'Embryos On Ice' And Other Absurdities

Judie Brown
December 11, 2008
Reproduced with Permission

Of all the now familiar terms we have seen and heard applied to preborn children, perhaps the most heartless is "Embryos on ice." While the term was coined by a Raleigh, North Carolina News & Observer reporter covering fertility clinics, the idea reappeared just a few days ago in a New York Times article entitled "Parents Torn Over Fate of Frozen Embryos."

The underlying idea in both articles is that parents are faced with a dilemma involving "extra" embryos that were not needed for the in vitro fertilization procedure they underwent in order to have a child. These parents - loving and well meaning, I am sure - have unwittingly contributed to the ongoing growth of the culture of death by agreeing with the hypothesis that there are embryonic children who are somehow less human than those who were implanted in their mom and brought to term. It is as if there are some embryonic children who are really children and others who are not.

In the News & Observer article, published in July 2007, Tim and Kelly Jo Vancelette had embryos created to "start a family when they could not conceive on their own." In 2004, their twins, conceived through IVF, were born. Subsequently, "the Vancelettes were faced with an increasingly common dilemma: what to do with their unused embryos." The report states,

Their choices are limited. With a ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, they have few avenues for scientific donations. They could give the fertilized eggs to another couple, they could have the embryos destroyed, or they could freeze them.

For now, they're freezing them. The Vancelettes think they may want one more child, though they probably won't need five embryos for that.

Faced with a similar dilemma, the Bests, featured by the New York Times, are perplexed. The report states,

Although the couple, who live in Brentwood, Tenn., have known for years that they wanted no more children, deciding what to do with the extra embryos has been a dilemma. He would have them discarded; she cannot.

"There is no easy answer," said Ms. Best, a nurse. "I can't look at my twins and not wonder sometimes what the other nine would be like. I will keep them frozen for now. I will search in my heart.'"

Clearly, there is suffering, in one way or another, for those parents facing the very same questions that these two couples are facing. Perhaps they hoped IVF would be a magic bullet and that they could somehow resolve this quandary without paying dearly, both emotionally and spiritually. No matter how they deal with their embryonic children who were not fortunate enough to be chosen for possible birth, a difficult decision will have to be made.

But what disturbs many of us most of all is the manner in which these children are discussed, even by their parents. It is difficult to conceive of a mother who could reflect on her entire family and not be torn, at some level, by the reality of her babies left in a sort of cryogenic limbo.

It is my humble opinion that regardless of the praise that many, even in the Catholic community, give to the "miracle" of reproductive technologies like in vitro fertilization, there is a dehumanization taking place that is unhealthy for the parents, the children who have been welcomed and the children who may be killed, dissected and killed, or simply left in a tray somewhere to die.

Yes, we are talking about children. We are not talking about "fertilized eggs" or "leftovers" or rejects tossed off an assembly line. Even though the media would like us to think of these children as nothing but cells with no identity and no humanity, we know that quite the opposite is the case.

And what is perhaps most surprising about these parents, according to a recent survey of 1,020 fertility patients at nine clinics, which will be published in the Fertility and Sterility medical journal, is that there is a disconnect - between what they have chosen and what they hope for - that defies logic. The Times reports,

Among patients who wanted no more children, 53 percent did not want to donate their embryos to other couples, mostly because they did not want someone else brining up their children, or did not want their own children to worry about encountering an unknown sibling someday.

Forty-three percent did not want the embryos discarded. About 66 percent said they would be likely to donate the embryos for research, but that option was available at only four of the nine clinics in the survey. Twenty percent said they were likely to keep the embryos frozen forever.

Obviously, some of these parents don't view their embryonic children as "their own children." Perhaps the problem is that among these parents there is a twisted view of when their children are actually children and when they are something less than children. Perhaps they really don't want to face the fact that, regardless of what their future may hold, they are the parents of every one of their children - embryonic and otherwise. Maybe they find it hard to fathom their own decision to suspend some of their children in a time warp.

It is appalling, is it not, that embryonic children are really not perceived as children even by their own parents? I will list but a few of the ideas that arise when researchers and reporters ask the parents what they might do with their "unused" children. Perhaps this list will give you some idea of how incredibly inhumane our culture has become as preborn babies continue to be perceived as property with expiration dates.

Note: I use the word child because that is who we are speaking about, despite the fact that the articles' authors and the parents quoted therein don't use that word when referring to human embryos.

When the Catholic Church issued Donum Vitae (Instruction on Respect for Human Life) in 1987, many decried the document as heartless. To my mind, it is among the most prophetic teachings ever promulgated. I dare not quote it in its entirety here, but I will provide an excerpt that summarizes perfectly what I have just explained to you:

Fertilization is licitly sought when it is the result of a "conjugal act which is per se suitable for the generation of children to which marriage is ordered by its nature and by which the spouses become one flesh." But from the moral point of view procreation is deprived of its proper perfection when it is not desired as the fruit of the conjugal act, that is to say of the specific act of the spouses' union.

Such fertilization entrusts the life and identity of the embryo into the power of doctors and biologists and establishes the domination of technology over the origin and destiny of the human person. Such a relationship of domination is in itself contrary to the dignity and equality that must be common to parents and children.

This quote exposes the tragedy that is inherent in the medicalized manufacture of embryonic children. In vitro fertilization and other such techniques are not miracles. They are practices that are morally illicit. They are practices that have resulted in the deaths of millions of preborn children whose fate was decided by people who refused to understand that they were in fact sanctioning the murder of human beings with characteristics not unlike their own at the same stage of human development.

Such practices are among the best arguments for personhood. By restoring the legal recognition of personhood to every innocent human being from his beginning, practices such as IVF will cease, because every human embryo will have the very same rights you and I have. Personhood now!