On December 12, 2008, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released Dignitas Personae (“The Dignity of the Person”), an “instruction on certain bioethical questions.” It was widely regarded as a sequel to Donum Vitae, the 1987 instruction on questions of procreation written by the same congregation, under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Much had changed in science and medicine in the 21 years since that document, which took up issues such as in vitro fertilization. Dignitas Personae dealt with certain other reproductive technologies, cloning, new forms of contraception and abortion, stem-cell therapies, gene therapy, and attempts at hybridization.
At the time of Donum Vitae, embryo adoption was an obscure issue. But the 1987 instruction did say that “spare” embryos created in IVF “are exposed to an absurd fate, with no possibility of their being offered safe means of survival which can be licitly pursued.”
That seemed to imply that not even embryo rescue or adoption was a “means of survival which can be licitly pursued.”
The ensuing years saw a lively debate among theologians, since it seemed the Magisterium had not ruled definitively on the practice and the mainstreaming of it, particularly for infertile couples. Organizations such as Nightlight Christian Adoptions, with its “Snowflakes” program, facilitate such adoptions.
Dignitas Personae refers to embryo adoption as heterologous embryo transfer, because ovum or sperm, or both, come from persons outside the marriage bond of the receiving couple. It says it is ethically unacceptable for an infertile couple to have an embryo transferred into the wife’s womb as a way to have a child. Why? For the same reason, as Donum Vitae pointed out, that artificial heterologous procreation and surrogate motherhood are illicit.
“The fidelity of the spouses in the unity of marriage involves reciprocal respect of their right to become a father and a mother only through each other,” says Donum Vitae. “Heterologous artificial fertilization is contrary to the unity of marriage, to the dignity of the spouses, to the vocation proper to parents, and to the child’s right to be conceived and brought into the world in marriage and from marriage.”
Transferring a frozen embryo as a “cure” for infertility, Dignitas Personae adds “would also lead to other problems of a medical, psychological, and legal nature,” though it does not specify them.
Father Robert Gahl, an American who teaches at Opus Dei’s University of the Holy Cross in Rome, said that theologians on both sides of the issue were hoping for more: one side was hoping that Dignitas Personae would advocate embryo rescue through adoption, the other that it would definitively condemn such a practice.
“The document, I think, reflects that there continues to be discussion within the Church’s magisterial authority regarding this issue,” he said. “And therefore out of a sense of caution and prudence [it] warns against doing so, without definitively condemning it.”
At the Vatican press conference releasing the instruction, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, told reporters that “the discussion is still open.” According to Catholic News Service, the archbishop said the Vatican has not ruled out the possibility of embryo adoption completely, although it is leaning toward a completely negative judgment because embryo adoption involves the future parents in an immoral process.
The document contains similar imprecision on the issue of “new techniques which are presented as capable of producing stem cells of an embryonic type without implying the destruction of true human embryos,” such as altered nuclear transfer (ANT) and oocyte assisted reprogramming (OAR). The document doesn’t unequivocally condemn these techniques, but cautions that these “proposals have been met with questions of both a scientific and an ethical nature regarding above all the ontological status of the ‘product’ obtained in this way.” The document continues, “Until these doubts have been clarified, the statement of the encyclical Evangelium Vitae needs to be kept in mind: ‘what is at stake is so important that, from the standpoint of moral obligation, the mere probability that a human person is involved would suffice to justify an absolutely clear prohibition of any intervention aimed at killing a human embryo’ [EV 60].”
In considering what to do with the thousands upon thousands of frozen human embryos, Dignitas Personae recognizes three possibilities: Use them for research or for the treatment of disease; put them at the disposal of infertile couples as a treatment for infertility; rescue them by allowing them to gestate in the womb of an adoptive mother.
It’s easy enough to declare the first option morally unacceptable: human embryos must not be willfully destroyed, as science would do in order to conduct research. Not only is it wrong to “treat the embryos as mere ‘biological material’” Dignitas Personae says. Thawing out frozen embryos, allowing them to die, and then using them for research, “as if they were normal cadavers, is also unacceptable.”
But treating the second and third options has not been so easy. One group of moral theologians and bioethicists see in the willingness to protect an embryo through adoption a heroic sacrifice on the part of pro-life couples. Other theologians have been more cautious, pointing out that the practice of implanting an embryo that is the result of the union of gametes other than those of the adopting parents is contrary to the Church’s understanding of the exclusive bond of marriage.
Dignitas Personae does consider embryo rescue “praiseworthy with regard to the intention of respecting and defending human life.” But it cautions that such a move “presents…various problems not dissimilar to those mentioned above.”
Just what those “questions above” refer to is a bit unclear. Presumably, they refer to those cited in the document’s previous paragraph, which mentions artificial heterologous procreation, surrogacy, and medical, psychological, and legal problems.
“The instruction remains ambiguous on whether it would be licit for couples, with the proper motivation, to attempt to ‘rescue’ unwanted frozen embryos,” said Father Thomas Berg, a Legion of Christ priest who directs the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person. He and other bioethicists and moral theologians feel the Vatican needs to issue further clarification.
But William May, who has argued that embryo adoption is licit, said a close reading of the paragraph makes it obvious that it does not refer to heterologous procreation and surrogacy.
May, professor of moral theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, declined to be interviewed for this article but referred to an article he wrote soon after publication of Dignitas Personae.
“Some scholars think that the CDF has definitely concluded that adopting frozen embryos prenatally is not morally licit,” he wrote on the website cultureoflife.org. “But others, and I am among them, think that a close reading of this sentence and the context in which it appears makes it clear that it was not the intention of the CDF to make a definitive judgment on this disputed question but that it left the issue open to further debate by Catholic theologians. The ‘various problems not dissimilar to those mentioned above’ in this sentence refers to ‘other problems of a medical, psychological, and legal nature’ (emphasis added) noted in the paragraph rejecting using these embryos as a treatment for fertility, not to any moral problem.
“Frequently, when people engage in intrinsically immoral acts, various medical, psychological, and/or legal factors that are not in themselves moral determinants add to the immorality of their immoral acts, while very similar factors, prudently dealt with, do not cause people’s morally acceptable acts to become immoral.”
“Therefore,” May concludes, “Dignitas Personae’s statement that embryo adoption presents problems not dissimilar to those involved in the immoral practice treated in the preceding paragraph is reasonably interpreted as warning those engaging in embryo adoption to attend to all relevant medical, psychological, and legal problems and to exercise prudence in dealing with them.”
Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, however, sees Dignitas Personae in a more cautionary light. Father Pacholczyk, who is director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, has been an opponent of embryo adoption, and feels that the new instruction has brought the debate to a critical point.
“The approach of Dignitas Personae is to indicate that this is no longer a completely open question, one which could freely swing one way or the other,” he said. “It rather is using very strongly cautionary language—that we have to put on the brakes here strongly, that if there are any conditions where this is going to be morally justifiable, they are vanishingly small, if any.”
Father Pacholczyk’s main concern about embryo transfer is that it involves a violation of the marital covenant.
“In a regular adoption nobody has to use their procreative powers. Nobody has to become pregnant in that proposal,” he said. “There is a symmetry that’s maintained in terms of a regularly adopted child and both parents.”
But in embryo adoption, he continued, “that symmetry is radically disrupted in the sense that the mother is invoking her procreative powers of becoming pregnant, which is something I’m convinced is only meant to be invoked through the marital act with her husband. She then is becoming the mother, and the father is sort of standing on the sidelines, while a technician is impregnating his wife. The whole meaning of his fatherhood is in some sense being challenged by the procedure of embryo adoption, and even, I would suggest, is being violated in some important way.”
Father Berg said that while the section regarding embryo adoption—n. 19—is not clear, “one has to recognize that the overall tenor of n. 19 is leaning heavily in the direction of teaching that embryo adoption would be illicit.”
“That in itself should be enough to give us pause at this point,” he said, “and if a couple were to come to me and ask my advice, I would encourage them to hold off at this point, hopeful that the CDF will soon give definitive clarity to the question one way or another.”
Whatever the outcome of the debate over embryo transfer, it’s clear that the Church hopes and prays that a more basic issue will be resolved. The new instruction repeats the appeal Pope John Paul II issued in 1996: to halt production of human embryos.
“The main point of the instruction is: ‘Stop making [embryos] in the first place,’” said Father Gahl. “This is a problem that is caused by sins being committed, by immoral activity [in vitro fertilization and other artificial means of reproduction], and the hope is for it to stop.”
Speaking at the Vatican press conference to explain the document, Bishop Elio Sgreccia, former president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, who helped prepare the document, told reporters: “The basic advice, explicitly stated in the document, is that embryos must not be frozen. It is one of those actions that have no remedy. Once it is done, correcting it implies committing another error.”
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