FRONT ROYAL, Virginia, August 2, 2011 ( – Two prominent Catholic bioethics commentators crossed swords over the morality of adopting frozen embryos, an issue that remains highly contentious.

The question came up at a July bioethics conference at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, where moral theology professor Dr. Janet Smith and Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk of the National Catholic Bioethics Center participated in a Q&A session.

In the 2008 document Dignitatis Personae, the only time the Vatican spoke directly on the issue, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith called embryo adoption “a situation of injustice which in fact cannot be resolved.” Both thinkers agreed the document left the issue open for discussion.

Dr. Janet Smith, a sexual ethics expert who holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, said embryo adoption could be morally appropriate.

“For my part, in principle, I think it may be a good thing, much like any kind of adoption,” said Smith.

“Couples adopt babies. Sometimes that calls for nursing a child, so she’s offering her body to this child,” she continued. “I think sometimes if you take it outside the context of in-vitro fertilization, we might not be so opposed to it.”

As an example of a virtuous case, Smith conjured the scenario of a woman gestating the embryonic child of her sister with cancer, as the latter underwent treatment that would have certainly caused a miscarriage.

“If [embryo adoption] would come up outside of [the context of] the in-vitro situation, I think we would have an intuitively stronger sense of the possible goodness of this act,” she said.

Smith admitted that the unintended consequences of widespread adoption could be “a nightmare,” especially as corrupt practices already overwhelm similar cases such as organ donation. “While I think in principle it might be a good thing, I’m not certain that in practice it will,” she said.

Pacholzyk took the microphone to disagree.

“I would say that my approach here would be very different from Janet’s,” he said. “Its wrongness here can be seen in principled terms.”

The priest went on to phrase the issue in terms of spousal rights within the marital bond, and particularly a husband’s right to his wife’s body. To illustrate, he recounted his response to a friend and father of five when the latter asked Pacholzyk’s opinion on the adoption question.

“I … said to him, well, how would you feel if Heidi was implanted with someone else’s embryo – his wife? And he paused, and said, well, she should get pregnant only through me,” said Pacholzyk. “He’s touched a deep nerve here.”

Pacholzyk said the end cannot justify means that he concluded are “disordered.” “[The means] violate the covenant of marriage, they violate the exclusivity – a woman’s uterus, I’m convinced, [is] not simply her own to be handed over in this unilateral fashion, even if there’s agreement between husband and wife about doing this,” he said.

“Normally, how does a father connect to his progeny? Through the marital act. That’s the one link he has. And that’s severed here.”

Ultimately, he said, a sacred bond is violated when a woman “becomes a mother independent of her spouse.” “There’s a sense in which our reproductive powers don’t just belong to … husband and wife, they belong to husband, wife and God in a tripartite, mysterious way,” he said.

In addition, he said, permitting embryo adoption would simply cause the IVF industry to boom even more, as demand would increase for discarded embryos. “[IVF companies would] have to replenish the stockpile,” said Pacholzyk. “So this becomes a self-defeating proposal practically speaking as well.”

“As tragic as these half a million frozen human beings are, we can’t go there. We’ve backed ourselves into a corner,” he concluded.

Smith took to the microphone one last time to argue for a distinction between a woman’s reproductive system and her ability to nourish a child.

“It seems to me the act of reproduction has taken place, so you’re not engaging in sex with another man, any more than when breastfeeding another man’s child,” she said.

“I’m not certain that I like it at all, as the solution to in-vitro fertilization,” Smith added, “but in principle I don’t think it violates the sexual relationship between husband and wife.”