July 31, 2023

The Moral Parameters of IVF and Embryo Adoption

Embryologist John Gordon relates a story about his “Crisis of conscience” when his wife confronted him that his practice was generating “blood money.” That prompted him to give careful thought to the ethical parameters of In Vitro Fertilization and was his impetus to work in the field of embryo adoption.  Below we discuss some of the common ground among pro-life, Catholic and Protestant ethicists regarding IVF and embryo transfers.

The Moral Requirement of Embryo Adoption

Biola University ethicist Scott Rae addresses the moral parameters of all sorts of artificial reproductive technology in his book, Outside the Womb.  After outlining every possible option available for embryo disposition, Rae concludes. “If the couple is unable to implant the remaining embryos themselves, then putting them up for adoption may be the only morally acceptable option available to them.”[1]

Catholic ethicist Elizabeth Rex argues, “Without ET [embryo transfers], every single human embryo conceived in vitro (whether it a fresh or a frozen embryo) would be exposed to an absurd fate and a certain death. Clearly, in light of Donum vitae I.3 and the magisterial liceity of ET, the fullest and most faithful interpretation of Donum vitae I.5 undoubtedly supports ET as a safe means of survival for every single human embryo that has been immorally conceived in vitro.”[2]  Rex summarizes, “both Donum vitae and the Catechism clearly defend the licitness of any medical procedure that is used to heal or save the lives of human embryos.”[3]

The Moral Parameters of IVF

One area of agreement among pro-life ethicists is that a central parameter to the morality of IVF is not to create more embryos than will be implanted.  Scott Rae writes, “The most prudent course for a couple to follow in IVF procedures is to avoid having leftover embryos.” [4] I would note, however, that the longer our Snowflakes® team members work in proximity to the IFV process, the greater their reservations are with it.  This is because we observe a great deal of loss.  By our observation, among the embryos ever created, donated, thawed, and implanted, only about 10% of them survive to be born.  So an ethical framework of IFV must also grapple with the loss that it involves.

A further issue to consider, even among pro-life embryologists, is the definition of an embryo.  Embryologists make somewhat subjective decisions about what constitutes an embryo, and discard some of them with the rationale that "it was not a real embryo" or "it was not a viable embryo," yet we cannot be so certain of these statements.

Another area of agreement among Catholics and Protestants regards, “The unity of marriage…and the child’s right to be conceived and brought into the world in marriage and from marriage.”[5]  To this, Protestant ethicist, Scott Rae says, “In most cases use of GIFT, IVF and ZIFT do not involve a third party contributor since the couple involved desires to have a child form their own genetic materials, Thus there would be no concern about violating the creation model for procreation.”[6]

Though Catholic ethicist Elizabeth Rex does not condone the creation of embryos through IVF under any circumstance, she agrees that the issue of marital bond does not apply to embryo transfers.  She states, “since embryo adoption and embryo transfer are not acts of generation and thus to not violate the natural generative order, it can be argued that embryo adoption and embryo transfer restore the natural generative order.”[7]

In summary, many pro-life ethicists (both Catholic and Protestant) agree that adopting frozen embryos is not only ethically permissible, but doing so is moral mandate.

Regarding IVF, the Catholic position is that no artificial means of creating embryos should be employed. Some pro-life protestant ethicists, however, are open to IFV as long as every embryo created is implanted.  Many would add that the creation of the embryos should involve the intended mother and father, so as not to generate life outside of the marital bond.  However, those couples adopting embryos need not be concerned that they are breaking the marital bond, because like with traditional adoption, the child has already been conceived.

There are other issues, such as PGD (preimplantation genetic diagnosis), limiting the number of sibling sets created, having open adoptions, etc.  For more on that subject, see this blog post.

Daniel Nehrbass, President




[1] Rae, Scott. Outside the Womb. Moody Publishing: Chicago, 2011. p 151

[2] Rex, Elizabeth.  “The Magisterial Liceity of Embryo Transfer.”  The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly,  Winter 2015.

[3] Rex, Elizabeth.  “The Magisterial Liceity of Embryo Transfer.”  The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly,  Winter 2015

[4] Rae, Scott. Outside the Womb. Moody Publishing: Chicago, 2011.  p 154

[5] Donum vitae II.A.2

[6] Rae, Scott. Outside the Womb. Moody Publishing: Chicago, 2011.  p. 139

[7] Rex, Elizabeth.  “The Magisterial Liceity of Embryo Transfer.”  The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly,  Winter 2015

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