Embryo Life Or Death: Who Decides?


There is no comfortable way to talk about death, particularly the death of a child. At the same time, we collectively allow ourselves to make choices about the fate of life at the earliest stages of development — choices that would be unthinkable as a child matures.

For example, it is not uncommon for parents who have used in vitro fertilization (IVF) to donate remaining embryos for research purposes. I would strongly advise readers of this blog to fully digest this Oct. 11 article in Glamour written by Elissa Strauss, which explains her family’s decision to make such a decision. It is exceptionally written and captures the key moral questions with which so many families must grapple as our ability to use technology to build families improves.

Yet these lines from Strauss’ article, framing her decision to donate embryos for research, haunt me: “What if they turned into children? What if I am a terrible person because I don’t want to give them a chance?”

Strauss is not a terrible person. Far from it. She is caught in a seemingly impossible predicament. I shudder at the destruction of embryos in any form, whether through research, indefinite freezing or other means. But what I know is that as a society, we’ve got a tall hill to climb when it comes to educating families about the choice of embryo adoption—and the value of human life at its earliest point of existence.

In her article, Strauss quotes Lisa Campo-Engelstein, an associate professor of bioethics at Albany Medical College, talking about the accidental destruction of tens of thousands of embryos after equipment malfunctions at fertility clinics:

“How do we explain that loss in legal terms? Some people see them as frozen children; other people see them as bunches of cells,” Campo-Engelstein says. “There’s such a huge spectrum of views that it can be hard to even begin the conversation.”

It might be hard, but that means the conversation is all the more worth having. The best hope we have is that our society still has a conscience—a conscience that suggests there’s a question of deep importance gnawing at all of us.

There is no question that even in natural conception, embryos die before they are brought to term (though recent research suggests even commonly referenced statistics on embryo mortality are inaccurately high). But the issue here is not the natural processes of the body that are outside of our control—the issue of an embryo created through IVF is that 1) we made the choice to conceive a person and 2) we get to decide what happens to that person.

Scholars and theologians have argued for thousands of years about when life begins, and when a soul is affixed to a person’s body, and a hundred other questions. So why haven’t we reached a happy agreement to each do as we wish and build little people in whatever way science advances?

Because we recognize, in our deepest heart, that humans are different than any other creature on Earth. And once life has begun—even if it only appears to be a clump of cells to some—it becomes our responsibility. We get to choose whether this nascent life gets a fighting chance to live.

We can rationalize that cells have no value other than to science and the future well-being of humanity. But in my view, the fate of embryos isn’t merely a research question or a property transaction. Our society’s push to control every aspect of reproduction has real human consequences, as the investigative reporting program Reveal documents in this deeply troubling report that it rebroadcast a month ago.

The battle over the life and death of embryos has physical, moral and spiritual consequences. Even those who are confident embryos are nothing more than cells are haunted by an underlying question: What if that embryo had grown into an adult?

Let me suggest another even more disturbing question: What if that embryo had been me?