What you should know about frozen embryo adoption

January 19, 2018

In late 2017, an embryo that had been frozen for 24 years was born via a procedure termed frozen embryo transfer.[1] The procedure was facilitated and performed at the National Embryo Donation Center in Knoxville, Tenn., a faith-based organization that is one of the largest organizations of its kind. As this is a procedure that some Christians may be thinking about utilizing for their own families, here is what you should know about frozen embryo transfer.

What is frozen embryo transfer (FET)?

Frozen embryo transfer (FET), also known colloquially as “embryo adoption” or “rescue surrogacy,” has been around for more than 35 years, as the first successful report of this procedure was in 1983.[2] In FET, an embryo (fertilized egg) that has been previously frozen and given up for donation is implanted into woman’s uterus.

FET is a procedure primarily used to treat infertility. Persons searching for infertility solutions who may not be able to afford in vitro fertilization (IVF)[3] or other artificial reproductive treatments, or have objections to their use, have viewed FET as a way to still have the birthing experience. However, FET is not only for those who are infertile. It can also be utilized by a fertile woman who wishes to adopt an already frozen embryo.

Why are embryos frozen?

It is common practice for couples undergoing IVF to be encouraged to have additional embryos cryopreserved for future use.[4] Approximately 40 percent of persons undergoing IVF have additional embryos frozen for a later attempt, should their current round of IVF be unsuccessful, or to continue building their family at a later time. Embryos may be frozen and kept in short-term storage at a clinic for persons who want to attempt further IVF cycles, or they may be transferred to more long-term cryobank facilities.

Currently, up to one million human embryos are stored in the U.S.[5] Of these, it is estimated that only between one to six percent are currently available for adoption.[6] Hence, while IVF can be thought of as a way of creating life via reproductive technology, EFT provides a womb for that life to develop as was intended of human life.

What can be done with frozen embryos?

Many Christians would affirm that an embryo, even though it has not been implanted into a woman’s uterus, is a human life. As a human life, it is worthy of the same dignity and respect as any other image-bearer of God.

Once embryos are created utilizing IVF, if a person(s) decides they have completed their family while still having some embryos frozen, then they have a choice to make:

  1. Destroy/discard the embryos
  2. Keep the embryos frozen indefinitely
  3. Donate the embryos for scientific research
  4. Donate the embryos for adoption

Many Christians would affirm that an embryo, even though it has not been implanted into a woman’s uterus, is a human life. As a human life, it is worthy of the same dignity and respect as any other image-bearer of God. Hence, if an embryo is a human life and fellow image-bearer, then several things follow regarding the four options above.

First, while discarding embryos may be quick and discontinue a person’s obligation for them, it is also morally problematic, as it destroys human life.

Second, opting to keep embryos frozen indefinitely may seem like an easy choice for the parents, yet this is not optimal because it does not allow the life to grow and flourish as God intended for his creation.

Third, donating the embryos to science, if someone holds that they are human lives, is akin to the first choice. While the intention may be that the embryo has potentiality to advance science and assist in providing a disease cure, the process would still destroy the embryo, which is morally problematic.

The fourth option is the most life-affirming of the possibilities because it allows the embryo to develop and eventually be born, as was intended. This option also allows couples to fulfill the command to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28).

How is FET similar to traditional adoption?

In “traditional” adoption, a couple agrees to be the parents of either an already-born or about-to-be born child. FET is not legally considered adoption by U.S. law, as cells are merely property, not people.[7] Hence, embryo adoption is managed by U.S. property law, where the “owners” of the embryo (i.e. the genetic parents) have to donate the property (i.e. the embryo(s)). Nonetheless, if an embryo is a human life, which many Christians would affirm, then adopting an embryo is very similar to traditional adoption because it provides a new home for the child, as well as a new identity.  

What are some potential concerns with FET?

FET does cause a separation of the unitive and procreative dimension of marriage. That is, it goes against the creation norm for marriage and procreation by introducing a third party into the equation. This has been written on at length elsewhere, primarily by Catholic moralists. Yet, any qualms that one may have about violating the unitive and procreative norm may be overridden by taking into account the rescue of an embryo that is destined either for indefinite cryopreservation or destruction.

One could make an argument that if a person or couple wants to adopt, then the wisest and most loving course would be to adopt an already-born child, as these children have tangible needs (food, clothing, shelter, love), and should be given the opportunity to accept the gospel message. This concern should certainly be taken into account, yet it seems that we do not have to pit one against the other: traditional adoption vs. embryo adoption.

Russell Moore has written that we are often too drawn to an either/or ethic rather than a both/and.[8] To be certain, there are areas where our ethic must be either/or: serve either God or money; either be faithful to your spouse or not. There is no middle ground or room for compromise on these issues. Yet, Scripture also shows cases of both/and: Jesus is both God and man. To choose one in opposition to the other leads to a misrepresentation that breaks down completely. If we believe it is good to see orphans go to loving homes, then this includes orphaned embryos. The best thing that could happen to orphaned embryos is not simply to be left in a frozen, forgotten about state, but rather to be welcomed into a loving family, just as Jesus receives the little children (Matt. 19:14).

How should followers of Christ think about embryo adoption?

The doctrine of adoption is at the core of Christianity. In adoption, God the Father sends God the Son, Jesus, to earth as an embryo. Nine months later, the God-man, Jesus, is born. And it is through the person and work of Jesus that the Father adopts us as his own sons and daughters. The Apostle Paul writes of this adoption,

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:14-17a).

The doctrine of adoption is, in a very true sense, the gospel itself. Our identity as children of God, and our inheritance with his kingdom, is grounded in the person and work of Jesus. Yet, as Russell Moore has pointed out, adoption is also mission: “In this, our adoption spurs us to join Christ in advocating for the poor, the marginalized, the abandoned and the fatherless.”[9]

Hence, the same principle that is at work in the theological doctrine of adoption—where God rescues the helpless and adopts them into his kingdom—is also at work in earthly adoption, both traditional forms and embryo adoption. If we view frozen embryos as perpetual orphans until they are either implanted into the genetic mother’s uterus or adopted, then this will lead to us advocating for their lives, against their destruction, and for their ultimate adoption.  

Daniel J. Hurst

Daniel J. Hurst is director of Medical Professionalism, Ethics, and Humanities and assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford, New Jersey. He was previously on the faculty at UAB where he was involved in the xenotransplantation program performing studies on … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24