Journalism is in a precarious place in our country. A recent article in The New York Times highlights the profound opportunities journalists have to shine a light on embryo adoption — and the perils of doing so carelessly.
As a proud holder of two degrees from the University of Missouri School of Journalism—the finest on the planet—it breaks my heart that journalists are so often in the crossfire of public debate. I’d argue too many Americans are more skeptical of the press than ever. They question the value of holding public officials accountable. Meanwhile, major public figures fuel those doubts, routinely try to rewrite the truth. Lying is a sport that elicits a shrug and a chuckle among too many people.
Enter Russia and other countries that seek to undermine the truth with malicious attacks using fake social media ads seeking to sow discord and the volume of untruth is virtually unending.
So when I noticed that The New York Times, a paper I have long revered (many of my conservative Christian friends will shudder at that statement, but I speak the truth in love), had written this week about the subject of embryo adoption, I took notice.
Spoiler: The article didn’t live up to my (admittedly low) expectations. I don’t entirely fault the Times. I fault the zeitgeist and our tendency as reporters to pour ourselves into some stories and focus on the quick turn on a tight deadline on others. The article — titled “Embryo ‘Adoption’ Is Growing, but It’s Getting Tangled in the Abortion Debate” — confused me and lacked thorough sourcing and context. That’s coming from someone who has spent the past three years going through embryo adoption.
First, though, let me applaud the Times for even running such a story and commend Caroline Lester for shedding light on an important but often unreported subject. Most embryo adoption articles are either 1) glowingly positive, focused on a beautiful family and its beautiful baby but little detail about the joys, challenges and moral urgency of embryo adoption or 2) blatantly negative, casting aspersions on silly Christians who equate a handful of cells with a fully formed human. (You can’t have a fully formed person without that embryo, for what it’s worth, but I digress.)
This article thankfully falls into neither of those buckets but somewhere in the middle. Allow me to make a few observations, and then you can read the article for yourself and tell me what you think the comments below. It might well be that my own biases are getting in the way of very rational explanations for the gaps I observed in this article.
Strikingly, the copy editor insisted on the generous use of air quotes — e.g. embryo “adoption” and “adopting” — at the very top of the article. In general discourse, air quotes undercut and demean an otherwise commonplace phrase. If I am dealing with a “minor emergency,” chances are good it’s a full-blown catastrophe that i’m being polite about. In journalism school, in our Cross-Cultural Journalism class, I was taught that when you are portraying a specific group of people, you describe them in the way that they see themselves. Embryo adoption similarly seems trivial to some, but to placing and adoptive families, it holds deep meaning — and it is as legally binding as any other form of adoption. Air quotes that aren’t a direct quote from another person inherently belittle and cheapen. The Times should know better.
Sensitivity is a critical component of compassionate storytelling. At one point, the Times article refers to the fact that “the number of spare embryos rises”. The word “spare” might be a good thesaurus word, but in my dictionary, it implies there is such a thing as acceptable waste in the creation of human life. A spare tire lies against the wall of an auto body shop in case someone needs it. A human life remains after an embryo is created — debate until the cows come home about when ensoulment and personhood should be ascribed. Christians such as myself argue it is at the point of conception. Bible texts bear that out. The preferred term in the embryo adoption community is “remaining embryos,” which is both truthful and unoffensive, regardless of which side of the fence you sit on.
At various points, the article attempts to draw a connection between embryo adoption and abortion. On the face of it, the connection seems to be that many pro-life organizations that support alternatives to abortion — such as adoption — are recipients of federal grants to promote…adoption. Which makes sense because it is in total alignment with their mission, vision and values. They file tax paperwork with the federal government stating as much. What’s left unsaid is the more troubling reality that our advances in medical technology are enabling us to generate, manipulate and control human life at its earliest stages in a way never before possible in human history. At what point will we begin to place boundaries on our pursuit of fertility? Practices that hurt or destroy the unborn are unacceptable to Christians on principle. Thankfully, the article begins with an adoptive couple, including the father’s comment that embryo adoption means bringing into the world a child who would otherwise remain frozen in time.
On the subject of sourcing and thoroughness, the Times notes federal grants overwhelmingly go toward “anti-abortion rights or Christian organizations, leading some people to question whether single people, gay couples and others who might be interested could be missing out.” Yet the “some people” who are purportedly questioning are never identified, not even anonymous sources (which, for the record, I fully support to shield sources who share important and sensitive information in often threatening situations) beyond one woman interviewed for the story, Monika Broecker. And in that case, Ms. Broecker, who is single, successfully adopted despite not qualifying with all adoption agencies — though she notes she didn’t meet what she views as ordinary criteria: “I don’t have a big house or anything.” (For the record, adoption agencies I am aware of do not require families to have big houses. A stable home environment, sure. Well, as stable as a home can be with young children who are testing boundaries, wrestling one another to the ground and yelling for Mommy and Daddy to help with imminent, rolling crises.)
Unfortunately, the Times chose to call out the National Embryo Donation Center (NEDC) in close apposition to this paragraph: “All of the 2017 grant recipients said in interviews that they did not discriminate against non-Christian and nontraditional family applicants. But the same cannot be said for some of the past recipients.” The article goes on to explain that NEDC requires couples with whom it works to be heterosexual and married for three years. It suggests this is evidence of discrimination of nontraditional families. Yet the Times didn’t give NEDC leadership an opportunity to respond on the record. It’s a shame because I’ve had a tremendous working relationship with their team in sharing materials and spreading the word for “Frozen, But Not Forgotten,” and they’ve been extremely responsive via both email and phone. But here, they didn’t even get a “Declined to comment.” It’s not clear to me the Times even asked them to weigh in. See also the earlier point about a variety of organizations serving a variety of audiences and backgrounds. There are many Christian-oriented adoption agencies, but there are many fertility clinics and others that place embryos with single people, couples who identify as LGBT and more. The article seems to suggest that Christian-oriented organizations are uniquely guilty of failing to be inclusive. If that is the issue here, I might also point out that anecdotally, a majority of fertility clinics do not promote embryo adoption. Many are probably unaware of it. Many more see no profit-generating potential in the business of frozen embryo transfers. Many also recognize that fertility is a highly emotional issue that strains families and leads couples to spend money for the opportunity to bring their own biological child into the world. I have deep empathy for these families and can imagine what a painful, hard situation that would be. But in those cases, it would be morally upright to at least raise the possibility that these couples consider embryo adoption among the other fertility options presented to them, even if the clinic performs the necessary procedures at financial breakeven or even a loss. (I revisit the role of fertility clinics in my final point below.)
Regarding funding, the Times article paraphrases a source—a clinic doctor who works with nontraditional families—who says he wishes the government would consider expanding its pool of grant recipients. In this way, the article is balanced because it includes one interview each with a Christian-oriented organization (Nightlight Christian Adoptions, which our family had the privilege of working with throughout our adoption journey) and Embryo Donation International, which serves nontraditional families. It’s unfortunate, then, that the article repeatedly suggests those failing to help families in need are pro-life nonprofits. (The Associated Press Stylebook eschews the term pro-life, instead recommending that reporters use the term anti-abortion as an impartial term. That could be an entirely different blog post.)
A final comment on the financing that supports pro-life adoption organizations. The annual grants averaging $1 million are described in the Times article as “relatively small,” which is a gross understatement. By the time you break out funds, Nightlight – our family’s adoption agency that does outsized good relative to its annual revenues of just over $5 million, according to its 2016 Form 990 – won a grant totaling $299,000 in 2017 to promote embryo adoption. That’s very respectable, but it’s by no means a cash cow. In fact, it’s recommended that nonprofits with a $5 million budget spend between 5% and 15% on marketing, according to Prosper Strategies, a Chicago-based communications consultancy specializing in nonprofits. That’s up to $750,000 per year, well over twice what Nightlight receives as part of this grant program. And embryo adoption awareness spending has fallen millions of dollars from its 2009 high of $4.2 million, according to federal data.
Comparatively, the revenues of the fertility industry are enormous – another fact that failed to make the Times article. Fertility clinics generated $1.9 billion in 2017 and netted $198.9 million in profits, according to The Cleveland Plain Dealer. Our family is deeply grateful to our fertility clinic for 1) working with a couple such as us without fertility challenges and 2) transferring and safeguarding our frozen embryo baby Phoebe and her two siblings who didn’t survive the thaw. But to suggest that fertility clinics overall are at a competitive disadvantage financially to nonprofit adoption agencies that receive minimal federal funding relative to overall agency budgets is disingenuous.
Let me say it once more: I love The New York Times, value its work deeply and will continue being a faithful reader. But if the Times seeks to further engage its Christian readers, those with families and those with deeply held moral beliefs that sometimes run against the cultural current (yes, those pesky pro-lifers), it can learn from this article on embryo adoption.
For starters, it can learn that embryo adoption, under no circumstances, needs air quotes.