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.


  1. Thank you for taking the time to respond.

    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.

    Again, genuinely curious, as I've been struggling with the morality of this topic.

  2. 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?

  3. I actually think it an awesome thing you are doing! I love that nightlight has a mission to place all these frozen embryos into loving families- that would otherwise be permanently frozen or destroyed.
    Thanks for answering these questions- I completely agree with you!
    I am excited to see what the futrue holds for your family!

  4. Love for a child grows however and wherever created. I applaud your choices and send much happiness to you all on your journey. Not all embryos result in live births whether the result of ART or natural conception. It's a non issue for me as a clinician. To be given the opportunity for life and to nuture a life, what a Gift.

  5. Hey Amanda--I responded to your two questions here at the end of the post =)

  6. looks like you've given these issues a lot of thought. I applaud you for that.

  7. Thanks for responding, I see what you mean about implanting two at a time, that seems like the most responsible thing to do. It's an interesting topic to think on, and I still don't know what I think.

  8. Again, another great post, Jen. It's heartening to find others who have wrestled with the same questions and have arrived at the same answers. Many prayers!

  9. Good post Jen. When I was describing the concept of embryo adoption to my mom, I could have used some of your additional insights (since you're the one I was talking about). I'm going to send her over to read your in-depth thoughts.

  10. This is interesting to me personally, Jen, because I've thought a lot about embryos and ensoulment when thinking about our twins, since they were the same person for over a week! (didn't split till 8-10 days past conception) I had a great conversation with one of the parishioners with training in philosophy when he brought me Communion in the hospital. Did they have one soul when they were in one body, and then two after they split? did their souls split as well as their bodies? Did they have two souls from the beginning and that's WHY their body split? Did ensoulment not happen till after they split?

    I personally think they had one soul when they were one person, and then two once they were two, but I admit I don't know the truth about it and it's pretty mind-boggling to ponder it!

    But I know who they are now, and I think that's what's really important. I'm glad you're honoring these kids of yours already by treating them with the full dignity of personhood.

  11. You can tell that this is a very well thought out process for you - which I think is amazing when dealing with such complex issues. As always- great job for helping a discussion of a very intricate subject.

  12. Gosh, these were hard questions but ones that have to be pondered and I think it's great you took them on. I was so terrified of reaching a point where someone told me IVF was our only option, because I think God has just always put it in **my** heart that it wasn't right for us. God has a different plan for all of us and individual plans for each little life in the works right now. All we can is pray and seek his will in all we do.

  13. Jenn,
    This is awesome. The reason that I have a prob. with IVF is that reason. I admire you and your DH for your decision to adopt babies that many don'e consider to have life. Can't wait to hear updates.

  14. I don't believe that life begins at fertilization, and my faith tradition doesn't either. But I so appreciate your discussion of the issues and the loving way you present your views. Very non-alienating, which seems hard for some (a lot of?) people of faith to do. The issues are very complex and I don't claim to have all the answers, either. I'm always grateful for your presentation, though this is the first time I've commented. After reading this post I do have one question. How will you present these issues to your children. In essence, they will only exist because another couple made what is - to you and your family - an unethical choice. If the other couple hadn't fertilized and frozen those embryos, you would not be able to carry them .... Do you see what I mean? They exist because of bad choices? I guess a lot of kids are taught that about themselves - because of unwed mothers? But how do you say that to your children one day - we don't believe in the way you were created? Thanks. And many blessings to you and your family.

  15. Just re-read my post - and hoping it sounds like it comes from the spirit of inquiry that I intended, and not harsh/alienating. Thanks. P.S. I have had both an HSN and an HSG. The HSN was MUCH LESS PAINFUL. Will be praying for your mock-sono.

  16. Me again. Have continued thinking about this. Guess it is no different than the case of an adopted child who was born out of wedlock to a single mom and then put up for adoption. The Christian adoptive parents will necessarily teach that out of wedlock sex is a sin, but they are glad nonetheless that it happened (??) because that bad act brought them their beautiful child. Must be the same thing? IVF is immoral, but we are glad you are here, in essence. Anyway, thanks again for your thought-provoking posts.

  17. wow...interesting thoughts. i am a christian woman who felt comfortable and completely God-led through IVF...we prayed for the right amt of children/embryos and God gave us only 2 embryos...no pre-transfer "deaths" no decisions abuot what to do w/ leftover embryos...we just had 2...period. God blessed. Out of those 2 we had 1 stick and she is 15 mos old now. We won't be doing IVF again though...my husband & I do not have peace about it at all.

    when we looked at EA we were instantly uncomfortable. I think the main reason for me was that it seemed as I read some of the specific families who were looking for a family for their embryos many of their embryos were created out of wedlock. A donor sperm or egg that went to a married couple. We didn't feel comfortable with this so we are choosing to go a different route for additional children.

    I think your answers regarding fertilization/conception, ensoulment, transferring 2 (not 11...yikes!) are RIGHT ON. We had also decided to transfer no more than 2 and God worked it out perfectly. We knew I could likely carry 2 but had heard horror stories about 3 or more. We didn't want to go there.

    I think it's very interesting to see so many different perspectives on IVF. I am glad, however, that I did not have a blog during that time b/c mostly after we conceived I started realizing how many christians are against it & I would've had a difficult time emotionally on a blog understanding that b/c I know that God opened that door for us.

    BUT...now i can see that it's a personal decision way more than just an all around 'right or wrong'...i can handle the differences of opinions much better now without offense...but God definitely had to bring me thru the journey. :-)

    anyway, sorry for the wicked long comment! love your blog...

  18. A new reader here. Thanks so much for this post. I really enjoyed appreciated someone of faith addressing the issue in a non-offended, non-offensive way. I plan to pass on the link to some friends of mine.

    If you are interested and/or if you have the time could you post about your views on IVF? Or point me toward a resource you might recommend? My husband and I (during our two years of IF and considering alternatives--including EA-- but God opened the womb in His time, instead) decided against it, but never could come up with any really concrete Scriptural reasons. A good Christian friend is now 12 weeks with their 2nd IVF (the first resulted in an early m/c). I would love to hear what you have to say on the topic.