May You Live In Interesting Times: The Brave New World of Embryo Adoption

"I could be implanted an embryo that is technically older than I am..." I said to a friend recently as we discussed embryo adoption and I explained to her that the first case of in vitro fertilization followed by the freezing of embryos in the United States took place in 1981. Suffice it to say that a woman born after late 1981 could technically become pregnant with an embryo that is chronologically older than she is. Trippy, huh?

Since 1981 the United States has been home to exponentially increasing numbers of frozen human embryos and my friend and I were delving deep into this topic because she is currently serving as the surrogate for a couple of close friends who adopted embryos that were frozen in 1998. This took us down the path of wondering about the history of embryo adoption.

But before jumping into the history of this phenomenon, let's look at why the practice exists in the first place. Typically, when a woman seeks to become pregnant via assisted reproductive technology (ART) several of her ova are harvested and then fertilized with the sperm of her husband, domestic partner or a sperm donor. The physician selects a few of the fertilized ova, also known as embryos, to be implanted in the woman. Assuming the woman becomes pregnant the physician stops fertility treatments and the leftover embryos get placed in cryostasis.

So entertain this hypothetical day, long after the woman has given birth to the child she conceived through in vitro fertilization the cryobank decides to shut its doors and has to figure out what to do with all of the surplus embryos. Workers at the cryobank cannot locate the mother or perhaps they can locate the mother but she relinquishes her claim to the embryos. The cryobank now has to decide what to do with these embryos. The cryobank, having gone bankrupt is now facing the closure of their facility and the power being turned off. No electricity means the embryos will thaw and be destroyed. Hearing of the impending destruction of embryos a Christian group, who believe the embryos to have the same moral status as a fully gestated human being, agrees to take physical and financial responsibility for the embryos and find adoptive parents for them. The cryobank relinquishes custody and turns the embryos over to the Christian group.

While this may seem to some like a far-fetched scenario be assured it is not. A situation similar to the one just described played out in Europe about twenty years ago. On August 1, 1996, two hundred women in the small village of Massa, Italy who were members of a Catholic women's association asked the British government if they could adopt 3,300 frozen embryos that were scheduled for destruction. Under British law frozen embryos that go unclaimed after five years are thawed and discarded. The women of Massa, most of whom were married and already mothers, asked to adopt these embryos in order to stop what they saw as mass infanticide. The British government did not grant their wish but this event was just the beginning of a series of movements led mostly by Christian groups in the United States, on a crusade to save embryos from destruction.

Despite their intention to perform their Christian duty to save embryos, the proposal by the women of Massa was immediately criticized by the Vatican and many members the Roman Catholic academic community. The Osservatore Romano, the Vatican daily newspaper, reported the remarks of theologian Gino Concetti: "These couples deserve all our admiration, but their choice is not provided for in the teachings of the Magisterium of the Church. If we accept it, it would make a breach and embryo production would become an endless chain." Adriano Pessina, professor of moral philosophy at the Catholic University in Milan was even more explicit: "Stop the machines; let those frozen embryos die in the cold limbo of technological tyranny. If we allow their implantation, we will be accepting that it is morally decent to divide the act of union and the act of procreation" (a reference to Vatican theology of sex in marriage as a singularity of union and procreation). However, this opinion about doing away with the embryos is not universally shared by the Catholic hierarchy. Cardinal Ersilio Tonini agreed with efforts to adopt the embryos in order to prevent them from being destroyed. He was joined in that position by the president of the Italian National Bioethics Committee, Francesco D'Agostino, who remarked, "The British position that envisions the suppression of the redundant embryos five years after their production, cannot be justified easily and rationally. It is 'embryocide,' since there is no respect for embryos considered as human life."

The Catholic Church has by far the most well developed theology to address the issue of heterologous embryo transfer and even with the countless volumes that have been written by Catholic scholars on the moral status of the embryo and the normative conditions of the family the Catholic church cannot come to a consensus on how to approach this issue.

In the United States, unlike Europe, there are no legal bans placed on embryo adoptions nor are there any moratoriums on how long an embryo can exist in cryostasis. In fact, the state of Louisiana has ruled that the embryo has more of a right to life than a fetus in the womb. Louisiana law recognizes a human embryo outside the womb as a "juridical person" and prohibits the destruction of a viable fertilized ovum (La. Rev. Stat. tit. 9, §§ 123, 129 (West 2000)). However, abortion is still legal until the third trimester. So if a woman were really determined to destroy her embryos in the state of Louisiana she would need to be implanted with the embryos and then abort before the third trimester or viability in accordance with the laws set force in the Roe v. Wade decision. This doesn't sit well with many who see a frozen embryo, which is not nascent, has no organs, no qualities resembling a human being save for 46 chromosomes, as having more right to life and protection under the law than a fetus, with a heartbeat, developing inside a mother's womb.

Now back to the conversation with my friend. Despite the fact that I am a professional bioethicist I failed to offer her a strong recommendation for or against embryo adoption. I said, "I can offer no moral judgment here...I can only say that it is interesting, emphasis on the word interesting, to know that we live in a world where fifty, one hundred years from now you can pull an embryo out of liquid nitrogen and perpetuate the development of life that was conceived long before you were."

My friend replied, "It's interesting you used the word interesting. It reminds me of the famous Chinese blessing and curse..." and she raised her glass and said, "May you live in interesting times..."