; Based on a study of these, May offers his firm conclusion that it can indeed be morally permissible to adopt prenatally a frozen embryo in order to "rescue" it from certain death.

The space available in this article for a complete discussion of all the arguments is limited. Therefore, in considering both sides of this debate and because we want to come to a clearer understanding of the Catholic Church's teaching, we will simply summarize the major positions and how they are related to the teaching of Donum Vitae.

The Arguments

Monsignor William B. Smith, professor of moral theology at St. Joseph's Seminary in Dunwoodie, N .Y:, believes that a key passage from Donum Vitae clearly excludes "rescue" attempts: "(I)n consequence of the fact that they have been produced in vitro, 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" (Part 1,5; emphasis added.) In defending his view; Smith writes, "No safe means that can be licitly pursued! Perhaps the CDF [Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith] did not intend to address this precise case, but I read here a first principled insight indicating that this volunteer 'rescue' is not a licit option" ("Rescue the Frozen?" Homiletic and Pastoral Reviem October 1995).

Other theologians, however, among them Dr. May, Germain Grisez and Geoffrey Surtees, maintain that Smith has taken this passage out of context. They claim that it refers not to those who attempt to "rescue" a child, but rather to those who have been wrongly involved with in vitro fertilization for the purpose of using embryos for experimental research. They believe this based on the fact that it occurs in a section of the document that deals with the moral evaluation of this type of research.

Smith additionally holds that a woman seeking to "rescue" a frozen embryo would be acting as a surrogate mother, and Donum Vitae clearly teaches that such an act is intrinsically immoral. This view was also expressed in a recent interview on EWTN's The World Over Live, by Edmund Pellegrino, M.D ., of the Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University Medical Center.

Dr. May argues, however, that a surrogate mother is one who agrees to bear a child in her womb for the benefit of another woman and usually for money whereas in "rescuing a frozen embryo a woman is bearing the child in her womb for the benefit of the child and is hence not serving as a "surrogate' mother as defined by Donum Vitae."

Another major argument against "rescuing frozen embryos" is that a woman who allows the frozen embryo to be implanted in her womb is violating the integrity of marriage. Those who hold this view state that a woman should allow herself to become pregnant only by being inseminated by her own husband in the marital act. This argument is advanced vigorously by British Catholic philosopher Mary Geach.

In response to this argument, other Catholic writers - among them May, Grisez, Surtees and the British Catholic philosopher Helen Watt - argue that a woman who "rescues" a frozen embryo is not making herself pregnant by being inseminated outside of marriage. They attempt, as is brought out in May's book, to distinguish a perversion of the marital act from the choice to rescue a child already in existence. Here, the attention shifts its focus to the morality of human acts.

Essentially we know that every human act has three elements: the object (that which we freely choose to do), the end in view (intention), and the circumstances. The Church teaches that in order for any human act to be morally good, and thus permissible, all three of these elements must be good. The Church also teaches that some objects are in and of themselves morally evil and therefore can never be judged as good, no matter the intention or circumstances (Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 1755).

Much of the debate relating to the fate of frozen embryos focuses on this point. The question becomes, What is the object of this action? Smith, Geach and others who disagree with embryo "rescue" believe that the object of the act is intrinsically immoral -becoming pregnant outside of marriage and/or serving as a surrogate mother.

Theologians such as May, Grisez, Surtees and Watt differ among themselves in identifying precisely the "object" of the act. Surtees and Watt assert that the object is to "adopt" the child prenatally, giving it a home first in the womb of the wife and then in the home provided by her and her husband. In their opinion, a woman should be married if she is to volunteer to rescue the child (Surtees is not as clear on this as is Watt). May and Grisez hold that the "object" is to "transfer the frozen embryo, a child orphaned before its birth, to the woman's womb" in order to protect its life (Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Lift). Thus, they believe that a single woman could rightly choose to do this and, after the child's delivery, offer it for adoption to a married couple.

On the other side of the debate, Smith also holds that the rescuing of a frozen embryo cannot be morally licit because it is not procreation of the kind that respects the bond uniting the procreative and unitive meanings of the conjugal act and also of the unity and dignity of the human person. All agree that procreation should take place this way, but not all believe that this is being violated by a woman who simply wishes to "rescue" a child's life, a child who is already in existence. In other words, the bottom line seems to be that some contend that placing a human embryo procreated outside the mother's body into another woman's womb is sometimes wrong and sometimes right, depending on why it is done. Here, one can see how difficult this issue of identifying accurately the object of a human act can be. The intention or end may be good, but is the object (that which we freely choose to do) good? Is it in the plan of God for us ? With regard to intrinsically evil acts, Veritatis Splendor (n. 80) quotes Pope Paul VI's teaching that "though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good, it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it (cf. Rom. 3:8) in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general." Although God can transform evil and bring from it a good, this would be quite distinct from doing evil in order to bring about good;

In the end, it will be the Church's Magisterium, as the only authentic and authoritative interpreter of the Word of God in matters of faith and morals, that will decide what is to be done regarding this grave moral issue. Bishop Elio Sgreccia, vice president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, recently stated that, "In order to investigate this subject the Academy for Life has set up a multidisciplinary task force which will study all the aspects of the whole question and then publish a work on the subject."

It is important to keep in mind that persons on both sides of this debate are pro-life and that this matter weighs heavily on all. We must pray to God for an answer. In the words of our Holy Father, "Man's life comes from God; it is his gift, his image and imprint, a sharing in his breath of life. God therefore is the sole Lord of this life: man cannot do with it as he wills. Human life and death are thus in the hands of God, in his power. He alone can say: 'It is I who bring both death and life' (Deuteronomy 3:2:397)" (Evangelium Vitae, 39).

 Grace MacKinnon holds a Master's degree in theology and is a freelance writer for HLI Reports.

Reproduced from an article published in HLI Reports August 2001, Volume 19 Number 8, HLI Reports is published monthly by: Human Life International, 4 Family Life Front Royal, Virginia 22630, USA

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