Wednesday 27 April 2011

The Catholic case against embryo adoption

Fr John Fleming, SPUC's bioethical consultant and adjunct professor of the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute (Australia), has kindly sent me his response (below) to a recent article by Dr Gerard Nadal, an American Catholic scientist and pro-life bioethicist, entitled "The Catholic Case for Embryo Adoption" (May I also encourage readers to order copies of Fr Fleming's book "Dignitas Personae Explained".)

Reply to Gerard Nadal’s “ Catholic case for embryo adoption”

What to with embryonic human beings left over from treatments for infertility? Gerard Nadal proposes that embryo adoption is not only a reasonable response to the question but even “an imperative”.

Dr Nadal, like many other pro-lifers, is motivated by his deep respect for the life of a human being, whether conceived inside or outside of the body of his mother. That I disagree with Dr Nadal’s reasoning should not be read as any personal criticism of a fellow Catholic pro-lifer who has admirably articulated his case based upon the best possible motives.

But, I think, his moral reasoning is not secure.

In the first place he uses the word “conceive” in two different senses.  A child is “conceived” outside of the womb of his mother.  A woman has conceived a child by virtue of being pregnant.

We see this fault in the analogy he draws between embryos created ex corporis in the laboratory, and children conceived by rape and fornication. But these situations are entirely different. In one case a woman is pregnant (ie has conceived a child) through a violent and obviously non-consensual act which we call rape. In the second case a woman is pregnant (ie has conceived a child) through a consensual act of intercourse with a man to whom she is not married, ie fornication. But in the case of an embryo created in the laboratory we something different again. Here there is no intercourse, no established biological connection with the mother – a child in complete isolation.

Second, the teaching of the Church contained in Dignitas personae (DP) is all about the dignity of the human being and human being here means all those who are affected by whatever action is done. The man masturbates to produce sperm – an insult to the dignity of the man. The woman has her entire reproductive system turned upside down to harvest eggs and later to prepare her body for implantation – an insult to the dignity of the woman. The embryonic human being is created in a glass dish – an insult to the dignity of this person too.

So when a woman is made pregnant by artificial means it is an insult to the dignity of the woman who should only become pregnant through acts of sexual intimacy with her husband.

DP is clear that “respect for that dignity is owed to every human being because each one carries in an indelible way his own dignity and value.” (DP, n 6)  Moreover, through DP the Church reminds us all “that the ethical value of biomedical science is gauged in reference to both the unconditional respect owed to every human being at every moment of his or her existence, and the defense of the specific character of the personal act which transmits life.

The problem with embryo adoption is that it requires artificial interventions to supplant marital intimacy as the means of making a woman pregnant. That is, we are being invited to violate one foundational ethical principle (“Procreation which is truly responsible vis-à-vis the child to be born must be the fruit of marriage”) to provide further protection for the exposed embryonic human being.  But this violates the first principle of natural law, that one must not do evil to achieve good (and cf Romans 3:8).

To support his contention that it is right to violate one good in order to achieve another, Dr Nadal refers to Christ’s behaviour on the Sabbath:
Jesus admonished the Pharisees when they took exception to His disciples picking grain and eating it on the Sabbath. He also admonished them about the lawfulness of saving life on the Sabbath, even if it meant breaking the law to do so. “Who among you would not pull his sheep out of a hole to save it on the Sabbath?”
But this is to misuse Scripture in two ways. First, it is interpreting one passage of Scripture to contradict another setting Romans 3: 8 against Christ’s teaching on the Sabbath. And second, it misunderstands Christ’s teaching on the Sabbath.

Our Lord says two things about the Sabbath:
  1. He is Lord of the Sabbath. Because his father created the Sabbath, and “the Father continues to work on the Sabbath, the divine Son can only do what his Father does (John 5:18).” [note 1] His contemporaries understood that to mean he was claiming equality with God.
  2. Jesus also claims he is “fulfilling the true intent of the Sabbath (Luke 13:10-17). In other words, by healing and restoring, he is lifting burdens from the lives of the people, giving them rest from years of physical and spiritual bondage. The Sabbath is therefore something that frees rather than something that binds (Luke 13:10-17).” [note 2]
Our Lord is teaching his disciples that “acts of charity and necessity are ... in harmony with the Sabbath’s deepest level of significance (Matt 12:1-6; Luke 6:9).” [note 3]

In no way then can these passages from the Gospels be used to justify embryo adoption, or the doing of an evil to achieve a good.

So it is that DP teaches us that the mess created by wilful human beings is not patient of an easy solution this side of the grave.  We must leave these children in the hands of God their heavenly Father.  Embryo adoption is excluded as a “Catholic” response to so-called unwanted human embryos.

The Rev’d Dr John I Fleming PhD
Adjunct Professor of Bioethics
Southern Cross Bioethics Institute (Adelaide, South Australia)


1. Scott Hahn, ed. Catholic Bible Dictionary, New York, Doubleday, 2009, 787
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.

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