Moral Meltdown: A Magisterial View of the Morality of Embryo Adoption

Perusing the website of Snowflakes, an American adoption agency, the viewer is presented with myriad photos of respectable, young-to-middle-aged couples radiantly embracing beautiful, healthy, beaming infants and young children.  Beneath a prominent quote from Sacred Scripture,[1] the agency displays glowing reviews from its adoptive families, emphasizing the care taken to place children in families deemed suitable by biological parents and to keep genetic siblings together.  Further, Snowflakes details its “open adoption” policy, listing the methods it offers to facilitate communication between biological and adoptive families.[2]

Snowflakes is a subdivision of Nightlight Christian Adoptions, an American pro-life organization based in California.[3]  It is unique among adoption agencies because it offers embryo adoptions.  The first licensed embryo adoption agency in the United States, Snowflakes supplies couples struggling with infertility with donated, frozen, surplus embryos from couples who have undergone “in vitro” fertilization (IVF) procedures.[4]

The service that Snowflakes provides is at the heart of the controversy over the fate of frozen, surplus embryos produced through IVF procedures.  Snowflakes’ clientele is largely comprised of Evangelical Christians, and its work is proposed as a pro-life ministry and a “rescue operation.”[5]  However, critics of embryo adoption focus on the dubious morality of implanting a frozen embryo into an adoptive mother’s uterus, and the issue remains contentious.  To properly navigate the moral quandary of embryo adoption, it is critical to understand the procedures involved and how the teaching of the Church’s Magisterium applies to the issue.

Embryo adoption stems directly from “in vitro” fertilization.  IVF is a “complex series of procedures used to help with fertility or prevent genetic problems and assist with the conception of a child” in which mature ova are collected from a woman and fertilized with sperm in a lab.[6]  While the process is colloquially referred to as IVF, it actually consists of two processes: “in vitro” fertilization – fertilization of an ovum exterior to the woman’s body – and embryo transfer (ET) – the process by which the new embryo is placed within the woman’s uterus.[7]  Both IVF and ET must be distinguished as either homologous or heterologous: homologous procedures employ only the “gametes of the spouses joined in marriage,” while heterologous procedures use “gametes taken from at least one donor other than the two spouses.”[8]

The technology of IVF was developed in the late 1960s and 1970s by two British physicians, Drs. Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards.  Steptoe, a gynecologist, was an expert in laparoscopy, “a minimally invasive surgical technique that allows a view inside the abdominal cavity,” while Edwards was an embryologist.  Combining their expertise, Steptoe and Edwards were the first to successfully use IVF with humans, and the first child conceived “in vitro,” Louise Brown, was born on July 25, 1978.[9]

Current IVF procedures have five primary stages.  The first is ovarian stimulation.  Synthetic hormones are administered to the woman to stimulate hyperproduction of ova, and a combination of pharmaceuticals carefully regulate the process.[10]  Second, the ova must be retrieved by means of transvaginal ultrasound aspiration: an ultrasound probe identifies follicles, the ova are retrieved through a suction needle penetrating the vaginal wall, and the ova are “placed in a nutritive liquid…and incubated.”  Third, sperm are procured from a man, either through masturbation or testicular aspiration.[11]  Fourth, the ova are fertilized either by conventional insemination, in which “healthy sperm and mature eggs are mixed and incubated overnight,” or by intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), in which “a single healthy sperm is injected directly into each mature egg.”  The final stage is embryo transfer, during which a catheter is placed in the woman’s uterus and the embryos, contained in fluid in a syringe, are injected into the uterus via the catheter.[12]

The aftermath of IVF procedures most often includes “spare” embryos.  The couple is then faced with several choices: freeze the embryos for future IVF procedures, freeze the embryos and donate them either to another couple or medical research, or simply discard them.  The process of freezing, called ‘cryopreservation,’ is useful, as it “allows the couple to avoid the discomfort, time, and expense of repeating” the process.[13]  It is not simply freezing, but a process by which the temperature of the embryos is slowly dropped and their cellular water replaced with cryoprotectant “to minimize embryo damage caused by intracellular ice crystal formation during freezing and thawing.”[14]  Thus, the embryos are “desiccated and frozen” and stored in liquid nitrogen at -196 ℃.[15]  In this state, it is hypothesized that the lifespan of these embryos is indefinite.[16]  While it is difficult to ascertain the exact number of frozen embryos in existence, estimates concur that more than 400,000 exist in cryopreservation in the United States,[17] with some suggesting the number is between 600,000 and 1,000,000.[18]

Embryo adoption has been gaining popularity for two primary reasons.  First, it is allied with pro-life sentiments.  Couples who have undergone IVF procedures and do not wish to destroy surplus embryos donate them to agencies such as Snowflakes, which connect them with adoptive couples who may either be struggling with infertility or wish to “adopt the child into their family” as a “life-saving act.”[19]  Proponents of embryo adoption hold that the process “perhaps even restores the order of nature by placing the child where he or she ought to be – gestating in the womb of a loving mother married to a man who also adopts the child as his own.”[20]  Second, embryo adoption is a less expensive method of procuring a child.  Though figures vary widely, one source estimates that embryo adoption costs approximately $8,000, while IVF procedures range from $12,000 to $17,000.[21]

In terms of process, embryo adoption is identical to ET in normal IVF procedures.  The embryos are transferred to the adoptive mother’s uterus, either during a normal menstrual cycle or through a process of hormonal regulation.  However, transferring frozen embryos has a lower success rate than standard IVF pregnancies, with the survival of an individual embryo estimated to be below four percent.[22]

Bearing in mind the procedures giving rise to embryo adoption, one must turn to the Magisterium’s teaching pertaining to the issue.  First, since the publication of Humanae Vitae on July 25, 1968, Magisterial teaching on life issues has been prolific, laying out general principles for the exercise of human sexuality.  Humanae Vitae defines the four characteristics of human sexual love as being “fully human,” “total,” “faithful and exclusive until death,” and “fecund.”[23]  Further, Humanae Vitae definitively proclaimed the two ends of the conjugal act to be unity of the spouses and procreation of children, which are joined by an “inseparable connection willed by God and unable to be broken by man on his own initiative.”[24]  Further, Donum Vitae, an instruction from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) published on February 22, 1987, sets out the relational rights following from justice in a family.  With respect to the parents, Donum Vitae states, “the bond existing between husband and wife accords the spouses, in an objective and inalienable manner, the exclusive right to become father and mother solely through each other.”[25]  Concerning the child, the document adds he “has the right to be conceived, carried in the womb, brought into the world and brought up within marriage,” which is requisite for “proper human development.”[26]  To these principles, Donum Vitae adds the overarching principle that human life is fundamentally a divine gift and, as such, must be bestowed according to the means disposed by God.[27]

The Magisterium has also responded to innovations in technological applications to human procreation.  Donum Vitae clarifies that the moral principles governing the application of technology derive from man’s dignity, as technology is “ordered to man” and its applications “draw from the person and his moral values the indication of their purpose and the awareness of their limits.”[28]  As a result, technology “must be at the service of the human person, of his inalienable rights and his true and integral good according to the design and will of God.”[29]  Dignitas Personae, another instruction from the CDF issued as a follow-up to Donum Vitae in 2008, adds that, to be morally licit, technology applied to procreation must respect three goods: first, “the right to life and to physical integrity of every human being from conception to natural death”; second, “the unity of marriage, which means reciprocal respect for the right within marriage to become a father or mother only together with the other spouse”; and third, “the specifically human values of sexuality,” meaning that a person must be conceived through a loving, conjugal act of spouses.[30]  While technology may be morally indifferent in the abstract, it is always moral in concrete application.  The fundamental criterion for evaluating its use in reproduction is whether it is used to assist or dominate procreation according to the natural order.[31]  Dignitas Personae states that only “techniques which act as an aid to the conjugal act and its fertility are permitted.”[32]

In addition to giving general principles, the Church has also specifically treated issues directly pertaining to embryo adoption.  It has explicitly condemned all forms of IVF.  Heterologous IVF is illicit because it “clearly contradicts the unity of matrimony, the dignity of the spouses, the proper vocation of the parents as well as the right of the child with a view to which it should both be conceived and brought forth in marriage and from marriage,” clearly violating “the objective and inalienable exclusive right that each become a father and mother only through each other.”[33]  Homologous IVF is condemned because it rends the indissoluble nexus joining the conjugal act’s unitive and procreative meanings and runs counter to “the unity of the human being and the dignity of his origin,” all of which “demand that the procreation of a human person be brought about as the fruit of the conjugal act specific to the love between spouses.”[34]

Further, cryopreservation of embryos is rejected.  The zygote is to be treated with the dignity of a person, as human life “is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized,” particularly “the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life.”[35]  Cryopreservation is deemed “incompatible with the respect owed to human embryos” because it follows directly from IVF, “exposes them to the serious risk of death or physical harm,” “deprives them at least temporarily of maternal reception and gestation,” and leaves them vulnerable to further offences against their dignity.[36]

Concerning the adoption of frozen embryos, Dignitas Personae makes a distinction based on intention.  Adoption of embryos as a solution to infertility is deemed “not ethically acceptable for the same reasons which make artificial heterologous procreation illicit as well as any form of surrogate motherhood” and because it will give rise to “medical, psychological and legal” problems.[37]  Adoption of frozen embryos for the purpose of saving them is not explicitly condemned, but the Magisterium’s “judgment is clearly negative, albeit not definitive.”[38]  Dignitas Personae states that embryo adoption, while “praiseworthy with regard to the intention of respecting and defending human life, presents however various problems” similar to the grounds on which IVF is condemned.[39]  Further, it adds that embryo adoption “is opposed both to the unity of matrimony and to the dignity of the procreation of the human person.”[40]

Consequently, the Magisterium concludes that frozen embryos are “exposed to an absurd fate, with no possibility of their being offered safe means of survival which can be licitly pursued.”[41]  The result is “a situation of injustice which in fact cannot be resolved,”[42] as all options are eliminated: Having been created illicitly, these embryos cannot continue in cryopreservation, which is contrary to human dignity and intrinsically evil, nor can they be legitimately implanted in a woman’s uterus.

To understand why this is the case, the insights of two Catholic ethicists prove helpful.  The first, Irene Alexander, argues from a principle she calls “conjugal agency.”[43] Conjugal agency, she states, stipulates that “sound moral thinking about sexual morality and reproductive bioethics” rests on two principles: “recognizing the dignity of spouses in being the agent cause of new life and of pregnancy,” with “this agency taking place through the marital act.”[44]  The reason is that conjugal agency “correspond[s] to the causal order” established by God and is necessary for “establishing right relationships within the family whereby the dignity of all members are preserved.”[45]  According to this principle, Alexander concludes that ET, whether homologous or heterologous, is immoral because it transfers “the agency of impregnation that is proper to the spouses and exclusive to their union to another person.”[46]

The second, Charles Robertson, bases his argument on Thomistic principles.  Robertson notes that the uterus is a reproductive organ which “exists for the sake of the generative faculty’s proper activity,” and thus “to intend to use the uterus entails a use of the generative faculty itself.”[47]  For man to be perfected as a whole person, his faculties must be perfected individually; for one of man’s faculties to be perfected, it must be “ordered to its proper object,” with other objects “introduc[ing] a disorder into human action” and being “contrary to nature.”[48]  Reproduction is ordered to the good of the species, and consequently man’s reproductive power has for its end mature offspring of the same kind as its parents.[49]  For this generative power to be exercised properly in accordance with its object, its acts must preserve the “conditions for bringing about a mature member of the species”: sexual activity must be directed to a member of the opposite sex in a way that conception can follow.[50]  The problem with ET is that, in using her generative faculty to become “impregnated by means of a medical technique,” a woman “violates the first norm governing the use of the generative faculty, for she does not direct that use to a member of the opposite sex, nor does she engage in the kind of act that is suited to procreation.”[51]  As such, this constitutes a violation of natural order and is sinful because contrary to the human good.[52]

Having seen the Magisterium’s pronouncements pertaining to embryo adoption, it remains to determine what moral means of resolving the situation remain.  This question is very difficult because it is emotionally-charged:  Thousands of innocent human beings, whose chances of survival are poor to begin, will certainly perish without intervention.  However, all means of saving them have been deemed morally illicit.  The only option remaining would appear to be removing these embryos from cryopreservation, thawing them, and allowing nature to take its course uninhibited.  This action would be justified under the Principle of Double Effect, tolerating the physical evil of death for the embryos for the greater good of resolving a situation of monstrous injustice and intrinsic evil.[53]

Many will object that this solution is heartless and unacceptable.  However, while man must be compassionate, he cannot make weakness the criterion of morality.[54]  Though the principles involved in resolving the situation of frozen embryos lead to a difficult conclusion, Pope John Paul II reminds man in Veritatis Splendor that “[e]ven in the most difficult situations man must respect the norm of morality so that he can be obedient to God’s holy commandment and consistent with his own dignity as a person.”[55]  Further, while adherence to divine law “in particular situations can be difficult, extremely difficult…it is never impossible.”[56]  Ultimately, living the truth of the moral law frees man,[57] and, while earthly life must be respected as “a sacred reality entrusted to us, to be preserved with a sense of responsibility and brought to perfection in love and in the gift of ourselves to God and to our brothers and sisters,” earthly life is “not an ‘ultimate’ but a ‘penultimate’ reality,” secondary to eternal life.[58]  Bearing this in mind helps man keep a transcendent perspective on even this extremely difficult situation.


Alexander, Irene. “Is Artificial Impregnation Opposed to the Unity of Marriage?: A New Look at the Question of Embryo Adoption.” Nova et Vetera 16, no. 1 (Winter 2018): 47-80.

Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Dignitas Personae. September 8, 2008.

—— Donum Vitae. February 22, 1987.

“Embryo Donation and Adoption from Canada.” Nightlight Christian Adoptions. Accessed November 17, 2019.

“Embryo Freezing.” Southern California Reproductive Center. Accessed November 24, 2019.

“In vitro fertilization (IVF).” Mayo Clinic. Accessed November 16, 2019.

John Paul II. Evangelium Vitae. Encyclical letter. March 25, 1995.   i_enc_25031995_evangelium-vitae.html.

—— Veritatis Splendor. Encyclical letter. August 6, 1993.

Lester, Caroline. “Embryo ‘Adoption’ Is Growing, but It’s Getting Tangled in the Abortion

Debate.” New York Times, February 17, 2019.

Onder, Robert F. “Practical and Moral Caveats on Heterologous Embryo Transfer.” The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly 5, no. 1 (Spring 2005): 73-94.

Danielson, Andrew. “Patrick Christopher Steptoe (1913-1988).” The Embryo Project Encyclopedia, June 10, 2009.

Paul VI. Humanae Vitae. Encyclical letter. July 25, 1968. vi/it/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-vi_enc_25071968_humanae-vitae.html.

Robertson, Charles. “A Thomistic Analysis of Embryo Adoption.” The National Catholic  Bioethics Quarterly 14, no. 4 (Winter 2014): 673-95.

Snowflakes Embryo Adoption Program. Nightlight Christian Adoptions. Accessed November 17, 2019.

[1] “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, before you were born, I set you apart” (Jeremiah 1:5, NIV).

[2] Snowflakes Embryo Adoption Program, Nightlight Christian Adoptions, accessed November 17, 2019,

[3] Snowflakes Embryo Adoption Program.

[4] Snowflakes Embryo Adoption Program.

[5] Caroline Lester, “Embryo ‘Adoption’ Is Growing, but It’s Getting Tangled in the Abortion

Debate,” New York Times, February 17, 2019,

[6] “In vitro fertilization (IVF),” Mayo Clinic, accessed November 16, 2019,

[7] “In vitro fertilization (IVF).”

[8] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Donum Vitae,, February 22, 1987, II.Intro,

[9] Andrew Danielson, “Patrick Christopher Steptoe (1913-1988),” The Embryo Project Encyclopedia, June 10, 2009, All information in this paragraph is taken from this source. Interestingly, Louise Brown was born on the tenth anniversary of the publication of Humanae Vitae – this is significant because IVF represents the moral evil resulting when the procreative aspect of marital intimacy is unhinged from its unitive aspect (cf Humanae Vitae 12).

[10] In addition to ovarian stimulation, oocyte maturation, time of ovulation, and preparation of the uterine lining must be regulated.

[11] Testicular aspiration is “the use of a needle or surgical procedure to extract sperm directly from the testicle” (“In vitro fertilization (IVF)”).

[12] All the information in this paragraph is taken from “In vitro fertilization (IVF).”  It should be noted that “from three to five or more embryos are transferred to the woman’s uterus” (Onder, “Practical and Moral Caveats on Heterologous Embryo Transfer, 79).  A multiple pregnancy results if more than one of the embryos implant, and “fetal reduction” – selective abortion – eliminates embryos beyond the desired number, which is usually one (“In vitro fertilization (IVF)”).

[13] Robert F. Onder, “Practical and Moral Caveats on Heterologous Embryo Transfer,” The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly 5, no. 1 (Spring 2005): 78.

[14] Onder, “Practical and Moral Caveats,” 79.

[15] Onder, “Practical and Moral Caveats,” 79.

[16] “Embryo Freezing,” Southern California Reproductive Center, accessed November 24, 2019, The length of time that an embryo can remain frozen and still be viable is increasing.  It is now not uncommon to successfully gestate an embryo frozen for over ten years.

[17] Irene Alexander, “Is Artificial Impregnation Opposed to the Unity of Marriage?: A New Look at the Question of Embryo Adoption,” Nova et Vetera 16, no. 1 (Winter 2018): 47,

[18] Lester, “‘Embryo adoption’ is Growing.”

[19] Alexander, “Is Artificial Impregnation Opposed to the Unity of Marriage?,” 48-9.

[20] Alexander, “Is Artificial Impregnation Opposed to the Unity of Marriage?,” 49.

[21] Lester, “‘Embryo Adoption’ is Growing.”

[22] All the information in this paragraph was taken from Onder, “Practical and Moral Caveats,” 79-80.

[23] Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, encyclical letter,, July 25, 1968, 9, vi/it/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-vi_enc_25071968_humanae-vitae.html.

[24] Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, 12.

[25] CDF, Donum Vitae, II.A.2; cf Donum Vitae I.Intro.5, Donum Vitae II.A.1, Dignitas Personae 6.

[26] CDF, Donum Vitae, II.A.2; cf Donum Vitae II.A.1.

[27] CDF, Donum Vitae, I.Intro.1.

[28] CDF, Donum Vitae, I.Intro.2.

[29] CDF, Donum Vitae, I.Intro.2.

[30] CDF, Dignitas Personae,, September 8, 2008, 12.1,

[31] CDF, Donum Vitae, I.Intro.1.

[32] CDF, Dignitas Personae, 12.2.

[33] CDF, Donum Vitae, II.A.2. These same principles also indict surrogate motherhood, which “is contrary to the unity of marriage and to the dignity of the procreation of the human person” (II.A.3).

[34]CDF, Donum Vitae, II.B.4; cf Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, 12.

[35] CDF, Donum Vitae, I.1.1.

[36] CDF, Dignitas Personae, 18.2.

[37] CDF, Dignitas Personae, 19.

[38] Alexander, “Is Artificial Impregnation Opposed to the Unity of Marriage?,” 48.

[39] CDF, Dignitas Personae, 19.

[40] CDF, Dignitas Personae, 19.

[41] CDF, Donum Vitae, I.5.

[42] CDF, Dignitas Personae, 19.

[43] Alexander, “Is Artificial Impregnation Opposed to the Unity of Marriage?,” 50.

[44] Alexander, “Is Artificial Impregnation Opposed to the Unity of Marriage?,” 50.

[45] Alexander, “Is Artificial Impregnation Opposed to the Unity of Marriage?,” 50.  This principle is clearly traceable as an underlying, implicit premise in Magisterial teaching on sexuality.  While it is nowhere explicit, this principle provides a very plausible and defensible propter quid explanation of the indissoluble nexus existing between the conjugal act’s unitive and procreative meanings found in Humanae Vitae 12 (52-3).

[46] Alexander, “Is Artificial Impregnation Opposed to the Unity of Marriage?,” 51.

[47] Charles Robertson, “A Thomistic Analysis of Embryo Adoption,” The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly 14, no. 4 (Winter 2014): 6,

[48] Robertson, “A Thomistic Analysis,” 8. cf Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, trans. by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1981), I-II.8.1, I-II.75.2, I-II.76.6 ad. 4.

[49] Robertson, “A Thomistic Analysis,” 9; cf ST I.78.2.

[50] Robertson, “A Thomistic Analysis,” 12; Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, trans. by Vernon J. Bourke (New York: Hanover House, 1956), III, c. 122.

[51] Robertson, “A Thomistic Analysis,” 13.

[52] Robertson, “A Thomistic Analysis,” 16-7.

[53] The Principle of Double Effect states that a physical evil may be tolerated for the sake of a greater good or the avoidance of a greater evil; the good achieved or the evil avoided must be proportional to the physical evil tolerated (cf ST  I-II.64.7).

[54] John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, encyclical letter,, August 6, 1993, 95,

[55] John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 102.1.

[56] John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 102.3.

[57] cf John 8:32.

[58] John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, encyclical letter,, March 25, 1995, 2.1,

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Aedan Reidy is a second-year student at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College in Barry's Bay, ON. Originally from Belwood, ON, he is pursuing a Bachelor of Catholic Studies (BCS) degree with concentrations in theology and philosophy. Outside of classes and studies, Aedan enjoys playing the piano and organ, as well as playing hockey, hiking, and cycling in and around Barry's Bay.