Freezing Tiny Human Beings

Karla and Jacob began dating in 2009 when they were 42 and 32 years old, respectively. After Karla was diagnosed with lymphoma, and “despite neither of them thinking the relationship had long-term prospects,” both agreed to have human embryos created from their gametes. These were frozen for later use because treatment would, unfortunately, destroy Karla’s fertility. Their relationship was short-lived, yet, Karla’s only chance of giving birth to her own genetic children remained the use of the frozen progeny resulting from this relationship.

Jacob objected and the two went to court. This May, the Illinois judge ruled that Karla can transfer the embryos in spite of Jacob’s objection to “becoming a parent.” (He is, of course, already a parent of these embryos—he doesn’t want to bear the responsibilities that would follow a live birth of one of his children). This sad case is emblematic of many of the pitfalls and ethical problems inherent in the practice of freezing embryonic human beings for in vitro fertilization.

Cryopreservation of embryos keeps them alive but development is arrested as they remain frozen in a state of suspended animation. Submerged in liquid nitrogen in a freezer, dubbed a “Concentration Can” by the great geneticist, Jerome LeJeune, cryopreservation exposes these innocents to a host of risks, offenses, and further manipulation. The techniques used to freeze embryos today involve immersion in a solution of cryoprotectant (think anti-freeze) that reduces the likelihood of lethal ice crystals being formed inside the cells. They remain frozen indefinitely, entirely beholden to the whims of parents, the clinic, or government regulation.

The most obvious offense to their human rights is that the process of freezing and thawing the embryos leads to the death of many. A recent study indicated that 46 percent will not survive the freezing and thawing process. The two primary causes of death? Formation of ice crystals (freezer burn) or cytotoxicity (poison) from the cryoprotectant. As the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority has summarized, “Not all embryos will survive freezing and eventual thawing when they come to be used.  Very occasionally no embryos will survive.” Many will lose one or two cells, with associated risks not fully understood. In short, the freezing and thawing process exposes them to serious risk of harm and death.

But even if the technology was perfected and no deaths would occur (an exceptionally unlikely scenario), these human beings are frozen against their will and not for their own good. Consent to such a procedure cannot be presumed because IVF and the freezing of embryos do not offer reasonable hope of success or great benefit for the embryo. They offer, rather, significant risks that are well above what might be reasonably considered normal. These risks are accepted because of a prior choice for IVF which is, itself, an irresponsible herculean intervention with overall embryo survival rates hovering around 5-20 percent.

One might foresee an objection: “Freezing embryos is for their good because it allows at least some embryos to survive.” It is true that some embryos (54 percent according to the recent meta-analysis noted earlier) will be able to survive because they are frozen. However, such interventions are not for the medical benefit of each embryonic human being but are chosen for reasons of the woman’s health condition, the schedule of the doctor or clinic, or to increase pregnancy rates. All of these reasons exhibit no meaningful regard for the survival of each embryo. The fact that they need to be frozen is not because of a natural medical need of the embryo but rather an imposed need created by a prior injustice. They are “put on ice” for the sake of an adult. Such an act only becomes necessary because a prior injustice has already occurred, namely that they have been deprived of maternal warmth and gestation and exposed to great risk (more on this below). Freezing an embryo is not in his or her best interest, therefore there are no grounds for presumed consent to a process that is not therapeutic but is, instead, for the benefit of another.

In this way, the unconditional respect owed to every person is not granted to these embryonic human beings. Society would find it appalling if any other human being were treated in like fashion. Why? Freezing human beings against their will and not for their own good reduces them to merely an instrumental good for the sake of another person. They are treated as less than human, as products or commodities, rather than as unique human beings who are precious in God’s sight. Freezing embryonic human beings fails to treat the embryos as subjects with personal dignity. Instead, it places them at significant risk and subordinates their interests to those of their parents or of the clinic.

Freezing human embryos establishes a blatant relationship of domination and inequality between parent and child. A parent’s choice to conceive by IVF and to freeze the children places each embryo in an incredibly unjust situation of bearing significant risk when the parents themselves are the ones who stand to “benefit.” Donum vitae notes that freezing embryos is “depriving them, at least temporarily, of maternal shelter and gestation, thus placing them in a situation in which further offenses and manipulation are possible” (DV I.6). An example of such an offense is found in the case of Karla and Jacob. Here, these human beings were from the beginning deliberately deprived of the right to enter into a stable marital relationship between their mother and father. Such an act deliberately deprives the child of the fundamental right to be born of and into the loving marital relationship of his parents.

In Dignitas personae the Church clearly concludes that “cryopreservation is incompatible with the respect owed to human embryos; it presupposes their production in vitro.” The initial ethical problem is creation of these embryonic human beings in vitro. Though this may not always be possible, children should arise as the fruit of an act of love. To deliberately deprive them of equal status vis-a-vis their parents, to freeze them for the benefit of another, and to expose them to serious physical harm all make clear that cryopreservation depends upon and follows an unethical act and is itself gravely immoral.

Arland K. Nichols


Arland K. Nichols is the founding President of the John Paul II Foundation for Life and Family.

  • Objectivetruth

    There are over 600,000 frozen embryos in the the United States today. The chances of these humans ever coming to live birth is almost zero, because they are a product of self centered narcissism. Eventually, no one wants them. This horrific number does not even take in to account the hundreds of thousand more human embryos that are created through IVF that are simply destroyed after implantation. For every live birth through IVF, there are anywhere between 5-30 embryos created and subsequently frozen or destroyed.

    The magnitude of this horrific sin is mind blowing.

    • Vinnie

      You reap what you sow.

  • Auston

    I have a friend who has done this and she pays monthly dues to keep the 15 year old frozen children alive. What does she do with them now? She can’t adopt them out as they are too old and she is in her late fifties. What do catholic ethicists say about it?

    • Objectivetruth

      It is a problem without an answer right now. Catholic ethicists are somewhat divided on what is the moral thing to do. If you thaw them, they die. Implanting them goes against Catholic teaching. It’s a quagmire that the Church did not create, but is somehow trying to clean up and respond to. Satan is laughing, but ultimately Christ and His Church will win the day, even on this insidiously evil issue.

    • Objectivetruth

      Have your friend contact an ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC) in Philadelphia, Pa. They could possibly give her some guidance.

  • Vinnie

    Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority – “…the freezing and thawing process exposes them to serious risk of harm and death.”

    Death? Who would’ve thought? That means they were (are) ALIVE!

    Simply, choose life. Not the manipulation of it.

  • Fig Newton

    Under obama, all sorts of horrific things are happening. Signs of end times and payment is near.

  • isabel Kilian

    This issue makes me rejoice that there is a hell and that people who engage in this barbarism will go there.

    • John200

      “…rejoice that there is a hell and that people who engage in this barbarism will go there.”

      If you are Catholic, then you know that is not how it is supposed to work. *

      If otherwise, then try the Catechism, or any number of Bible passages, where we are commanded to love and pray for our neighbor. This command is valid for all.

      We are not to rejoice at the spectacle of our neighbor basting himself in preparation for eternal roasting. We are to intercede for our neighbor in all his misfortunes, especially those that put marks on his soul. When his thoughts or activities orient him to hell, we are to help him.

      I cannot say this strongly enough. We are not to rejoice if we perceive that he is pointed in that direction.

      If all this is mysterious to you, get competent guidance from a Roman Catholic priest or spiritual advisor, one who follows the RC faith. Not a “dissenting Catholic,” not a pro-abortion Catholic, not a defrocked priest, not a divorced and married silver ponytail who flouts the main tenets of the faith, not an ex-nun who calumniates the Church.

      A mainline faithful Catholic can help you here.

      * Unless you are being funny/ironic/satirical and I just walked into your joke.

      • isabel Kilian

        People who engage in such acts are committing a sin agains the First Commandment, replacing the Creator with themselves. It is just that simple and they would hate Heaven where they would have to come to the realization that they were creatures and not the Creator. As Heaven is a place of perfect happiness God would never impose such a sentence on a creature. He is so gracious as to permit those who do such abominable things to choose to go to hell where they will be most comfortable. I rejoice in the JUSTICE of God which you obviously know nothing of and of the free will of man which God had endowed man with.

        Don’t get me wrong. I pray the divine Mercy Chaplet daily and the Rosary for the conversion of Sinners but if they don’t want God’s mercy they will not receive it and will eventually reside for all eternity in a place of their choosing. Rejoice in God’s will and Man’s free will. It is all good.

        • isabel Kilian

          If you still don’t have a clue, I refer you to the teaching of John Henry Newman on “Is holiness necessary for future Blessedness”. It will explain a lot to you I think. Good luck learning about God’s Justice, Mercy and the will of man.

          • John200

            Dear isabel Kilian (do you not capitalize your first name? Is there a story behind that? I’d be interested in it),

            Thank you for your reply. We might be closer than you think. I am glad that you pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet daily and the Rosary for the conversion of sinners such as, well, you and me. These are excellent practices. I do a daily rosary (wouldn’t miss it!), and a few other dailies (LotH, Angelus 3x, an intercession here and there, a few others). I am sure that were I to abandon frequent prayer, I would be a most proficient devil of the worst kind.

            Second point: You will rejoice to learn that I have more than a clue about Bl. Newman. I have read his whole story, at least every word that he published. He is one of my favorites and I plan a great celebration when/if his cause passes all the inspections. In fact, he has carved a place in my heart. I would not like to lose his insights.

            Third point: Because you did not bother to touch my point, namely, that to “…rejoice that there is a hell and that people who engage in this barbarism will go there.” is notably un-Catholic, un-Christian, and philosophically animalistic and likely inhuman, I will leave you as you are and not pursue the difficulties. I do not think that this thing should cause you to rejoice. Let us leave that.

            Best to you and yours.

            • isabel Kilian

              Dear John200,

              Yes, I do capitalize my first name. the small “i” must be an error on my part which I made when I first signed up for this forum. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. I will leave it as is because it will serve as a reminder that I can and sometimes do make mistakes.

              My point is that I rejoice in God’s justice and in the fact that Satan and his demons, and all other unrepentant sinners (those who love evil) have a place prepared for them as their just reward. I am delighted that in the end, the sheep will be seperated from the goats and the goats will hear the words, “enter into hell”.

              God would be unmerciful if he did not permit everyone a choice in where they spend eternity. Many would hate being in heaven as it is like a Church (Newman says) and if they didn’t like spending time in Church and in prayer here they would certainly hate being in heaven where there is nothing of the world present. Here, justice is often seen as something to be avoided. We are seeing less and less of it carried out against evil. This is so unmerciful to sinners and to their victims. It is wonderful we can know with certainty that justice will prevail and that those who chose to go to hell here, will receive their well deserved reward. They will reap what they have sown. Rejoice!

              I am glad that you pray and that you are well aquainted with Newmans writings and sermons. Still, you come across as an elitist in your post. It is not so much what we know or who we know but what we practice.Today is the second day of the novena to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Rejoice again!

  • hombre111

    Excellent article. Our society, with its utilitarian approach to everything, commodifies even precious human life. Here, I am really proud of the Church for its counter-cultural stand.

  • Michele Bondi Bottesi

    Very well stated, thank you, Arland! God is at work in you.

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  • Mark Oshinskie

    Very well stated and the facts are interesting. Thanks.

    Inter alia, the number of people waiting until they age out of fertility to attempt to have children is alarming. Plus, STI scarring is a major cause of infertility. The “need” for IVF is largely a consequence of birth control and abortion underwriting a sex without commitment culture. And insurance pays for IVF in 15 states, greatly inflating med insurance premiums.

    Plus, there are eugenic/embryo screening applications of IVF. I display a bumper sticker that says “My Child Was Eugenically Selected at Acme IVF.”