The Rapidian

Ethics and Religion Talk: What to do with frozen embryos after divorce?

A new Arizona law would give frozen embryos to either spouse who wants to use them, even after a divorce. Is it ethical to force someone to become a parent against his or her will?

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at http://topics.mlive.com/tag/ethics-and-religion-talk/. More recent columns can be found on TheRapidian.org by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

 A new Arizona law would give frozen embryos to either spouse who wants to use them, even after a divorce. Is it ethical to force someone to become a parent against his or her will? On the other hand, is it ethical to force the destruction of the embryos after a divorce, just because one spouse no longer wants children?

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Adjutant Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

The Arizona law went into effect on 1 July 2018, and has yet to be applied, and the law is not retroactive. According to CBS News, ‘the law says the spouse not awarded the embryos “has no parental responsibilities… no right, obligation, or interest with respect to” the child.’ This law has yet to be tested in the court system, which I would expect when it is applied the first time.

The fundamental problem with this question is invitro fertilization (IVF) of human beings. For Catholics, human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. Human beings become pregnant through the act of love shared by a man and woman in the context of marriage. IVF is not a natural loving process, it is manufactured. Because embryos are destroyed if they do not hold up to a certain quality control, and because they are voluntarily destroyed when no longer needed or through the failure of equipment, IVF is not to be used because it dehumanizes the process and the fruit of the act of love between a man and woman.

It is never ethical to force someone to become a parent, and it is never ethical to destroy embryos because they are no longer wanted. Both of the above disrespect the life God creates.

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

I am astounded that clinics don’t require a contract up front that provides for an irrevocable decision by both parties as to what should be done in such situations. I suspect that one might find different takes on this from the variety of Hindu schools of thought. According to our scriptures, the embryo is the bearer of a soul. Yet it is not a full human and does not possess all the rights of a person. In all questions on this subject, devotees are encouraged to examine the situation and decide what is the least harmful to all involved.  As it stands now, people often implant some embryos while terminating others. So one would have to be in ethical concert with this method of fertilization before we can have a conversation about this specific question.

So we assume that a couple (or ex-couple) in this situation has no moral issue with this form of insemination. Ultimately, I would side with the person who does not wish to be drawn into parenthood against his will. That said, the aforementioned contract, if irrevocable, would take the question out of his hands.

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

Thank you for this latest example of the many evils attending on divorce. It is no wonder that God hates this institution (Malachi 2:16), which is suffered to continue only because of the hardness of men’s hearts (Matthew 20:8). Even in cases where it is justified by circumstances, or seems to be the only solution to the difficulties of a marriage, divorce is almost always a Pandora’s box of on-going griefs and difficulties for the parties involved.

The circumstances you describe can only be addressed through mediation, arbitration, or by the courts of the land. Those who contemplate divorce should add this item to the list of their concerns, and take care to provide for it in a manner satisfactory to all the parties. The new Arizona law appears to be a latter-day implementation of the rough justice proposed long ago by King Solomon (I Kings 3:16-28).

 

My response:

If a couple using birth control nonetheless conceives a child, the woman’s decision to carry the child to term is not unethical even though it forces a man to become a father against his will. When a couple sets out to create embryos using in vitro fertilization techniques, they are creating something that, at the time, they hoped would become their child or children. Because the new law doesn’t place either a financial or emotional burden on the non-parent (other than knowing that the child exists - no more of a burden that a sperm bank donor who knows that he has children somewhere “out there.”), I don’t see this as an ethical violation.

Jewish ethics sees the IVF embryos as non-viable as long as they are in the petri dish. Therefore, it is ethical to destroy the embryos if the couple does not want to use them. Nonetheless, I suggest that because they are the beginning of human life, it would be better to “adopt them out” than destroy them.

 
 

This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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