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Artificial Limbo: The Moral Quandary of Frozen Embryos

By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.
July 12th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Were we to go to such cryopreservation facilities where the frozen human embryos are preserved, we would be confronted with a veritable man-made limbo.  Thousands upon thousands of human embryos--live human souls trapped in their tiny frozen "body"--whose natural development has been suspended.  One count has these poor frozen souls numbered at almost 400,000 in the United States alone.  We confront a moral quandary before these tiny frozen humans: we do not clearly know what we can do with them.

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - St. Thomas Aquinas taught that no innocent person would ever be placed in a position where he has to select between two wrongs so as to be forced to choose between evils.  In other words, the innocent agent would never be perplexed by a moral dilemma.  Any moral dilemmas confronted by an innocent could be shown to be only apparent.  God would not place the innocent in such a situation.
 
However, this was not St. Thomas's view when it came to a wrongdoer.  St. Thomas believed that a wrongdoer was not necessarily assured that he would not find himself in a moral dilemma.  While in most cases a wrongdoer could escape those moral dilemmas caused by his prior wrongful acts, it was possible that, in a certain case, like a careless painter he could paint himself into a moral corner by his own prior acts. 

If the wrongdoer faced such a moral dilemma, however he acted he would be condemned to sin. He would confront a Hobson's choice where neither option was good.  He would therefore find himself morally perplexed.  If he wanted to do good, he could not act.  But not acting would not resolve the problem.

Modern man has put himself in what may be an irresolvable dilemma, one which even perplexes the Church.

With his technical prowess through his hubris morally unchecked, modern man has sinned against human life and the moral law that governs the procreative process.  Instead of a "great 'yes' to human life," he has expressed a great 'no' to human life.  He has murdered hundreds millions perhaps even a billions of his kind through direct abortion and the "contraceptive" techniques that are in fact abortions

Modern man rejects the notion: "The Lord puts to death and gives life."  (1 Sam. 2:6).  For him it is man who puts to death when and how he wills.  His instruments of killing have gotten small indeed, so that they reach the tiniest humans, violating them or poisoning them or their natural environment.  Our mother's wombs have become killing fields.

Additionally, in engaging in all sorts of artificial conception techniques, specifically, those associated with in vitro fertilization, man has also dabbled in the black technical arts of "illegitimate spawning" to borrow words from Seamus Heaney's poem "Limbo." 

Again, modern man rejects the notion: "The Lord puts to death and gives life."  (1 Sam. 2:6).  For him it is also man who gives life.

It is these latter sins that may have put modern man in an irresolvable moral dilemma.  He may have painted himself into a moral corner.  And in so doing he may have manufactured an artificial limbo where he has condemned hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of his kind.

The ordinary in vitro fertilization techniques require the production of a number of human embryos; many more embryos are produced than will eventually be born.  Some of these embryos are frozen in liquid nitrogen--placed in cryopreservation--for future use in the event those embryos that are used do not successful result in the birth of a child.

The Church addresses the moral problems associated with in vitro fertilization in the instruction Dignitatis personae For a variety of reasons, these techniques are found wanting because they violate the union between procreation and the conjugal act.  Moreover, they offend against the dignity of the embryo.

The Church teaches that the "human embryo has . . . the dignity proper to a person."  DP, 6.  As a consequence, such cryopreservation "is incompatible with the respect owed to human embryos."  DP, 18.  Moreover, it is foreseeable that many of these embryos do not survive the process of initial freezing or the process of thawing once frozen.

Some, however, do survive  the thawing process.  And these are used in the medical procedures which, if effective, lead to the birth of a child.  Once the couple's desires have been satisfied, however, there are often a great number of these embryos that remain in suspended animation while they are in cryopreservation.  Like the fishermen at Ballyshannon in Seamus Heany's poem "Limbo," our moral nets have captured an "illegitimate spawning," small ones "thrown back to the waters," frozen waters to be sure.

The Church observes: "The majority of embryos that are not used remain 'orphans.'  Their parents do not ask for them and at times all trace of the parents is lost.  That is why there are thousands upon thousands of frozen embryos in almost all countries where in vitro fertilization takes place."  DP, 18. 

Like the mother intent on infanticide in Seamus Heany's poem, those scientists and physicians as well as patients who participate in this mockery of procreation stand in moral shallows, ducking the issue.  Their souls, like the wrists of the murderess in Heaney's poem, are "dead as the gravel."  Their consciences have been torn open, rendered raw, as if a "minnow with hooks"--a fishing lure full of hooks--had been forcibly yanked out of  the tender flesh of a woman's birth canal.

Were we to go to such cryopreservation facilities, we would be confronted with a veritable man-made limbo.  Thousands upon thousands of human embryos--live human souls trapped in their tiny frozen "body" in strange-looking vats--whose natural development has been suspended.  One count has these poor frozen souls numbered at 396,526 in the United States alone.  

Modern man is not only acting as though he is the lord of life and death.  Modern man has now claimed the space between life and death.  He has said: "Now limbo will be a cold glitter of souls," packed in liquid nitrogen.

What can be done with the "cold glitter of souls"?  The question presents a moral quandary.

Modern man finds himself in this quandary because he has done this even while "under the sign of the cross."  Modern man has spurned the teachings of the Church, has spurned the natural moral law.  His technological prowess will not be limited by the "inconvenience" of ethics.  And it may be that, as a result of his hubris, modern man has painted himself into a moral corner. 

The Church herself has asked the question: "With regard to the large number of frozen embryos already in existence the question becomes: what to do with them?  Some of those who pose this question do not grasp its ethical nature, motivated as they are by laws in some countries that require cryopreservation centers to empty their storage tanks periodically.  Others, however, are aware that a grave injustice has been perpetrated and wonder how best to respond to the duty of resolving it."  DP, 19.

Due the respect due to persons, these embryos cannot be allowed to die.  They cannot be used for research.  They cannot be used as a treatment for infertility.  These are all clearly immoral options.  Some have suggested a form of "prenatal adoption" as the means out of the moral dilemma.  While this last proposal is "praiseworthy with regard to the intention of respecting and defending human life," it still suffers from moral problems that plague the clearly immoral options, though here, the Church's condemnation seems a little softer perhaps in the hope of arriving at some future answer. DP, 19.

But at this time, the Church is perplexed.  "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."  DP, 19.

The Church cannot give guidance to modern man who has irresponsibly placed himself in a moral quandary.  Her theologians are working on it, but so far no clear solution has been found.

With respect to the thousands and thousands of frozen embryos, the Church seems as yet to have found no way out of modern mankind for its sins.  By its prior sins, modern mankind has put itself in a moral dilemma.  It is wrong to keep these embryos a permanent cryogenic state.  It is appears wrong in any manner to dispose of them. 

We have put some of our own kind in limbo.  A man-made limbo.  And with reckless disregard of the rights and dignity of the embryo, we keep condemning more of our kind in the frozen chambers, frozen chambers like a sort of Dantean hell where--can it be so?--

Even Christ's palms, unhealed,
Smart and cannot fish there.


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Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He is married with three children.  He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum.  You can contact Andrew at agreenwell@harris-greenwell.com.

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