Embryo Banks

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Suppose you had a whole bunch of children whose parents didn't want them, and they left these children frozen in a laboratory somewhere. After a while, it would be impossible to recover these children, but no one could do anything about it due to the parents' rights over what happened to them. This was perfectly legal. The only thing people could do would be to try to reason with these parents to get them to give up these children for adoption, to reason with the companies that allowed parents to do this, or to wait until the Supreme Court changed enough due to moral outrage from those who saw this as wrong, so they could overturn their precedent on the issue and allow Congress to pass laws against the practice.

Then someone comes along with a way to minimize the loss of all these children. Short of changing the laws, they argue, the best we can do to help these children is to allow people to pay the parents for them so they can adopt them. So they decide to set up a clinic that allows people to take a look at these children to see if there are any there they want to adopt. Some conservative groups complain that it cheapens life to allow parents to do this, calling it eugenics and designer children, since they can pick and choose the characteristics of which child they want to adopt. However, ordinary adoption methods also have that element, do they not? This method just helps save those children who would otherwise be left for dead. Doesn't it seem like a good policy to save these children who would otherwise have no life?

Oh, and these children are all still in their embryonic state, and the people opposing this notably pro-life development are supposedly pro-life. You do the math.

There are some difficulties with this process, as explained ">here, for instance. Since the embryos come from infertile couples, there will be less chance of them developing. But less chance is greater than zero chance, which is what it is with no one willing to adopt.

It's also not like most other adoption cases, where the biological parents couldn't provide a financially and socially stable home. The biological parents in most of these cases are two-parent, financially secure, and children to be adopted have biological siblings. Of course, many adoptions from countries outside the U.S. are exactly like this, with the biological parents simply not wanting another child or not wanting a (or another) girl. Is that an argument against adopting such children?

Additionally, this is in one way unlike sperm and egg donor cases, where a thorough background check is usually not required, placing embarrassment and probably unwanted scrutiny into the life of infertile parents, leading them to wonder whether they will be good parents on top of their already-existing psychological difficulty from not being able to conceive. It's true that this is unfair compared to sperm and egg donation cases. However, again, adoption cases already have this, and those cases usually involve infertile parents. Is this a good argument against adoption? If so, then perhaps it will also apply here. I somehow doubt that most people would be willing to apply this to adoption, however, and I fail to see how it could apply to one and not the other.

So I don't think these objections ultimately will stand, including the one being offered most commonly from pro-life people. Unless we're going to start criticizing the entire adoption industry, we can't say that we shouldn't allow people to choose what their children look like and what family background their adoptive children's biological family comes from. Maybe these criticisms should have been given against the adoption industry as it now stands. But it's a little late for it now if it's only going to be applied by pro-life groups to a solution to what, on pro-life premises, is a real moral problem.

Now there may be some real objections to some ways of doing this. For instance, it may be immoral to promote this as if it's a commercial enterprise. I'm not sure what I think about that, because it may be a worthwhile bad consequence if it's not inherently immoral but just a bad result. Perhaps the need to adopt these children is so grave that such concerns aren't as worrisome. Also, even if the people running this business are doing immoral things, sometimes the right thing to do is to save life despite having to support people who are doing something wrong. It might depend on how wrong what they're doing is. But we have another parallel with adoption here. Some of the adoption agencies Americans regularly use do some immoral things to obtain their children and to get those children to Americans. Some of the biological parents do some pretty bad things that result in their children being in adoption agencies. The call to adopt them is to try to remedy this. If there's a stronger need to stop these practices, and the best way to do that is not to use such adoption agencies, then so be it. But don't apply this objection to embryo banks and not to such adoption agencies, and whatever you think about this don't apply it to embryo banks in principle, because whatever a particular embryo bank does is not what embryo banks must do.

Also, on pro-life grounds it would be wrong to generate lots of embryos, most or many of whom will not be selected, just to have variety for adoptive parents to choose from. Of course, that objection has long applied to cases of in vitro fertilization that already occur, and only those who have opposed that practice on pro-life grounds could consistently make the same point here. For those who first see the problem here and then see it with standard in vitro cases of generating lots of embryos who won't be developed, then again it's a little late to be making that point. This, of course, again only applies to clinics that will do that, not to the idea of an embryo bank to begin with.

Some of the standard objections to egg and sperm donation, if good objections (and I go both ways on many of them), may apply here as well, and I won't rehearse them. But again those problems, if problems they are, have been around for quite a while, and some of them also occur with any old adoption (e.g. the argument that you might be adopting someone whose biological lineage is unknown, which might lead to their growing up and marrying someone closely related without knowing it).

So I conclude that there isn't really any in-principle argument against embryo banks that doesn't already apply to anything else we've already got going on every day, and even most of those arguments aren't going to apply to every case of embryo banks but more to the particular practices of particular embryo banks. Why see this as something new, then, as if somehow we've crossed the line into some new immoral territory of eugenics and commercialized reproduction? The arguments I'm seeing against embryo banks seem to me to be not well thought out, especially on pro-life grounds.

4 Comments

Hi Jeremy,
My understanding of what Abraham is now doing differs from what your understanding is. From what I've read it appears they are creating new embryos (not ones leftover from IVF) for people who want to pick out both the sperm and egg donors and then selling those new embryos to people.

There is a large article in Slate by William Saletan and that's how he seems to understand the process as well.

See my third-to-last paragraph. I'm not commenting on whether what's actually happening is wrong. I'm commenting on the argument used against it and how it's not a good argument. Arguments that would count against it do not depend on anything new that's going on here but on things that go on all the time completely apart from embryo banks.

Isn't buying and selling human embryos completely new?

While adopting embryos costs money, you're not paying for the embryo as if the embryo were a pair of Nikes, you're paying for the home study, placing the embryo in your womb, etc.

Buying and selling human organisms at the embryonic stage is new, but buying and selling human organisms at later stages is not new, and I'm not just talking about slavery. I'm talking about adoption. I really do think embryo banks in principle are not any different from adoption. It's just an earlier stage of development.

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