The tragedy of “surplus” embryos

cryopreservationA tragedy is about to unfold in New Zealand history.

Almost 2,000 embryos, lives suspended through cyropreservation, have a final date of existence.  They must be destroyed within six months of November 22nd.

Each of these embryos were created at some time because someone wanted to become a parent.  For whatever reason (and there will be many) these particular embryos, were not transferred into a woman’s womb.

Now, unless special permission has been granted to extend their storage, these embryos must be destroyed.  They have reached what is deemed to be a reasonable storage limit of ten years.  This tragedy will unfold every week in New Zealand from now on as more frozen embryos reach that ten year mark.

This tragedy has no simple or perfect solution.

The embryos are human beings, who have a right to life and inherent dignity.

It is wondered by some, out of deep respect for those whose lives have been suspended and are now to be destroyed, if embryo adoption is a solution.

Some theologians and bio-ethicists, acknowledging that IVF itself is morally illicit, have argued that embryo adoption would be the appropriate solution as the embryos have a right to life.

However there are important considerations to ponder.

The following are just a few of the many things to consider:

Every person has inherent dignity from the moment of conception through to natural death.
The human embryo, created in vitro has the same dignity as every person conceived.

Cryopreseveration (feezing) embryos is an injustice
Dignitas Personae and Donum vitae make it clear that freezing of embryos is  “incompatible with the respect owed to human embryos”. 

No one is obligated to prolong life by extraordinary means.
This is true when someone is nearing the end of their life.  The same principle surely can be applied in this situation. Embryo transfer can be deemed an extraordinary means to save a life, as could indefinite freezing of embryos.

It is unethical for the embryos to be used solely to treat infertility
Many argue that the surplus embryos could go to women who suffer infertility.  However, the Church in Dignitas Personae rules this possibility out aligning it with surrogacy and heterologous procreation (see #19).

Theologians have considered many other things in regard to this issue and to the whole area of reproductive technologies.  The Church is also concerned about the marital union and the rights of the human person.  A simple search on the topic will reveal a number of essays outlining arguments both for and against embryo adoption from the Catholic perspective.

Dignitas Personae speaks of embryo adoption in this way:

It has also been proposed, solely in order to allow human beings to be born who are otherwise condemned to destruction, that there could be a form of “prenatal adoption”. This proposal, praiseworthy with regard to the intention of respecting and defending human life, presents however various problems not dissimilar to those mentioned above.

The document goes on to say that

 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.

Caution in this situation is the most prudent way to proceed.

Allowing the embryos to remain frozen continues the injustice that these embryos have already suffered.

Mauro Cozzoli writes in his article The Human Embryo:  Ethical and Normative Aspects 

The thought that to save a life one must violate other values, and thus add injustice to injustice, is alarming and disheartening.  If one fails to see a way out that can be humanly approved, it is because the road that has been undertaken with artificial procreation is blind and dark, so that the only solution is radical:  to turn back and refuse to continue on it.

It would seem the cautious and most prudent way forward at this time is to allow the final act of life which is death.  Allowing the death of these embryos, affording them the proper dignity due a human person, is not the same as causing their deaths.  They must not simply be disposed of and treated as simple “medical waste”, but given a proper burial befitting a human person.

Now we must commend these little ones to God, while committing ourselves to work for the “reform of morally unacceptable civil laws and the correction of illicit practices.”  (Donum vitae III Moral and Civil Law).

 

Further posts on this topic:
The real cost of IVF in New Zealand:  human life
Calling embryos “reproductive material” is degrading
Frozen with an expiry date
Extrauterine embryos

Nearly 2,000 frozen embryos to be discarded in New Zealand

 

Dignitas Personae on the freezing of embryos

18. One of the methods for improving the chances of success in techniques of in vitrofertilization is the multiplication of attempts. In order to avoid repeatedly taking oocytes from the woman’s body, the process involves a single intervention in which multiple oocytes are taken, followed by cryopreservation of a considerable number of the embryos conceivedin vitro.[35]  In this way, should the initial attempt at achieving pregnancy not succeed, the procedure can be repeated or additional pregnancies attempted at a later date. In some cases, even the embryos used in the first transfer are frozen because the hormonal ovarian stimulation used to obtain the oocytes has certain effects which lead physicians to wait until the woman’s physiological conditions have returned to normal before attempting to transfer an embryo into her womb.

Cryopreservation is incompatible with the respect owed to human embryos; it presupposes their production in vitro; it exposes them to the serious risk of death or physical harm, since a high percentage does not survive the process of freezing and thawing; it deprives them at least temporarily of maternal reception and gestation; it places them in a situation in which they are susceptible to further offense and manipulation.[36]

The majority of embryos that are not used remain “orphans”. Their parents do not ask for them and at times all trace of the parents is lost. This is why there are thousands upon thousands of frozen embryos in almost all countries where in vitro fertilization takes place.

19. With regard to the large number of frozen embryos already in existence the question becomes: what to do with them?  Some of those who pose this question do not grasp its ethical nature, motivated as they are by laws in some countries that require cryopreservation centers to empty their storage tanks periodically. Others, however, are aware that a grave injustice has been perpetrated and wonder how best to respond to the duty of resolving it.

Proposals to use these embryos for research or for the treatment of disease are obviously unacceptable because they treat the embryos as mere “biological material” and result in their destruction. The proposal to thaw such embryos without reactivating them and use them for research, as if they were normal cadavers, is also unacceptable.[37]

The proposal that these embryos could be put at the disposal of infertile couples as atreatment for infertility is not ethically acceptable for the same reasons which make artificial heterologous procreation illicit as well as any form of surrogate motherhood;[38] this practice would also lead to other problems of a medical, psychological and legal nature.

It has also been proposed, solely in order to allow human beings to be born who are otherwise condemned to destruction, that there could be a form of “prenatal adoption”. This proposal, praiseworthy with regard to the intention of respecting and defending human life, presents however various problems not dissimilar to those mentioned above.

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. Therefore John Paul II made an “appeal to the conscience of the world’s scientific authorities and in particular to doctors, that the production of human embryos be halted, taking into account that there seems to be no morally licit solution regarding the human destiny of the thousands and thousands of ‘frozen’ embryos which are and remain the subjects of essential rights and should therefore be protected by law as human persons”.[39]

 

[35] Cryopreservation of embryos refers to freezing them at extremely low temperatures, allowing long term storage.
[36] Cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction Donum vitae, I, 6: AAS 80 (1988), 84-85.
[37] Cf. numbers 34-35 below.
[38] Cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction Donum vitae, II, A, 1-3: AAS80 (1988), 87-89.
[39] John Paul II, Address to the participants in the Symposium on “Evangelium vitae and Law” and the Eleventh International Colloquium on Roman and Canon Law (24 May 1996), 6: AAS 88 (1996), 943-944.
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