The Moral Case for Embryo Adoption

John Kleinsman
Issue 16, August 2005

In May of this year twenty-one American "Snowflakes" families appeared with President Bush accompanied by their adopted embryos. The purpose was to protest against a bill supporting the use of embryos for stem cell research.

Many of the babies wore T-shirts with the words "former embryo" or "this embryo was not discarded". The appearance of these children was a potent symbol of the fact that the embryo is just that child at an earlier stage of development. (Belluck, Pam. 2005)

The Snowflakes programme is a direct consequence of the existence of many thousands of frozen embryos no longer required for fertility treatment. While success rates for fertility clinics are improving all the time, and in some cases average as high as 35% for all women up to the age of 37 [1] , the relatively high chance of an embryo not implanting successfully makes it desirable for more than one egg to be fertilised. The "spare" embryos are frozen for later use. If a pregnancy is achieved, the stored embryos may or may not be required for further pregnancies. The question then arises as to what to do with them.

In New Zealand there are currently several thousand embryos existing in a frozen state.

Catholic teaching on the moral status of the embryo is clear from the time the ovum is fertilised, a life is begun which is the life of a new human being with his or her own growth (Evangelium Vitae), a being that will only grow in size and complexity. This implies that from the first moment of its existence the result of human procreation must be guaranteed the unconditional respect that is due to every human person. From this perspective the existence of so many stored embryos around the world represents a profound injustice.

There is an argument that the stored embryos should be made available for research that could lead to future therapeutic benefits for people suffering from serious diseases. This research inevitably destroys the embryo. While such research is clearly contrary to the Catholic position of unconditional respect for the embryo, it may be recognised as being, at least in some people's eyes, an attempt to give even limited meaning and value to a life that will perish anyway and that is seen as being otherwise meaningless.

Those who reject the use of embryos for research also recognise that keeping embryos indefinitely in the suspended frozen state constitutes an affront to their intrinsic dignity. (see Donum Vitae, I.6) In the face of such injustice, allowing frozen embryos to die has come to be seen by many as the most humane way of dealing with a problem that should never have arisen.

In 2004, following on from other countries, The National Ethics Committee on assisted Human Reproduction (NECAHR) sought submissions from New Zealanders as to whether or not they thought it acceptable for couples with surplus embryos to donate them to other couples or a single woman for the purpose of having a child. Depending on whether one is emphasising the perspective of the donor or the receiver, this practice has come to be known as either "embryo donation" or "embryo adoption". The term embryo adoption makes it clearer that the intended outcome is the birth of a child and, for this reason, is preferable given that embryos can also be "donated" for research.

Catholic Responses to Embryo Adoption

In the light of what Catholics believe about the moral status of the embryo, it would seem that embryo adoption for implantation represents a morally legitimate way of "rescuing" unwanted frozen embryos.

However, the Catholic position with regard to assisted human reproductive procedures is that their use is only acceptable between a husband and wife in very specific circumstances which assist the natural processes of reproduction, and which do not pose undue risks for the parent or child. This position undoubtedly rules out the use of third party gametes or embryos for the purposes of having a child, the very scenario at the heart of embryo adoption. Thus a number of Catholic moral theologians have described the adoption of embryos as immoral because, as well as separating the unitive and procreative aspects of reproduction (see Donum Vitae, II.4), it involves becoming pregnant by another man and is therefore a violation of marriage because it is like adultery, even though it is not as vicious because it is chosen for the good end of saving a child (Schudt, 2005, p.68).

Other Catholic moral theologians have reached a different conclusion. May, Grisez and others argue that embryo adoption rectifies an injustice that has already happened and which will otherwise result in the death of an embryo. The woman who adopts an embryo does not intend to separate the unitive and procreative aspects of the conjugal act nor does she intend to violate the bonds of marriage. Her intention is to save a child. (See Schudt, 2005, pp. 68-69)

The Right to Life

To date there has been no explicit pronouncement from The Holy See on embryo adoption. More specifically, comments from the Pontifical Academy of Life (2004) make it clear that it is premature to address this subject directly. Therefore without condoning the practice of IVF, it is reasonable to conclude that the adoption of frozen "surplus" embryos for implantation has not been ruled out.

It is arguable that the case for embryo adoption is stronger than arguments to the contrary. Many Church documents, such as Donum Vitae, stress the right of the embryo to life, and unconditional respect.

Thus the fruit of human generation, from the first moment of its existence, that is to say from the moment the zygote has formed, demands the unconditional respect that is morally due to the human being in his bodily and spiritual totality. The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his (sic) rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life. (Donum Vitae, I.1)

Donum Vitae goes even further, making clear that protection of the life of the embryo is the principle to which priority must be given in making decisions involving embryos:

This doctrinal reminder provides the fundamental criterion for the solution of the various problems posed by the development of the biomedical sciences in this field: since the embryo must be treated as a person, it must also be defended in its integrity, tended and cared for, to the extent possible, in the same way as any other human being as far as medical assistance is concerned.(Donum Vitae, I.1)

In the different Catholic approaches to embryo adoption, one argument gives priority to the sanctity of the marriage relationship, whereas the other gives priority to the life of the embryo. The passage from Donum Vitae (above) gives clear priority to the life of the embryo. Embryo adoption upholds the fundamental right to life of the embryo. Giving people the option to donate and adopt embryos left over from infertility treatment is in accord with the intrinsic dignity that belongs to such embryos. At the same time, adopting this position need not mean that one condones the way in which the human life was first brought into existence.

Embryo donation for adoption is morally more acceptable than donating for the purposes of destructive research, no matter what the intended outcome of this research. It is also morally more acceptable than the other alternatives; storing them until they reach a point when they will no longer be viable for successful implantation, or letting them die.

Practical Implications

To argue in favour of embryo donation for reproductive purposes is not to ignore the ethical and moral issues associated with assisted human reproduction. There are also complex psychological, social, moral, emotional and ethical considerations involved in embryo adoption.

One of the realities of embryo adoption is that it redefines the traditional relationship of a child and two parents, as well as having implications for the marriage. As noted above, this is the basis for the objections of some Catholic moral theologians to embryo adoption. We know from our experience of child adoption that there are issues relating to the welfare and fulfilment of the child as she or he grows and searches for meaning and identity.

In particular, it is vitally important for the overall well-being of the children to be born that they have access to knowledge about their lineage or genetic heritage. Where there is a conflict between the privacy rights of a donor and the rights of a resulting child to know its heritage, the rights of the child should prevail. The insistence on openness and access to information may also be seen as an appropriate expression of the principle that the donor parents retain a degree of moral responsibility, a responsibility that originates purely and simply from the fact that they are the genetic parents.

Assisted human reproductive technologies may also pose a certain risk in terms of the commodification of embryos and children. Any form of compensation for the right to implant an embryo would be ethically unacceptable. Even when compensation is considered unethical there still remains, as a result of the process of donation and adoption, an inherent risk of unwittingly conveying notions of 'ownership' of embryos.

The process around the "selection" of an embryo for adoption also has the potential to encourage a "consumer" approach to the birth of children, if adoptive parents are allowed to make choices based on certain arbitrary (culturally or personally determined) notions of "normality" or "excellence". It is therefore strongly desirable that donor couples be given the opportunity to choose the potential recipients of their embryos rather than vice-versa, and that the adopting parents are screened.

Some of the complexities associated with embryo adoption can be addressed by the provision of professional counselling and ethical guidance for all those involved in the process of donation and adoption.

There is also the need for a level of scrutiny, intervention and oversight by a neutral third party that is accountable to the government. This oversight has been described as an unnecessary "intrusion" into the private choices of adults. However, such oversight recognises the wide-ranging implications of embryo adoption - for the child to be born, the adoptive parent(s), the donating parent(s) and society as a whole.


Embryo adoption raises complex and serious ethical issues. There is no specific teaching on this matter. Nevertheless, it is possible to argue that it is morally permissible. It gives the genetic parents an avenue for exercising their parental responsibility; an option that, unlike destroying the embryos (whether directly or through research) or allowing them to die, is consistent with the unconditional respect due to human life.

The obvious benefit is that a life already started is given the opportunity to flourish, to fulfil the potential it was created with, to experience the joys of living, and to become a significant person in a community of caring that is represented in the first instance - by the parents wanting to adopt as well as those prepared to be donors.

Looked at like this, those who are prepared to undertake the challenge of adopting an embryo might even be regarded as acting in a morally heroic way.


Pontifical Academy for Life. (2004). Final communique on 'the dignity of human procreation and reproductive technologies: anthropological and ethical aspects', from

Schudt, K. (2005). What is chosen in the act of embryo adoption? The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, 5(1), 63-71.

John Kleinsman teaches Moral Theology at the Wellington Catholic Education Centre and is also a part time researcher for The Nathaniel Centre

[1] Figures obtained from Fertility Associates - Te Rauhanga o te Wharetangata website July 2005.