What you should know about frozen embryo adoption

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.