Freezing Tiny Human Beings

Karla and Jacob began dating in 2009 when they were 42 and 32 years old, respectively. After Karla was diagnosed with lymphoma, and “despite neither of them thinking the relationship had long-term prospects,” both agreed to have human embryos created from their gametes. These were frozen for later use because treatment would, unfortunately, destroy Karla’s fertility. Their relationship was short-lived, yet, Karla’s only chance of giving birth to her own genetic children remained the use of the frozen progeny resulting from this relationship.

Jacob objected and the two went to court. This May, the Illinois judge ruled that Karla can transfer the embryos in spite of Jacob’s objection to “becoming a parent.” (He is, of course, already a parent of these embryos—he doesn’t want to bear the responsibilities that would follow a live birth of one of his children). This sad case is emblematic of many of the pitfalls and ethical problems inherent in the practice of freezing embryonic human beings for in vitro fertilization.

Cryopreservation of embryos keeps them alive but development is arrested as they remain frozen in a state of suspended animation. Submerged in liquid nitrogen in a freezer, dubbed a “Concentration Can” by the great geneticist, Jerome LeJeune, cryopreservation exposes these innocents to a host of risks, offenses, and further manipulation. The techniques used to freeze embryos today involve immersion in a solution of cryoprotectant (think anti-freeze) that reduces the likelihood of lethal ice crystals being formed inside the cells. They remain frozen indefinitely, entirely beholden to the whims of parents, the clinic, or government regulation.

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The most obvious offense to their human rights is that the process of freezing and thawing the embryos leads to the death of many. A recent study indicated that 46 percent will not survive the freezing and thawing process. The two primary causes of death? Formation of ice crystals (freezer burn) or cytotoxicity (poison) from the cryoprotectant. As the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority has summarized, “Not all embryos will survive freezing and eventual thawing when they come to be used.  Very occasionally no embryos will survive.” Many will lose one or two cells, with associated risks not fully understood. In short, the freezing and thawing process exposes them to serious risk of harm and death.

But even if the technology was perfected and no deaths would occur (an exceptionally unlikely scenario), these human beings are frozen against their will and not for their own good. Consent to such a procedure cannot be presumed because IVF and the freezing of embryos do not offer reasonable hope of success or great benefit for the embryo. They offer, rather, significant risks that are well above what might be reasonably considered normal. These risks are accepted because of a prior choice for IVF which is, itself, an irresponsible herculean intervention with overall embryo survival rates hovering around 5-20 percent.

One might foresee an objection: “Freezing embryos is for their good because it allows at least some embryos to survive.” It is true that some embryos (54 percent according to the recent meta-analysis noted earlier) will be able to survive because they are frozen. However, such interventions are not for the medical benefit of each embryonic human being but are chosen for reasons of the woman’s health condition, the schedule of the doctor or clinic, or to increase pregnancy rates. All of these reasons exhibit no meaningful regard for the survival of each embryo. The fact that they need to be frozen is not because of a natural medical need of the embryo but rather an imposed need created by a prior injustice. They are “put on ice” for the sake of an adult. Such an act only becomes necessary because a prior injustice has already occurred, namely that they have been deprived of maternal warmth and gestation and exposed to great risk (more on this below). Freezing an embryo is not in his or her best interest, therefore there are no grounds for presumed consent to a process that is not therapeutic but is, instead, for the benefit of another.

In this way, the unconditional respect owed to every person is not granted to these embryonic human beings. Society would find it appalling if any other human being were treated in like fashion. Why? Freezing human beings against their will and not for their own good reduces them to merely an instrumental good for the sake of another person. They are treated as less than human, as products or commodities, rather than as unique human beings who are precious in God’s sight. Freezing embryonic human beings fails to treat the embryos as subjects with personal dignity. Instead, it places them at significant risk and subordinates their interests to those of their parents or of the clinic.

Freezing human embryos establishes a blatant relationship of domination and inequality between parent and child. A parent’s choice to conceive by IVF and to freeze the children places each embryo in an incredibly unjust situation of bearing significant risk when the parents themselves are the ones who stand to “benefit.” Donum vitae notes that freezing embryos is “depriving them, at least temporarily, of maternal shelter and gestation, thus placing them in a situation in which further offenses and manipulation are possible” (DV I.6). An example of such an offense is found in the case of Karla and Jacob. Here, these human beings were from the beginning deliberately deprived of the right to enter into a stable marital relationship between their mother and father. Such an act deliberately deprives the child of the fundamental right to be born of and into the loving marital relationship of his parents.

In Dignitas personae the Church clearly concludes that “cryopreservation is incompatible with the respect owed to human embryos; it presupposes their production in vitro.” The initial ethical problem is creation of these embryonic human beings in vitro. Though this may not always be possible, children should arise as the fruit of an act of love. To deliberately deprive them of equal status vis-a-vis their parents, to freeze them for the benefit of another, and to expose them to serious physical harm all make clear that cryopreservation depends upon and follows an unethical act and is itself gravely immoral.


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