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Why Adoption of Frozen Human Embryos Could Be Acceptable

9/1/2003 - 9:50 PM PST

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2 Bioethics Experts Discuss a Lifesaving Means

MADRID, Spain, (Zenit.org).- The debate over the fate of human embryos is in focus again, after the Spanish government in July announced plans to change a 1988 law on human assisted reproduction.

The move, among other things, could open the door to research on human embryos stored at in-vitro fertilization clinics.

Consequently, the executive committee of the Spanish Catholic bishops' conference commented on the plan, but, like the proposed legislation, did not address the issue of prenatal adoption.

To analyze the morality of prenatal adoption of so-called spare embryos, two experts in bioethical issues agreed to an interview with Zenit. The responses of the two, Mónica López Barahona and Father Ramón Lucas Lucas, were culled below.

Dr. López is a member of the Spanish National Ethics Committee and dean of the Faculty of Biology and Health Sciences of Francisco de Vitoria University of Madrid.

Father Lucas is a professor of philosophical anthropology and bioethics at the Gregorian University of Rome and a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

Q: As a result of techniques of assisted reproduction, hundreds of thousands of human embryos, which have not been implanted in the womb, have been stored at low temperatures -- cryopreservation -- for years. The reform of the 1988 Law of Techniques of Assisted Reproduction (35/1988), announced recently by the Spanish government, will permit the use of these embryos in research if their parents give their consent. This could lead to medical advances that save many lives. Does this objective make this option acceptable and worthy?

A: Before addressing the question, it is best to define some terms.

Cryopreservation is a suspension of embryonic development. Through freezing in liquid nitrogen, generated human individuals are preserved at very low temperatures in biological immobility. This is an abusive interference in the life cycle. A human life, once conceived, must continue its natural course, which no one can interrupt or "suspend."

Temporal and historic continuity is an intrinsic good to human corporeal nature, proper to the person, and a right, due to which an individual understands himself. Age is more than a temporal connotation: It is a coordinate of the personal life that identifies it in the corporeal condition.... To alter it, causing a void in time in a person's existence, is a choice and an imposition.

To put the life cycle of a human embryo on hold is an expression of the "will to power" with which one person decides on the fate of another who is weak and defenseless.

This does not "interrupt" the life: The latter is "there" -- frozen, deposited -- like a consumer product, next to many others, ready for when it is needed. Its dignity lies in the value of its use, also subject to expiration, given the fact that no one can guarantee the physical integrity and the very vitality of a frozen embryo, because of the times and techniques of freezing. Thus, power is followed by violence as it frees itself of "expired," "unusable" lives.

Human acts must be distinguished in the unfreezing of embryos. Cryopreservation is a negative moral act; unfreezing is another moral act, different from the previous one.

This second act -- independent of the first -- can be negative if it is done to manipulate or eliminate the embryo. It will be positive, on the contrary, if it is done to return it to its normal state of development in the maternal womb.

In the case of the lack of a maternal womb, to remain in the state of cryopreservation seems the only alternative to preserve the primary good, which is the life of the embryo. No appeal can be made to "extraordinary means," because, in fact, this is the only ordinary means of existence -- although "suspended" -- of the embryo. Comparison with terminal patients that uses extraordinary means does not seem licit because in these cases one tries to leave the patient to follow his normal course and to avoid therapeutic cruelty.

It is also necessary to differentiate the moral acts done by man, in regard to the adoption of embryos:

-- Cryopreservation is in itself a negative act.

-- Abandonment by the natural parents is another act, different from the previous one, but also negative in itself.

-- Adoption by adoptive parents is an act that is different from the two previous ones and in itself is positive.

Each one of the three acts is independent. The criterion that governs is the primary and principal good: the life of the embryo. From two acts that are already negative in themselves, one cannot impede that a positive one follow, nor can a negative character be attributed to the latter by the fact that the others are such. ...

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