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Can Frozen Embryos Be Saved?


In all the news coverage this last year on the embryonic stem cell research issue, little has been said in the media regarding an equally and perhaps more grave moral matter, one that will soon be coming to the forefront. If we believe — and rightly so — that it is wrong to use human embryos for experimental research, then what is it that we believe should be done with these often-unwanted frozen children? What happens to them?

The Holy Catholic Church teaches that life begins at conception. The embryo is, therefore, a person with the right to life. And there are thousands of them in fertilization clinics all over the world. Can their lives be saved, when we know that the only way to do so involves taking part in an act condemned as immoral by the Catholic Church? This is the issue before us.

It began in England in 1978 when, as a result of today's advanced technology, scientists were able to produce a human being in a laboratory petri dish by a process known as in vitro fertilization (IVF). Since then, thousands of babies have been born utilizing this method of genetic manipulation. Couples, and even single persons, who have achieved having a child this way, have rejoiced at their success. Consequently, IVF has been applauded in the media, but rarely have we — until recently — been told of the horrors that also result from IVF. If, for example, a poll were taken regarding the fate of frozen embryos — those "spares" unwanted by their own parents because they are "extras," one would find there is much confusion about the issue and the discussion becomes intensely heated. Some believe there should be no question regarding attempts to save them using any possible means available. How could it not be right to do so?

The Church's position

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, having been approached from many sides for teaching and clarity concerning the latest biomedical technologies and their intervention in the initial stages of human life, issued in 1987 an Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation (Donum vitae) . It is in this document where we find what is probably the Catholic Church's most recent and official statement on the dignity and respect due to the human embryo. Basing itself on solidly resounding doctrine, the Instruction reaffirms the sacredness of human life "from the moment of conception" and, therefore, that the human embryo must be respected and treated as a person from that moment and recognized to have, above all, the right to life. In addition, it must be defended in its integrity, tended and cared for, to the extent possible, in the same way as any other human being (Part I, 1).

In light of this teaching, can it be morally permissible to freeze or keep frozen a human being, even with the purpose of preserving its life? The Congregation's answer is negative — "freezing of embryos (cryopreservation) constitutes an offence against the respect due to human beings by exposing them to grave risks of death or harm to their physical integrity and depriving them, at least temporarily, of maternal shelter and gestation, thus placing them in a situation in which further offences and manipulation are possible" (Part I, 6; emphasis added).

Equally clear and painfully sad is the statement that "in consequence of the fact that they have been produced in vitro, those embryos that 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 I, 5; emphasis added). In other words, none of the options available for saving the life of these embryos can be said to be morally permissible and in conformity with the plan of God for human procreation. One might think that the issue would end here, but it has not.

Theologians debate

Because the matter is so pressing, moral theologians have found themselves seeking a possible solution. A question that is being currently debated among them is what has been termed the "rescuing" of frozen embryos. The Magisterium has not as yet issued a specific judgment on this. As we shall see, there is a division of opinion among these theologians, all of whom firmly assent to the teaching of Donum vitae about this issue. Some argue that attempting to rescue such frozen embryos is intrinsically immoral, whereas others argue that it is not. They hold that it is morally licit for a woman to volunteer to have the embryo transferred from what Dr. Jerome Lejeune called their "concentration cans" into her womb in order to protect its life, although these theologians give different arguments to support their position.

In expressing the fear that "rescuing" frozen embryos by "adopting" them prenatally could lead to bad consequences, Bishop Elio Sgreccia, vice president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, is quoted in The London Tablet (10 August 1996) as stating that "The idea of a systematic organization of prenatal adoption of frozen embryos would, in fact, end up by legitimizing the practice which is substantially at the root of the whole problem." He has also recently stated in an address titled "The Embryo: A Sign of Contradiction" (, July 7, 2001) 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." In the meantime, however, the debate over prenatal adoption continues.

We will summarize the arguments below, keeping in mind that all the theologians who are parties to the dispute accept the Church's teaching that: "Techniques which 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 personal interview in Washington, D.C. with noted and highly respected Catholic moral theologian Dr. William E. May of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family has helped greatly in recognizing how gravely serious and controversial this topic is. He undertakes, in his latest book Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life, a thorough and well-organized analysis of the various positions held in this crucial issue by some of the leading moral theologians and philosophers of the day. Based on a study of these, he offers his firm conclusion that it can indeed be morally allowed to adopt prenatally a frozen embryo in order to "rescue" it from certain death and give it a chance at life.

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 teaching of the Catholic Church, we will simply discuss briefly the major positions and how they are related to the teaching of Donum vitae.

Arguments holding that it is intrinsically immoral to attempt to "rescue" frozen embryos

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 I, 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 Review, October 1995).

Other theologians, however, among them Dr. May, Germain Grisez, and Geoffrey Surtees, maintain that Smith has taken this passage out of context. It refers not to those who attempt to "rescue" a child but rather to those who have been wrongly involved in IVF 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 this is intrinsically immoral. This view was also expressed in a recent television interview on EWTN's World Over Live, by Dr. Edmund Pellegrino, M.D. of the Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University Medical Center.

But May, Grisez, Surtees and others argue 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 (Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life).

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. 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 the 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. 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 and also that some objects are in and of themselves morally evil and therefore can never be judged as good, no matter the intention or circumstances (CCC # 1755).

So, the object has to be a good one, but what is the object of this action? It is evident that the disagreement among Catholic theologians focuses on this issue. Smith, Geach, and others who judge the "rescuing of frozen embryos" to be intrinsically immoral believe that the "object" of the act is to become pregnant outside of marriage and/or serve as a surrogate mother.

Arguments holding that it is not intrinsically immoral to rescue a frozen embryo

In showing how May, Grisez, Surtees, and Watt counter the arguments of those who judge such an attempt intrinsically immoral, we have seen some elements of their position. But they differ among themselves in identifying precisely "the 'object' of the act."

Surtees and Watt argue 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. For them, a woman should be married if she is to volunteer to rescue the child (Surtees is not as clear on this as is Watt). But 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 and that a single woman could rightly choose to do this and, after the child's delivery, offer it for adoption to a married couple


With regard to intrinsically evil acts, Veritatis Splendor (n. 80) quotes Pope Paul VI as 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.

Let us ask, then: Is embryo transfer from the freezer of a fertilization clinic to the womb of any woman, mother or not, a morally permissible act in accordance with the Church's teaching (based on Divine Law) regarding procreation? Donum vitae reminds us that "Transmission of human life is entrusted by nature to a personal and conscious act and as such is subject to the all-holy laws of God; immutable and inviolable laws which must be recognized and observed"…and that "what is technically possible is not for that very reason morally permissible" (Intro. 4)

Msgr. Smith, according to Dr. May, 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 that was 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?

Pope John Paul II has appealed for an end to the production of human embryos in vitro. Meanwhile, there are other more pressing moral issues resulting from the advances in biotechnology that must be addressed by the Magisterium before this one is decided on. It could be a significant number of years and many innocent babies will die. There are numerous legal cases already before the courts, people fighting over frozen children. We see that science is not always at the service of man.

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. It is important to keep in mind that persons on both sides of this debate are all pro-life and that this matter weighs heavily on everyone. The answer will ultimately come from God. Our Holy Father reminds us that, "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" (Dt 32:39) (Evangelium Vitae, 39)." We must recognize the right of God alone to give life and to take it. It has been one of humanity's great tragedies that many innocent ones sometimes have to die before we are able to see the Truth.


Grace D. MacKinnon "Can Frozen Embryos Be Saved?" This Rock (January 2002).

This Rock, the magazine of Catholic apologetics and evangelization, is published eleven times a year by Catholic Answers Inc., Subscription rates are $29.95 for one year. Subscription requests should be sent to This Rock, P.O. Box 17490, San Diego, CA 92177.

Reprinted with permission of Grace MacKinnon.


Grace MacKinnon is a syndicated columnist and public speaker on Catholic doctrine. She is the author of Dear Grace: Answers to Questions About the Faith published by Our Sunday Visitor. Order online by e-mail at or call 1-800-348-2440.

Readers are welcome to submit questions about the Catholic faith to: Grace MacKinnon, 1234 Russell Drive #103, Brownsville, Texas 78520. Questions also may be sent by e-mail to:

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