The fate of frozen embryos sparks intense debate

The popularity of in-vitro fertilization and other procedures that require the creation of multiple embryos has resulted in an excess of frozen embryos, as many as 600,000 as of September 2012. What to do with those embryos, and whether couples can “adopt” them to gestate them to birth, is an ethical conundrum and a matter of intense debate.

The issue of frozen embryos raises a moral dilemma for many Christian groups — though many do not want to support the process of artificial insemination, they cannot forgo the frozen embryos because many believe life begins at the moment of conception. Some Christian churches encourage the adoption of the embryos, much as a child born naturally would be adopted.

According to the International Committee for Monitoring Assisted Reproductive Technologies, approximately 5 million babies have been born as a result of assisted reproduction methods — including in vitro fertilization — as of July 2012. Approximately 1.5 million assisted reproductive attempts are made each year and around 350,000 are successful annually. 



Many conservative Christians who believe that life begins at conception are especially concerned about the growing number of frozen embryos and are divided about what to do.

Destroying them or donating them for research is considered unethical, yet the possibility of embryo adoption also raises serious questions that have no easy answers.

The Catholic Church is also debating this topic. In 2008, the Vatican released a major document on bioethics, “Dignitas Personae” (“The Dignity of a Person”), that reiterated the Catholic view that embryos should not be created in the lab and frozen, but added that embryo adoption is also not allowed. It is, the document said, “a situation of injustice which in fact cannot be resolved.”

Still, some believe the Vatican document does not entirely shut the door to embryo adoption.

News articles and research

Bioethics centers and resources

  • American Society for Bioethics and Humanities

    The American Society for Bioethics and Humanities in Glenview, Ill., is a professional advocacy group that brings together bioethicists from medicine, nursing, law, sociology, anthropology, government and philosophy. The society organizes a large educational conference each year and periodic smaller, topical meetings.

  • Bioethics Research Library

    The Bioethics Research Library at Georgetown University is part of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics. It has a multiformat collection of sources relevant to issues of ethics in science.

  • Center for Christian Bioethics

    The Center for Christian Bioethics, which opened in 1984, sponsors teaching, research and service in biomedical ethics and related fields at Loma Linda University in California. The university includes a health sciences campus operated by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. It conducts monthly bioethics grand rounds at Loma Linda University Medical Center; an annual bioethics seminar in medicine, law and ministry; and occasional national and international conferences on issues of current interest.

  • Center for Clinical Bioethics

    The Center for Clinical Bioethics was established in 1991 at Georgetown University Medical Center as a university-based bioethics resource for those who shape and give health care. Edmund D. Pellegrino is founding director.

    Contact: 202-687-1122.
  • National Catholic Bioethics Center

    The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia conducts research and consultations in health care and life sciences in accordance with teachings of the Catholic Church. It consults on life science and medical issues with the Vatican, U.S. bishops, public policy-makers, hospitals and international organizations of all faiths. It publishes two journals, Ethics and Medics and The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly.

  • National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care

    Tuskegee University’s National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care was established in January 1999 as a partial response to the apology of President Clinton for the United States Public Health Service Study on syphilis conducted at Tuskegee, Macon County, Ala., from 1932 to 1972. The center addresses ethical issues in science, technology and health, with an emphasis on effects among people of color and other minorities.

  • National Institute of Health Department of Clinical Bioethics

    The National Institutes of Health Department of Clinical Bioethics in Bethesda, Md., is the NIH’s bioethics research and teaching branch. Begun in 1996, the department offers fellowships and conferences and has an ethics consultation service.

  • Neiswanger Institute for Bioethics and Health Policy

    Neiswanger Institute for Bioethics and Health Policy at Loyola University of Chicago’s Stritch School of Medicine in Maywood, Ill., is a pluralistic bioethics institute that draws upon its commitment to social justice of the Jesuit and Roman Catholic heritage.

  • Nuffield Council on Bioethics

    The Nuffield Council on Bioethics in the United Kingdom was established in 1991 to identify and assess ethical questions raised by advances in biological and medical research. Since 1994, it has been funded jointly by The Nuffield Foundation, the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust. Two current projects focus on prolonging life in fetuses and the newborn and the ethics of public health; past projects, with reports available on its web site, include the ethics of research involving animals, stem cell therapy and genetically modified crops.

  • Phoebe R. Berman Bioethics Institute

    Johns Hopkins University’s Phoebe R. Berman Bioethics Institute is a large research and teaching institute that addresses health policy, medical care and the biological and behavioral sciences; promotes research on the intersection of ethics, law, medicine and science; and provides service to the government and private sector. It has formal programs in cell engineering, ethics and public policy; ethics and brain sciences; bioethics and public policy; ethics in clinical practice; and research ethics. It has close ties to scientists working at the school in the forefront of stem cell science and runs conferences on that subject.

  • President’s Council on Bioethics

    The President’s Council on Bioethics is a 17-member panel appointed by President Bush in 2001 to replace the former National Bioethics Advisory Council. The new council includes physicians, lawyers, political scientists, a philosopher and a scientist. It advises the president on a range of bioethics questions.

  • University of Minnesota’s Center for Bioethics

    The University of Minnesota’s Center for Bioethics was founded 21 years ago and is one of the leading research centers for bioethics, with 15 full- and part-time faculty. The center conducts original interdisciplinary research, offers educational programs and fosters public discussion through community outreach. The center focuses on the policy level, working closely with policy-makers, health-care professionals and university communities. Projects include the Genetics and Identity Project, Genetics in Primary Care: Ethical and Professional Challenges, African Genealogy and Genetics: Looking Back to Move Forward and Blueprint of the Body on the Human Genome Project.

  • University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics

    The University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics in Philadelphia is one of the pre-eminent bioethics centers in the United States, with more than 20 faculty. The center’s staff includes experts in philosophy, medicine, law, anthropology, sociology and religion. Its website is an excellent place to start an exploration of any bioethics topic and is also home to The American Journal of Bioethics.

    Contact: 215-349-5964.
  • Center for Biomedical Ethics & Humanities

    The Center for Biomedical Ethics & Humanities at the University of Virginia combines the study of health care and illness with social science and humanity disciplines. Daniel M. Becker is director.

  • Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics

    The Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University does interdisciplinary research in biomedical ethics. David Magnus is director.

Related source guides