The Moral Case for Embryo Adoption

John Kleinsman
Issue 16, August 2005

In May of this year twenty-one American "Snowflakes" families appeared with President Bush accompanied by their adopted embryos. The purpose was to protest against a bill supporting the use of embryos for stem cell research.

Many of the babies wore T-shirts with the words "former embryo" or "this embryo was not discarded". The appearance of these children was a potent symbol of the fact that the embryo is just that child at an earlier stage of development. (Belluck, Pam. 2005)


Human Embryos and Research - Have Your Say

Nathaniel Centre Staff
Issue 19, August 2006

On 24 July, 2006 Toi te Taiao The Bioethics Council released a booklet designed to encourage discussion about the use of human embryos for research. The publication of this document reflects the responsibility Toi te Taiao has to consider the cultural, ethical and spiritual issues raised by the use of biotechnology in New Zealand and to get people thinking and talking and to encourage them to get involved.

The booklet anticipates the release of draft guidelines on the use of embryos for research by the Advisory Committee on Assisted Reproductive Technology (ACART) later in the year. All New Zealander's have the opportunity to submit their comments on these draft guidelines.

The desire to carry out research on embryos reflects a hope that stem cells unspecialized cells which have the ability to give rise to particular tissue-specific cells may one day provide the key to a wide range of cures and therapies. Embryos are one way of sourcing stem cells commonly referred to as embryonic stem cells (ESC's). The dilemma is that such stem cells can only be gathered by destroying the embryo.

Other types of stem cells - known as adult stem cells - can be obtained from a variety of other sources such as cord blood and bone marrow. The sourcing of adult stem cells does not require the destruction of embryos. For this reason, research on adult stem cells poses far fewer ethical dilemmas. At the same time, however, adult cells are more limited than ESC's in terms of the range of tissue-specific cells that they are potentially able to develop into.

It is because adult stem cells are more restricted in their ability to differentiate than ESC's that many researchers regard ESC's as holding greater promise. This has led to considerable pressure being put on governments around the world, including New Zealand, to make human embryos available for such research.

There are, broadly speaking, two key sources of embryonic stem cells; embryos specifically created for implantation by fertility clinics and which are now not required for implantation (sometimes called spare embryos) and embryos created expressly for destructive research. Embryos created for destructive research may be produced in one of two ways; through donated sperm and eggs the same process used to create embryos for infertile couples - or by a process of cloning (SCNT) in which the nucleus of an egg is replaced with the nucleus of a body cell (skin cell, hair cell, etc) containing the full complement of chromosomes of a particular person.

While a distinction is made between cloning for research and reproductive cloning (a practice that is illegal in New Zealand and universally banned) the process is essentially the same. The key difference is that in research cloning the embryo is allowed to grow for only seven days after which time it is destroyed so that its stem cells can be removed.

The booklet notes that individual attitudes to embryo research reflect a person's understanding of the moral status of the embryo. Some regard the embryo as merely a collection of cells, deserving of no special respect. Others regard it as meriting some protection but believe that for very good reasons such as the search for therapies embryos may sometimes be used for research. Catholic teaching holds that without exception the living embryo is, from the moment of fertilisation, a human being with an absolute right to life. On that basis all embryos are entitled to the same respect as persons.

Stem cell research holds real promise for the prevention and treatment of serious diseases. However, we have a moral obligation to pursue good outcomes by using only ethical means. It is an old axiom that the end does not justify the means. Sufficient account needs to be taken of the moral harm associated with the destruction of human embryos, including its wider repercussions for the way we look at all human life. Appealing exclusively to the future benefits that may come about as a result of destructive research on human embryos obscures broader ethical issues.

In the case of stem cell research, the use of adult stem cells provide an ethically acceptable alternative and we have a moral obligation to pursue this alternative. There is also other promising research which is seeking ways of obtaining cells with the same properties of embryonic stem cells without the need to create or harm human embryos.

For a fuller discussion of the Catholic understanding of the moral and ethical issues associated with stem cell research refer to The Nathaniel Report:

Issue number five: The Moral Status of the Embryo

Issue number twelve: Stem Cell Research in New Zealand

Submissions may be sent directly to ACART through their website.


The Use of Gametes and Embryos in Human Reproductive Research: Determining Policy for New Zealand

Submission from The New Zealand Catholic Bishops' Conference and The Nathaniel Centre
Issue 21, April 2007


Life and physical health are precious gifts that have been entrusted to us. We have a responsibility to take care of them while taking into account the needs of others and the common good. Concern for the health of its citizens requires that society work assiduously to support all persons to live fulfilled lives. To this end the Catholic Church recognises the importance of, and is committed to, ongoing research into human health and well-being.


Reflecting on Prenatal Detecting

John Kleinsman
Issue 22, August 2007

"There is an infinite difference between parents who want a child only if it comes into the world satisfying specific criteria for quality or gender, and parents welcoming the child they beget in a spirit of humility and with unconditional love, which they understand as the primary characteristic of the parent-child bond." (Margaret Somerville, "Biotechnology and the Human Spirit", p. 7)


The advent of prenatal testing has changed women's experience of pregnancy and, along with other developments in reproductive technologies, has led us – individually and societally – into new emotional and ethical territory.


Prenatal Testing Background


The ethical issues associated with prenatal screening have come to the fore in New Zealand in the last few months. In March 2007 the Ministry of Health released "A Report of the Antenatal Down Syndrome Screening Advisory Group to the National Screening Unit, January 2007." In the foreword of this report Dr Paul Harper notes that in New Zealand "screening tests [for Down syndrome] have crept into practice in an ad hoc manner with little consideration about the most appropriate tests to use or the ethical and social consequences of this type of screening."


Confronting the Distortions: Mothers of Children with Down Syndrome and Prenatal Testing


Dr Lisa Bridle

Prenatal diagnosis represents the most immediate and widespread application of the current explosion of genetic knowledge and technology. Presently hundreds of genetic conditions can be identified through prenatal diagnosis, although testing commonly focuses on chromosomal analysis and testing for neural tube defects (Wertz 1992:162). The major diagnostic tests are diagnostic ultrasound, amniocentesis and chorionic villus sampling (CVS). In recent years, there has been a drive to confirm test results earlier in pregnancy both by performing these tests earlier and by developing faster methods of chromosome analysis. The development of screening tests, including first trimester ultrasound and maternal serum screening tests, has already reshaped the landscape of prenatal diagnosis. Prenatal testing, once limited to women considered "high risk", is increasingly a routine part of all pregnant women's antenatal care.


Who Gets Born? A Response from The Nathaniel Centre

Staff of The Nathaniel Centre
Issue 25, August 2008

Toi te Taiao: New Zealand's Bioethics Council, was formed with the aim of enhancing New Zealand's understanding of the cultural, ethical and spiritual aspects of biotechnology, and ensuring that the use of biotechnology has regard for New Zealanders' values.

In 2007 the Bioethics Council began an extensive process of consultation on the topic of pre-birth testing. The term pre-birth testing covers a wide range of tests that are available to a woman and/or her unborn child before and during pregnancy, from a simple urine test to more sophisticated diagnostic tests that can indicate whether an unborn baby has an abnormality or genetic condition. A rapidly developing form of pre-birth testing associated with in vitro fertilisation (IVF) is preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), a test which involves taking one or two cells from embryos that have been created outside the mother's body.

Under the Human Assisted Reproductive Technology Act 2004 (HART Act) PGD is currently permitted in New Zealand for the prevention or detection of a genetic disorder. It is not permitted for non-medical sex selection or to alter the genetic constitution of an embryo.

On Thursday June 19, 2008 the Bioethics Council released its report to Government – Who Gets Born? The Report included a series of 11 recommendations which are acknowledged as being "those of Council members ... informed by the views of New Zealanders" (p.5).

In response to the Report staff members from The Nathaniel Centre prepared and released the following statement:

The report on the cultural, ethical and spiritual aspects of pre-birth testing provides a comprehensive and fair overview of people's thoughts and comments on this complex topic.

The process of deliberation has been a genuine attempt to listen to the breadth of views of New Zealander's and to foster a broader understanding of the differences in opinion on this complex topic. Having been involved as a participant in the process of deliberation, we commend the Council's efforts in bringing an awareness of the cultural and spiritual aspects of pre-birth testing to the ethical questions it raises.

The report clearly shows there is broad acceptance among New Zealanders that pre-birth testing must be regulated to some degree – this acceptance reflects a deeper awareness of the power that technology has to reshape our perceptions of pregnancy, parenthood and the way we think about and view children in a negative way.

Catholic teaching on human dignity asserts the inviolable right to life from the moment of fertilisation to death – this right is totally unrelated to questions regarding the quality of life. We are disturbed that there is a growing trend amongst some to equate the right to life with the absence of disease or with a certain notion of normality.

From a Catholic perspective all embryos are equal and deserve unconditional respect. Therefore, embryos with genetic abnormalities have as much right to exist and be selected as those who are supposedly free of genetic abnormalities. The availability of PGD in effect fosters a situation whereby the protections around the right to life of specific groups of persons are removed on the basis of their genetic makeup. This sets a bad precedent.

Evidence from overseas shows that, amongst some people, the availability of genetic testing technology is contributing to expectations of "perfect children". Our role, as parents, is to welcome our children in an unconditional way – this is what love demands. It seems to us that one of the critical issues highlighted by the report is the need to create a society that will welcome all children equally. Our efforts and resources first and foremost need to be aimed at the promotion of a just society.

We also note that the report has uncovered widespread public concern about the high abortion rate in New Zealand and a sense of dissatisfaction for this state of affairs. We welcome this finding while remaining concerned that the increased use of pre-birth testing has a potential to contribute to the further marginalisation of those who are most vulnerable in our society – those who are unborn and those who are disabled.

Among other things, the report highlights the pressure many couples come under upon receiving their test results to make "very rapid decisions" – this at a time when they are extremely vulnerable. This situation is hardly conducive to free and informed decision making. Given time and appropriate counselling, couples will be in a position to see the situation from a different and less emotive perspective which could lead to very different decisions being made.

While it is encouraging to read that information "must not present termination of pregnancy as the automatic option after a test result indicating a disorder", this does not go far enough. We would like to say that the debate is not just about choice and balanced information but also about paying close attention to the broader context in which couples are making their choices. It is of great concern to us that couples speak of encountering pressure from the health system to terminate a pregnancy on the basis of genetic test results.

We are also worried that it is will become increasingly difficult for couples to exercise a choice not to be tested or to continue with a pregnancy in the light of test results indicating a disorder. The proper role of pre-birth testing is to help the parents to prepare the best they can for their new child or to enable medical interventions that are aimed at the well-being of the child in-utero, not to eliminate certain types of children.

Sex selection for family balancing reasons takes us into new and uncharted territory. It takes pre-birth testing out of a medical context and allows its use for non-medical (social) reasons. We ask: "What then stops parents using the technology for other non-medical reasons that reflect nothing more than parental desires? Where will it stop? We believe that parenthood is about welcoming the children we are given rather that ordering them according to specific specifications. There is a liberating truth in knowing the unconditional nature of our origins.

The report makes it clear that many people were uneasy with the thought of parents using the technology for social reasons and that this would be paving the way for genetic interventions on embryos for the purposes of producing babies with certain "desirable" qualities. The Council thinks that further investigation of the reasons for apparent public concern about the use of PGD for sex selection is warranted (p.51) but then inexplicably recommends that there are insufficient reasons to ban it! This is quite astounding and illogical.

Technology and its use must ultimately serve the integral good of the human person. It is clear that if all of the recommendations of this report are heeded that we will be moving towards a society that is less just and less inclusive.

A full copy of the report Who Gets Born? is no longer available online. 

Whangai, Surrogacy and Adoption

Michael McCabe
Issue 26, November 2008

This paper, in its original form, was delivered to the Inaugural Australian National Colloquium on Bioethics on "Conscience in Professional Life" at Melbourne in January 2008. The Colloquium marked the formation of the Australian Association of Catholic Bioethicists under the aegis of the Sovereign Order of Malta.