The world is all atwitter about a baby born from an embryo frozen for 24 years. The embryo was frozen at a time when her adoptive mother was just a year old. Her birth was the result of the efforts of the National Embryo Donation Center, a group dedicated to finding adoptive parents for embryos frozen and left unused.

The desire to find parents is a laudable one, but not without its moral complications of which Catholics should be aware. Dignitas Personae highlights the great moral difficulty that freezing embryos and embryo adoption create. 

Dignitas Personae makes it very clear that the process of freezing embryos in the first place is incompatible with a Catholic view of human dignity:  “Cryopreservation is incompatible with the respect owed to human embryos; it presupposes their production in vitro; it exposes them to the serious risk of death or physical harm, since a high percentage do not survive the process of freezing and thawing; it deprives them at least temporarily of maternal reception and gestation; it places them in a situation in which they are susceptible to further offense and manipulation.”

That leaves the question: what duty is owed those embryos, who are themselves entitled to the dignity of human persons, once they have been created and frozen? This has been a topic of substantial debate with no clear resolution.

Some argue that adopting embryos undoes, in part, the assault on human dignity that IVF creation and freezing created in the first place: it permits that embryo to be born into full human life. Such an interpretation minimizes the fact that in order to do so, a further insult to the procreative process, one that Humane Vitae precludes, must occur. Introduction of a frozen embryo in itself separates the procreative and unitive aspects of sex and, in this case, introduces a third, and sometimes a fourth, person into the intimacy of the pregnancy.

Failing to bring these embryos to birth constitutes an ongoing assault on the dignity of the embryo, a sort of perpetual physical limbo that is contrary to the natural order of things. If these embryos are to be treated as persons, they cannot be deliberately destroyed or discarded. Nor can they be used for research purposes or for treatment of disease, because that would mean sacrificing the existence of one person for another.

This mix of conflicting problems led to this conclusion, a sobering warning about what happens when medical technology outpaces moral consideration: “All things considered, it needs to be recognized that the thousands of abandoned embryos represent a situation of injustice which in fact cannot be resolved. Therefore John Paul II made an “appeal to the conscience of the world’s scientific authorities and in particular to doctors, that the production of human embryos be halted, taking into account that there seems to be no morally licit solution regarding the human destiny of the thousands and thousands of ‘frozen’ embryos which are and remain the subjects of essential rights and should therefore be protected by law as human persons.”

Catholic voices may not be able to prevent abuses to human dignity such as embryo freezing, but they can be a voice of warning to the world about what happens when we fail to understand exactly what a person is, and respect the dignity of the smallest and most vulnerable. We can sound the alarm that some moral problems cannot be adequately resolved once they are created. And the voice of the laity may be more powerful than the voices of theologians, for in them lies the power of public opinion.


Barbara Golder had a 40-year career in medicine and law, including health care ethics. She is now the award-winning author of the ‘Lady Doc’ mystery series and serves as Director of Adult Faith Formation and Evangelization at the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She blogs at ladydoclawyer.com.