Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Life of the Embryo

A blog reader left the following comment on my previous post:

Hey Jen.

I'd be interested to read a post on your moral stance regarding this process. You put quote marks around the word "create" which sort of gave me pause. So these lives have been created, does that mean there are 11 or however many people? Do they each have a soul?

Just wondering what your thoughts are, here.

So I thought I'd take this opportunity to respond.

The life of the embryo is very perplexing for me so I'll try my best to explain what I think.

First, I believe that life begins at fertilization, not conception (the AMA defines conception as when implantation occurs-usually approximately 2 weeks after fertilization). I believe it's important to make this distinction because saying that life begins at conception gives scientists and doctors a free pass on what to do with the embryos in those two weeks between fertilization and implantation. It opens the door for justifiable embryonic stem cell research, cloning, chemical reduction and a host of other life dishonoring practices.

So yes, I believe these are 12 tiny little people.

However, I don't know when ensoulment happens. On the one hand, it's hard to define "human" apart from a soul (isn't that what makes us human after all?), but on the other hand, if indeed ensoulment happens at fertilization, I have no idea where the souls of these frozen embryos currently are. I don't know that I think that soul is suspended in time, but I don't know what alternative there is, either. So, all of that to say, I don't know. And I don't even know what I believe.

Jeremiah 1:5 says, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, And before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations." So I believe that some sort of pre-conception soul exists, even if just in Holy Intent and Idea. Whether every body conceived has a soul, or whether some perish in the womb as never were and never to be ensouled skeletons, I do not know.

However, in the absence of knowing, we must err on the side of caution, or in this case, life. We must behave as though each of those 12 embryos (and the 500,000 others in storage) is a fully ensouled human being, created in the image of God. That is why I believe so strongly in Embryo Adoption, though I could not reconcile myself to In Vitro Fertilization. In this case, those little Embryos (little lives) already exist, and are worthy of our protection, regardless of our feelings about how they came to be.

If we are wrong on this point and in the end all we've done is protect lifeless (or soulless) masses of cells, we are no worse for the wear. However, if we assume that they are not little lives and behave accordingly, and it turns out we are wrong on that, we will have committed sins of great depravity, and that is a risk I am unwilling to take, both for the sake of my own soul and for the sake of those tiniest of persons.


Amanda then asked this in the comments:

I guess my question further is this, so if they are people, and may or may not have a soul, how do you feel about implanting several when you know they probably will not all survive? Especially when you've listed cases previously where someone had 11 embryos and that resulted in one live birth.

It seems effectively to be making the same decisions as in vitro fertilization without the immediate problem of you, personally, having given the order to create life.

Well, we would only transfer two at a time, because I am willing and feel I can safely carry twins if both were to implant. I wouldn't transfer more than that because I don't feel it would be safe for the babies.

If they don't implant, that's up to God. Transferring two embryos at once does not lessen either one's chance of implanting. All Snowflake families make the commitment to act as though all embryos WILL implant and therefore commit to only transferring at one time the number of embryos equal to the number children they would be willing and able to carry in one pregnancy, with a maximum of three. (The eleven embryos were not all transferred at once). Selective reduction is not an option.

At that point, I think the adoptive family has done all they can to give these embryos a chance at a full life. What happens beyond that is up to God. I liken it to the notion that it is a pregnant woman's job to care for her body and for her child and be responsible with prenatal care and her own behavior, but if all of that happens and a miscarriage still occurs, it doesn't follow that it was her fault or that it she should have never gotten pregnant in the first place.

So long as the EA family does all they can to ensure the best chance at survival for the embryos, including safe adoption, placement, shipping, thawing, transfer and storage methods, I think God is honored by that.

Also, isn't Embryo Adoption a perfect way of justifying IVF for people who have yet to undertake it? They may feel it is wrong, but upon learning of embryo adoption, would do it anyway because there is a way to "adopt" out the other embryos, thereby putting more embryos out there?

I wrestle with this too. I do know there are people out there who have chosen to do IVF because they know EA exists. But I also know there are couples out there like us. We were always opposed to IVF as a choice for our family, but knowing EA existed made that conviction a little bit easier to stick to when the doctor said those words, "You will never have biological children." Somehow knowing this existed removed some of the temptation to change our minds. I'd like to think we wouldn't have either way, but I do know that EA played a positive role for us.

Additionally, even if you removed all of those people (who do IVF because of EA) from the equation, there would still be hundreds of thousands of embryos in storage and so a method for saving those embryos would still need to exist. I do admit that it could become a vicious cycle but I don't think that we're there yet, or that the answer is not doing what we can. I know there are people who treat s.ex casually because they know they can place a resulting child for adoption. I don't think we should do away with adoption either, though I know there are people who use it to copulate with relative impunity (though placing a child for adoption is not without its own kind of trauma, either).

There's not an easy answer and I wrestle with it too. At the end of the day, I think EA is a necessary response to an unfortunate problem, though my preference would be that the problem of extra embryos not exist in the first place.

I know many good Christian people who arrived at different conclusions that us, others who changed their minds to or from these same positions after first acting according to the opposite decision, and some who remain undecided. I know it's not an easy decision for any family and I don't pass judgment on people who've made different decisions--this is just an explanation of where we're at as a family.