July 14, 2011

Snowflake babies: A Catholic response

By Andrew Haines *

By Andrew Haines *

A phenomenon of recent advances in medical science has been the advent of “snowflake babies” — human embryos, created via IVF, and frozen prior to uterine implantation. As the result of a completed, biological act of fertilization, snowflake babies are indeed human beings. And as such, they’re full human persons.

Not surprisingly, a moral dilemma has arisen as to how we, as Catholics, ought to approach the problem of snowflake babies. It’s pretty clear that the means of their creation — i.e., in vitro fertilization — is not a good one, since it separates the fruit of sexual intercourse, namely children, from the act of spousal union. However, illegitimate means don’t preclude the ultimate dignity of the person conceived. And just as with abortion, we’re faced with the tricky question of what to do with “unwanted” babies.

Some propose snowflake adoption. Since people are people from the first moment of conception, why not adopt these frozen babies in just the same way a couple might adopt a child who would otherwise have been aborted? It seems like the most logical response, and the one pro-life advocates would be most likely to endorse.

Still, some say, snowflake babies and children in the care of the state aren’t exactly the same thing. Although both are here because of some tragedy — either IVF or an unexpected, unwanted, or overly-burdensome pregnancy — there’s a critical difference that makes the idea of snowflake adoption a difficult pill to swallow.

That difference is the fact that to adopt frozen embryos seems, quite realistically, to offer support for the illegitimate practice of artificial reproduction. On the other hand, traditional adoption is merely a way of “making the best” out of an unfortunate situation.

A closer look at this distinction is helpful. (While I, for one, don’t have a firm opinion either way on whether or not snowflake adoption is morally good or bad — or neutral — I do think that parsing out the relevant positions is helpful, nonetheless.)

Opponents of snowflake adoption say that the difficulty with endorsing the practice as morally acceptable lies in the proximity of the act of adoption to the creation of the child by illegitimate and morally reprehensible means. In other words, while snowflake parents (those who adopt frozen embryos) might not necessarily be doing something evil by adopting and caring for an otherwise unwanted child, the further consideration of how such adoptions bear on the longevity of artificial methods of reproduction ought to be considered. If providing an “outlet” for thousands of frozen embryos facilitates further illegitimate reproduction, is adoption really a good option?

On the other hand — and the side of the balance I tend to favor — the fact of the matter is plain and simple: frozen embryos are human beings. And without adoption (including implantation in the womb of a foster mother) they will inevitably end up dead.

The question, of course, involves a good deal of prudential judgment. Ultimately, determining whether or not snowflake adoption is a morally acceptable alternative requires not only a firm belief in the dignity of human life, but also an appreciation for the bigger picture of building up a culture of life. Quite likely, some IVF practitioners who see an increased interest in snowflake adoption will take it as a sign that their work is becoming legitimized in the public opinion. Others, quite naturally, will identify the self-sacrifice and authentic compassion emanating from adoptive mothers, and will think twice about spawning further life in a Petri dish.

In my estimation, it seems safe to say that whatever the moral quality of snowflake adoption on the whole, the individual desire to adopt a child in such a situation is profoundly noble. And that guided by a sense for the true dignity of human personhood, instances of actual snowflake adoption might indeed be morally praiseworthy responses to clear threats against the value of human life.

Andrew Haines is president of the Center for Morality in Public Life and a PhD student in Philosophy at The Catholic University of America. He lives in Virginia with his wife, Kathleen, and their son.


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