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Question 51: Should a woman try to bear her dead sister’s frozen embryo?

You do not know me, but a friend of mine told me you are working on unusual moral questions, and I hope you can answer mine.

My eldest sister, Susan, fell away from the Church when she went to business school at Harvard. She pursued her career for ten years, had several affairs and abortions, then quit work and married two years ago at thirty-five. She wanted a baby, thinking it would cement her marriage. But there was a complicated fertility problem, and they decided to try in vitro fertilization (IVF) using donor semen. Several of Sue’s eggs were fertilized successfully, but the first attempt to make her pregnant failed. One ‘spare’ embryo had been frozen, but before a second attempt was made, Sue’s husband left her for his secretary. Feeling she had nothing to live for, she killed herself six weeks ago.

She left behind a long, bitter note with messages for her husband, Mom, Dad, and various other people, including me. She recalled that, when I was thirteen, I tried to talk her out of having an abortion by arguing that every new individual is a tiny baby from the very beginning. She wrote: “Annie, if you still believe that, you can keep my appointment next month with the IVF clinic, and try to be a mother to my ‘tiny baby,’ who is currently residing in the deep freeze!”

Sue was being sarcastic, of course, and at first the message struck me as just another bad line in her whole miserable act. But a couple of weeks ago I recalled what she said and began thinking about doing it. After praying over it for a few days and talking it over with Mom, I felt at peace with the idea. I looked into it, and now know I can try to save this baby. It will not be as simple as just keeping Sue’s appointment, but the IVF clinic is asking for only three things: a release from her husband, payment in advance, and a waiver of liability from me. Sue’s husband is willing to sign the release, and Dad is willing to put up the money. The clinic wants me to waive liability because, if in doubt, they ordinarily take no chances and discard the embryo. When they explained that, I told them I am not interested in having a perfect baby but in trying to save this one and so would want them to go through with the transfer even if they have doubts about the embryo’s condition and prospects of developing normally. They then said the consent form would have to spell out my instructions and waive liability, and I have no problem with that.

Still, I am not sure whether to go ahead. If nothing is done, the embryo will be at the disposal of the IVF clinic. They refuse to say what they will do with “it,” but I am afraid they will either discard the embryo or turn him or her over to someone to experiment on. A priest I talked with told me the Church has ruled out IVF and surrogate motherhood, and he thinks that decision might apply to me, though he did not want to say for sure. Also, if I became pregnant, I would give the baby up for adoption. I am twenty-two and healthy but am not married. I would like to marry and have children eventually, but I’m not ready for that yet, and don’t want to be a single mother.

What do you think? Should I do it or not?


This question requires the derivation of a new specific moral norm. The teaching of the Church excludes IVF and surrogate motherhood, but the proposal being considered by the questioner is different: to try to save the embryo’s life by receiving this tiny individual in her womb and nurturing him or her until birth. The end of saving the baby is good, and the chosen means of transferring him or her from freezer to womb is not at odds with human life, the transmission of life, or the good of marriage. So, in itself, this action would be morally acceptable. Though it would involve cooperation with the IVF clinic and might be used by other women to rationalize immoral actions, these circumstances need not make it wrong.

The reply could be along the following lines:

Since legislators can choose whether to make a rule of law and, within limits, what rule of law to make, the legality of doing various sorts of things often depends on legislators’ choices. But whether doing something is morally good or evil does not depend on anyone’s choice. Rather, it depends on the act’s relationships to fundamental human goods and to loving God and neighbor (see CMP, 184–89 and 603–6). Therefore, on moral questions the Church does not attempt to legislate; rather, in the light of God’s word, she teaches what she believes to be the truth about what is really good for human beings, who are fallen but redeemed and called to heavenly glory. Thus, it is misleading to say the Church has ruled out IVF and surrogate motherhood. To be precise, one should say the Church has examined these sorts of action and found them to be gravely wrong (see CCC, 2376–77; LCL, 684).

Your argument against abortion was sound. The frozen embryo truly is a tiny baby. Even though this baby should not have been brought into being as he or she was, now that this new person exists, he or she—like a baby conceived as a result of fornication, adultery, rape, or incest—has the same immeasurable worth and deserves the same respect and loving care as every other human being. The loving care of bearing this baby in your womb is what you propose to try to give. Still, reflecting on the Church’s teaching, you rightly wish to make sure that what you propose to do is not somehow morally wrong.

IVF always is wrong, because it brings a new human individual into being, and deals with him or her, as a product of technology rather than as a person enjoying the same essential dignity as his or her human originators. If the product fills the order, the baby may be accepted and loved as a person; but the individual also may be found defective and be scrapped, or eventually be discarded as surplus. In any case, he or she is not procreated as a fruit of love, given by God in answer to an act of marital love cooperating humbly with his own love.182 Done with donor semen, IVF is wrong for additional reasons. It violates the exclusivity of the marital communion and deprives the child of the normal human relationship to his or her parents.183

The surrogate mother is impregnated either by transferring to her an embryo resulting from IVF or by fertilizing her own ovum with semen from a man who is not her husband, and she bears the child as part of an arrangement with someone to whom the baby will be surrendered shortly after birth. This procedure is wrong not only because both IVF and artificial insemination are wrong but also because it violates the good of marriage and uses both the surrogate mother and the baby as mere means to providing a child for the person or couple who want one.184

Obviously, though, what you propose to do would not involve artificial insemination. And though the embryo came to be by IVF, your sister, her husband, and the people at the IVF clinic did what they did some time ago, and what you are considering doing cannot in any way contribute to their past acts carrying out IVF. Moreover, you are proposing to bear the child not on anyone else’s behalf but simply to save his or her life. So—supposing your project succeeds—even if you think it best to give the baby up for adoption, you would not be acting as a surrogate mother.185 Rather, you would be acting in much the same way as a mother who volunteers to nurse at her own breast a foundling conceived out of wedlock, abandoned by his or her natural mother, and awaiting adoption by a suitable couple. Like that mother’s nursing, the nurture you hope to give will in no way involve you in the wrongs previously done to the baby and will be offered to him or her for his or her own sake, not done as a service to anyone else. Therefore, you certainly can try to save the baby without acting contrary to what the Church has taught regarding IVF and surrogate motherhood.186

Moreover, in my judgment, you could do it without acting contrary to any other moral norm. Plainly, your end would be good: to try to save the baby’s life. So, your project cannot be intrinsically wrong unless the necessary means is immoral. The chosen means would be to have the embryo moved from the freezer into your womb and to nurture him or her there, as any upright pregnant woman nurtures her child.187 Nurturing the baby in your womb surely will not be wrong; if someone transferred an embryo to your womb without your consent, abortion would be wrong, and it would be your duty to nurture the baby, just as it is the duty of a woman who has been raped and finds herself pregnant. Thus, if anything makes your project intrinsically wrong, it must be having the embryo moved from the freezer into your womb. But that is not at odds with any basic human good. It protects life rather than violates it; since the new person already exists, it does not violate the transmission of life; and it has nothing to do with the good of marriage, because it is not a sexual act, and the relationship between you and the baby is neither marital nor a perverse alternative to the marital relationship.

To be sure, embryo transfer usually is an integral part of the project of obtaining a baby by means of IVF, and that project as a whole is immoral. But in your case, the transfer of the embryo would be part of an entirely different project: rescuing this person in distress.188 Though superficially similar to acts violating various goods involved in marriage and procreation, what you propose to do is not the same as any of them. In choosing to receive the embryo into your womb, you would be committing yourself to only one thing: trying to save his or her life.

Someone might grant that what you propose to do would not involve IVF or surrogate motherhood and would not be wrong in virtue of either the end of saving the baby’s life or the means of having him or her transferred from the freezer into your womb, yet argue that your project would be wrong for another reason: You would be cooperating with the IVF clinic’s operators, who regard babies as a product, and setting an example that will be followed by single women and couples in the market for that product.189 In reality, however, the IVF clinic’s operators would be cooperating with you in dealing with the embryo as a baby rather than as a product, and nothing you did would contribute to any of their other, wrongful acts. And while people who wanted a baby not for his or her sake but to satisfy their own desires might use your example to rationalize their very different project, you could rightly accept that bad effect of your very different choice, insofar as you could not prevent it; and you could try to forestall it by your witness to the truth about the relevant goods.

The positive value of that witness and the danger that your action would be misunderstood would be cogent reasons for explaining carefully whenever possible what you were doing and why. If you proceed, therefore, you should do your best to make three things clear: (1) you are convinced that both IVF and surrogate motherhood are wrong in themselves and unjust to the babies involved; (2) you are certain that all human embryos, including those produced by IVF, are tiny persons and that, like every person, they should be loved for their own sakes, not regarded as products or mere means to other people’s ends; and (3) you believe it right to try to save the life of your sister’s baby, and that is all you are interested in.

Against what you propose, it also has been argued that only a couple who can and will adopt and raise the baby can appropriately have an embryo transferred to the wife’s womb. The argument is that a single woman who plans to rescue and give the child up for adoption would treat him or her as “an object or item to be transferred about as a mere temporary possession,” and that the child needs and deserves “a family which vows to meet the obligations, responsibilities, and duties any family must live up to.”190 This argument is not sound. No more than a loving wet nurse or foster parents of an infant awaiting adoption do you propose to treat the baby as an object, item, or temporary possession.

Still, perhaps you know or can find a faithful Catholic married couple who would make good parents for this baby and would be prepared not only to try to save this child but to receive him or her into the wife’s womb and at once commit themselves to fulfilling all parental responsibilities. Generous as it would be for such a couple to adopt the baby after he or she was born, it would be more appropriate for them to assume parental responsibilities now if they can. That would constitute a more integrated parental principle. Therefore, if Sue’s husband and the IVF clinic will cooperate and a suitable couple wish to try to save the baby, you should not, in my judgment, carry out your plan.

Your way of putting your question, “Should I do it or not?” suggests a further question, though one you probably did not have in mind: Supposing nobody better qualified attempts to bear your sister’s baby, would you have some obligation to do so?

Very often, not only those whose job it is to rescue others (fire fighters, life guards, and so on) but someone who puts another into a dangerous situation can have a strict obligation to attempt a rescue. But you are not responsible for the coming to be of your sister’s embryo or for his or her present perilous situation. You are more like a passerby who, noticing a child drowning or trapped in a burning house, considers attempting a rescue. Therefore, you have no such strict obligation to undertake this service.

Still, since at times everyone needs and wants a passerby’s help, the Golden Rule can require one to be a Good Samaritan. And since we Christians believe that we have been saved by Jesus, who freely accepted death for our sakes, we must extend like mercy to others. So, if the passerby could attempt the rescue without unreasonable cost, difficulty, or risk, he or she might have an obligation to try to help; if he or she is a Christian, that obligation could require significant self-sacrifice. At the same time, grave risks to the potential rescuer, small prospects of success, or responsibilities to others might well provide cogent moral reasons why the passerby need not, or even should not, try to help. Only he or she could consider the pros and cons, and conscientiously judge whether either option was obligatory.

Obviously, carrying a baby and giving birth always involve significant burdens and risks, and the chance of saving an embryonic individual produced in a laboratory is poor. So, you have good reasons not to make the attempt. Still, if the burdens and risks to you are set aside, those reasons are hardly conclusive. Therefore, it seems to me that, unless someone else attempts to bear your sister’s embryo or some unmentioned responsibility precludes your doing so, you might well have an obligation of Christian mercy to try to bear him or her.

Finally, if you undertake this responsibility, be on guard against a possible temptation to harbor resentment toward your sister. While rightly deploring some of the things she did, you should forgive her for the pain she has caused. Pray that God also will forgive her; he alone knows how responsible she was for her life and death. Having forgiven your sister and prayed for her, you will be able to try to save her tiny baby as a pure act of love for him or her, an act you could also offer as a sacrifice for your sister.

182. See Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Donum vitae, II, B, 5; AAS 80 (1988) 92–94, OR, 16 Mar. 1987, 5–6; also see LCL, 267–68; q. 52, below.

183. Ibid., II, A, 2; AAS 88–89, OR, 4–5.

184. Ibid., II, A, 3; AAS 89, OR, 5.

185. The preceding facts are essential presuppositions of the subsequent conclusion that the questioner may, and perhaps even should, try to bear her sister’s baby. Therefore, my answer should not be taken to mean that the end of making babies available to adoptive parents could justify doing anything to promote IVF.

186. William B. Smith, “Response,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review, 96:11–12 (Aug.–Sept. 1996): 16–17, insists that a woman who bears someone else’s frozen embryo would be a surrogate mother. He ignores the fact that bearing on another’s behalf is part of the very definition of surrogacy.

187. Geoffrey Surtees, “Adoption of a Frozen Embryo,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review, 96:11–12 (Aug.–Sept. 1996): 11–13, thinks only a woman prepared to adopt the child should have an embryo moved to her womb, and says the object of the act is adoption. However, even if a couple wishing to adopt a frozen, embryonic child were in question, their necessary means would be to have the embryo transferred from the freezer to the wife’s womb, and their plan to adopt, pertaining to that act’s end, would lie outside its precise object.

188. William B. Smith, “Rescue the Frozen?” Homiletic and Pastoral Review, 96:1 (Oct. 1995): 72 and 74, takes a contrary position, but for the most part, it seems to me, builds his case on confusing the wrongs others have done with the precise act of the rescuer. Smith, however, does quote and argue from one seemingly relevant sentence of Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Donum vitae, I, 5; AAS 80 (1988) 84, OR, 16 Mar. 1987, 4: “In 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.” Smith goes on: “No safe means that can be licitly pursued! Perhaps, the CDF 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.” But the sentence Smith relies upon ends a section concerned with using embryos produced in vitro for research, and is immediately preceded by a condemnation of deliberately exposing such embryos to death. In my judgment, therefore, the sentence Smith quotes should not be understood as referring to the action of a rescuer who has in no way participated in the wrongs that have brought the embryonic persons to be and left them to their absurd fate, but to the options available to those wrongly involved in IVF. For a fuller argument against Smith’s use of this passage, see Surtees, op. cit., 8–9.

189. Maurizio P. Faggioni, O.F.M., “The Question of Frozen Embryos,” OR, 21 Aug. 1966, 5, seems to concede that the prenatal adoption of a frozen embryo would be permissible in itself, but raises “serious questions” about circumstantial factors that might morally exclude such adoption as a general “solution, suggested as an extrema ratio to save embryos abandoned to certain death.”

190. Surtees, op. cit., 13; but cf. 16, n. 23, where he concedes that being rescued and given up for adoption is better for the baby than being left in the freezer.