Ron Stoddart, director of Nightlight Christian Adoptions, a nonprofit that facilitates Christian adoption, David Cook, a Wheaton College bioethics expert, and Ellen Painter Dollar, the author of a forthcoming book about Christian perspectives on reproductive and genetic technology, weigh in on what should be done with frozen embryos left over at fertility clinics.
Adopt Frozen Embryos
For those who believe that life begins at conception, only one choice remains.
When couples choose in-vitro fertilization to create embryos to help build their families, the unused embryos are frozen for future attempts at pregnancy. Most couples are unprepared for what to do with remaining embryos once their family is complete. There are over 500,000 embryos currently frozen in storage at American clinics.
Although together these embryos occupy a space the size of a 12mm cube—the size of a board game die—they represent the population of a city the size of Atlanta. Size is subject to perspective. We all look mighty small from the moon. But to God, we are wondrously made and valuable at every stage of development.
In 2009, a public opinion survey asked what should be done with remaining embryos. Most respondents said that the embryos should be donated to other infertile couples (68.8 percent) rather than being destroyed (5.9 percent) or being donated for research (which also destroys them).
To answer this question from a Christian perspective, we must first understand what an embryo is. Unlike an egg or sperm cell, an embryo is a complete pre-born human being with a full set of chromosomes and DNA. Just like you and me, it is a unique human unlike any other on earth. Science tells us that life begins when a sperm and egg unite. From that point forward, the embryo needs only nutrients and a safe place to grow to develop into a child.
So what are we to do with the large number of embryos who occupy such a tiny space? Fertility clinics typically give patients four choices: donate the embryos to another couple, donate the embryos for research, destroy the embryos, or keep the embryos in frozen storage. We may agree that the best choice is for the couple who created the embryos to try for another pregnancy with them. But what if the couple does not want additional children?
In that case, donating the embryos to another couple seems like the most loving choice. But the donor family might be concerned about another family parenting "their child" (a concern shared by every birthmother who has chosen adoption over abortion).
More than 3,000 children have been born in the United States through embryo donation or adoption. Fertility clinics have had embryo donation programs for over 20 years, but embryo adoption, a process whereby donors are actively involved in finding parents to receive the embryos, began in 1997 with Nightlight Christian Adoptions' Snowflakes program. Donors have a choice in what to do with their remaining embryos.
For those who believe that life begins at conception and is worthy of protection and a chance to impact the world as God intended, only one choice remains: birth.
Take Responsibility for Embryos
There are no ideal scenarios, but we must work for a solution.
Before we can set significant guidelines regarding the fate of unused, frozen human embryos, we must ask: Who is responsible for them? Since embryos cannot make decisions, who gets to decide whether they will be donated, adopted, or destroyed?
Parents decide for their children, and families decide what will happen to an unconscious or dying family member.
Good fertility clinics will have clear protocols protecting the rights of parents and donors. The embryos in question were created to help the childless, so adopting or donating fulfills the same goal for the benefit of the child and the childless.
But parents are not the only ones who need to take responsibility. Governments, hospitals, and medical authorities also need to have clear guidelines about dealing with potentially profitable human tissue. In the UK, a scandal involving hospitals taking human material from patients and using it without their consent led to funerals for body parts. The prospect of holding funerals for thousands of destroyed embryos is horrifying; yet if we believe we are dealing with human beings, what does it mean to give embryos dignity and respect?
Embryos must be protected from evil. Not everyone believes that embryos are fully human or deserve all the protection given to unborn life. But Christians believe there is a clear progression from the moment of fertilization to the person's death.
For those who believe in the sanctity of life, adoption, donation, or the development of artificial wombs to carry children who are not adopted seem the morally acceptable options for preserving life.
On the other hand, we cannot force those who are unconcerned about embryonic life to preserve it unless we offer genuine alternatives to the slaughter of the innocent: destroying "spare" embryos. Clinics, donors, and parents try to sell human tissue ranging from blood to organs, so they must take up the ethical question of selling embryos.
It is entirely plausible to go so far as pushing to legally ban human embryo destruction. Germany has such a ban, and also has one of Europe's most thriving biotech research sectors.
At the heart of fertility medicine is a deep desire to have children, help the childless, and make a great deal of money. A growing number of couples are desperate for children; adopting unused embryos to be carried in the wombs of infertile women may be those couples' best chance of having children.
Adoption is clearly a way of allowing embryos to be born and rectifying a bad situation in the child's best interest. It would proactively encourage the creation of fewer embryos, rather than reacting after the problem has been created.
Parents, medical workers, and everyone who is concerned about embryonic lives should begin by accepting responsibility for the problem and work for a solution that embraces the sanctity of life and protects the unborn. There are no ideal scenarios, but we can protect the innocent, preserve human life, and care for the needy.
First, Help Couples
Christians need much better resources for ethical and theological reflection.
Ellen Painter Dollar
Our oldest daughter inherited from me a disabling bone disorder called osteogenesis imperfecta (OI). When she was 2 years old and living through a harrowing cycle of broken bones, we underwent pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) in an attempt to have a second child who would not have OI.
PGD is in-vitro fertilization (IVF) with the added step of genetic screening. Only one of four embryos tested negative for OI and was implanted, but I did not get pregnant. (We eventually conceived both our second and third children naturally; neither of them inherited OI.) We had the other three embryos destroyed. We made that decision with little reflection, in the emotional muddle of caring for a broken toddler while undergoing a strenuous procedure loaded with tough questions.
A failure to contemplate the ethics of embryo disposition before undergoing IVF is common, while clear decisions are not. A 2005 study found that 72 percent of couples interviewed had not made and were not making decisions about embryo disposition. An earlier study revealed that more than 80 percent of couples who had planned to donate their embryos for research or to other couples changed their minds. These couples had deeply personal ideas about their embryos as potential children, siblings to existing children, and symbols of their infertility. The study also found that couples were more focused on getting pregnant than on the decisions that might follow.
This focus means that considering the moral dimensions of fertility medicine is usually not part of the plan, for either patients or clinicians. Our clinic had a psychologist available to discuss ethical and emotional concerns, but we were never encouraged, much less required, to meet with her. Christian friends offered support, but we found church resources inadequate. Many faith communities are ill equipped to counsel couples on the ethical questions raised by assisted reproduction.
Fertility patients need help with the ethical and emotional questions, both before and throughout the process. A psychologist or other counselor should take substantial time at IVF information sessions to educate patients about the questions they will face and encourage couples to meet with counselors or religious advisers.
Christians have much work to do. These reproductive technologies now touch millions of families. Seminaries should add instruction about reproductive bioethics to their curricula. Pastors need to educate themselves about current technologies and encourage couples to step off the fertility-treatment treadmill for a time to think faithfully about the rocky terrain they are entering on the journey toward parenthood.
Some couples may decide not to go the IVF route after all, while others will be better equipped to make embryo disposition decisions with forethought and care.
Did my husband and I sin by having our embryos destroyed? I'm sure many would say the answer is clearly yes. But there is far more complexity than clarity in reproductive ethics. I am certain about one thing: Christians need much better resources for ethical and theological reflection before undergoing IVF. Perhaps more meaningful reflection will lead to fewer Christians taking that step, and fewer embryos ending up in freezers.
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Ron Stoddart is the director of Nightlight Christian Adoptions, a nonprofit that facilitates Christian adoption.David Cook teaches philosophy at Wheaton College and is an expert in bioethics. Ellen Painter Dollar is the author of a forthcoming book about Christian perspectives on reproductive and genetic technology.
Previous Christianity Today articles on in vitro fertilization include:
A Prolife Victory with Georgia's New Human Embryo Law | As the new law recognizes the potential of embryos, it is a celebration for pro-life supporters. (June 1, 2009)
Frozen Out | What to do with those extra embryos. (July 1, 2004)
Souls on Ice | The costs of in vitro fertilization are moral and spiritual—not just financial. (July 1, 2003)
400K and counting | Christians recoil at explosive growth of frozen human embryos. (July 1, 2003)
Matters of Opinion: A Deceptive Good | The uneasy morality of rescuing spare humans created in vitro. (September 4, 2000)
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