Frozen Embryos: Forgotten Humans

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It is natural and God-pleasing for husbands and wives to desire to have children. But we cannot pursue having children simply by any means. Even good desires can become idolatrous if we desire them for the wrong reasons or pursue them in the wrong ways. In vitro fertilization (IVF), for example, is a procedure that presents ethical challenges because it ordinarily produces more embryos than is safe for a woman to bear. The unused embryos are then often cryogenically preserved. The estimated number of frozen embryos in the United States in 2013 was approximately 800,000.[1] These people exist and their lives are in grave danger. Not all of them are available for adoption, but hundreds, if not thousands, might be. I would argue not only is it morally permissible to adopt an embryo; it is praiseworthy. We should condemn the process that results in this conundrum, but that does nothing to help the human beings that already exist.

Human zygotes which result from IVF and are frozen have five possible fates: they can be transferred to their genetic mother (homologous embryo transfer); they can be adopted and transferred to a woman not their genetic mother (heterologous embryo transfer); they can be discarded, which results in their destruction; they can be used for research, which also results in their destruction; or they can remain cryogenically preserved in liquid nitrogen.

Of course, the first option is the purpose of IVF: for zygotes to be transferred to their genetic mother. But when the couple undergoing IVF has reached the number of children they wish to have or if health issues arise preventing future pregnancy, the remaining embryos are often abandoned. Abandoned embryos will not survive indefinitely in their frozen state. They will not survive becoming the subjects of experimentation. Their one chance for life at this point is to be adopted by loving families.  Having said that, even adoption is fraught with ethical difficulty because many frozen embryos do not survive the thawing process.[2]

A Perspective from Scripture and Christian History

Throughout the Old Testament, God entreats the community of Israel to care for orphans. In Psalm 68:5–6, God is called the Father of the fatherless. He promises to listen to the prayers of orphans and watch out for them. He opposes those who mistreat them. The psalmist writes: “For my father and my mother have forsaken me, but the Lord will take me in” (Ps 27:10). God’s heart graciously inclines toward the orphan, and He enjoins His people also to help and rescue orphans.

The church has historically seen the care of orphans as central to its mission. Early church history is replete with references to the fact that believers, and especially pastors, were involved in caring for orphans. Writing in about the year 110 AD, Ignatius warned the church in Smyrna:

Now note well those who hold heretical opinions about the grace of Jesus Christ that came to us; note how contrary they are to the mind of God. They have no concern for love, none for the widow, none for the orphan, none for the oppressed, none for the prisoner or the one released, none for the hungry or thirsty.[3]

Notice how closely orthodoxy is tied to life. Right doctrine is displayed in right action. These heretics who have neglected the grace of God have also neglected love for the vulnerable among us. But care for such people as these should be the mark of those who live according to an orthodox view of God’s grace. The kind of love that Ignatius has in mind, the kind that is concordant with the mind of God, is love that is exhibited by loving deeds.

Is Adoption the Best Option?

We know God’s disposition toward orphans. Even still, adopting a child is not for everyone and there are many legitimate reasons for not adopting. Moreover, there are several objections to embryo adoption such as the view that it further commodifies children or is a form of surrogacy—commercializing the reproduction process. These concerns, while they should not be dismissed, do not address the fact that these children exist and we must decide how to treat them.

Roman Catholic ethicist Peter Ryan states,

The goal should be to save as many lives as possible by having all of these frozen embryos transferred into the wombs of women who are willing and able to gestate them. Of course, the large majority of these pregnancies will not be successful, but that hardly shows that a concerted effort to save as many as possible should not be made. . . . Even a very small percentage of the hundreds of thousands of frozen embryos in storage is a very significant number of innocent lives that could be saved if the effort were made. To argue that the effort to save these embryos should not be made suggests that their lives are not as valuable as the lives of other people.[4]

Many of the 800,000-plus children held in stasis are not available for adoption, in part, because they are being held by their genetic parents for future use. But of those that are available, heterologous embryo transfer is, at present, the only means of potentially saving their lives and delivering them from their frozen state.

The Adopted and Adopting Community

Christian churches should offer emotional, physical, and even financial support for families who adopt children of any age. We must develop a culture within our churches that supports the diaconal and missional understanding of all types of child adoption. God uses the weak things of this world to speak to the mighty and He is calling on the Church to embody the Gospel by taking these little ones out of their frozen solitude and into our homes and churches.

The Church’s obligation toward frozen embryos is analogous to the Church’s obligation toward all abandoned children—to adopt and nurture them in the faith. We cannot say that an embryo has the moral equivalence of a born child as an argument that abortion is wrong, and then treat the two as qualitatively different when talking about adoption. Indeed, all those in Christ have been adopted into God’s family. It is time for the church to extend this mercy to all who are orphaned.


[1] Glenn Breed, “The Only Moral Option Is Embryo Adoption,” The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly 14, no. 3 (2014): 442. While it is impossible to offer a definitive number, Breed’s figure is a calculation based on the typical percentage increase and the latest known data (2012)—if the rate has been steadily increasing since then, then the figure could be even higher.

[2] According to the Genetics & IVF Institute, “a fully integrated, comprehensive fertility center” who considers themselves “an innovator in infertility treatment and genetics care and have helped thousands of patients worldwide realize their dreams of starting a family,” suggest: that “approximately, 65-70% of embryos survive thaw, 10% partially survive, and 20-25% are atretic.” They define their terms thus: “An embryo has “survived” if >50% of the cells are viable. We consider an embryo to “partially survive” if <50% of its cells are viable, and to be “atretic” if all the cells are dead at thaw.” Embryo Freezing (Cryopreservation), accessed October 18, 2016,

[3] Ignatius, Smyrnaeans, 6.2.

[4] Peter F. Ryan, “Our Moral Obligation to the Abandoned Embryo” in Thomas V. Berg and Edward J. Furton, eds., Human Embryo Adoption, Philadelphia: National Catholic Bioethics Center (2009), 324.