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The humanity of an embryo

Ericka Andersen | God knows each one of the thousands of babies destroyed or used for research as frozen embryos every year


Doctors at a London fertility clinic work in a petrie dish. Associated Press/Photo by Sang Tan

The humanity of an embryo
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The New York Times recently told of two couples who invoked the help of in vitro fertilization to conceive their children and in turn made a shocking discovery several months after the births: The babies they had delivered weren’t biologically their own. Both couples were patients at the same Los Angeles fertility clinic, which had implanted the women with one another’s embryos in a nightmare-ish mix-up.

After carrying the babies for nine months and parenting them for another three months, each family was horrified to learn their biological child was in another home. Together, the families made the anguishing decision to give each baby back to the biological parents, but with a lifetime of emotional damage for everyone involved. Future lawsuits and monetary compensation may be in play, but the families will never get back the year their child spent being nurtured and cared for by another—inside and outside the womb.

Medical technology is incredible, but playing games with human life and separating procreation from the act of bodily union can result in devastating consequences. Christians must consider this as they make tough decisions regarding infertility. Indeed, the “embryo mix-up” in this story is rare, but it’s just one of several ways advancements like IVF can ultimately contribute to the devaluation of human life and the family unit.

Hundreds of thousands of embryos sit frozen on ice in the United States—tiny lives abandoned after parents achieve the successful pregnancies they sought using IVF. In the secular, Western world, where unborn people have zero human rights, a pre-implanted embryo is little more than an afterthought. And while most people unfamiliar with IVF don’t know the ins and outs, the term “embryo” should draw Christians to attention.

An embryo is a fertilized egg complete with a biological sex and full DNA code including eye color, personality traits and genetic conditions. Just a few years ago, model Chrissy Teigan and her husband, singer John Legend, admitted they had chosen which gender they wanted from their spate of successful embryos after IVF. Patients can also choose pre-implantation genetic testing, which can essentially weed out genetically “inferior” embryos.

This is often done in effort to select the embryo with the greatest chance of survival, but it sounds dangerously like fashioning a “designer baby” all your own. And while we frown in disgust at countries like Iceland, ridding their population of people with Down Syndrome through abortion—these less obvious testing methods to remove the “imperfect” aren’t any better. The reality is that every frozen embryo is a preserved person just waiting to be given a chance to live.

Unfortunately, the fertility industry is an unregulated, high-dollar business, working to engineer life and just as easily casting it aside for profit. People are happy to hand over the cash ($15-20k per cycle) if it means a baby is on the other end of the exchange, but at great moral risk. What of those who do discard genetically “imperfect” embryos or trash their unused specimens as medical waste? How about the unregulated clinics that create tragic stories like those of the families whose embryos were swapped? Does this careless treatment of human life line up with God’s vision for His Creation?

America’s fertility industry has been compared to the “Wild West.” Here, meaningful oversight is absent, error reporting is essentially voluntary, and tragic cases of lost, destroyed, or otherwise improperly handled embryos appear to be on the rise.” Most fertility clinics don’t broadcast to patients that they may end up with countless frozen embryos when all is said and done—because grappling with the reality of what that means could be bad for business. One live baby is the goal, even if ten extra embryos are churned out in the process.

Have we taken the miracle of technology too far when baby-making becomes a $2 billion dollar per year cash magnet? Every year, thousands of frozen embryos are destroyed or used exclusively for scientific research, disconnecting babies from maternal bodies and parental bonds, devaluing the importance of the God-created family unit and wresting the divine purpose of our bodies from the One who made them possible. If God knows us “before He formed us” in our mother’s womb, then each of those embryos is a uniquely created, specifically chosen image-bearer and child of God. To discard and forget them like garbage is a treacherous offense to our Creator.


Ericka Andersen

Ericka Andersen is a freelance writer and mother of two in Indianapolis, Ind. She is the author of Leaving Cloud 9 and is currently writing a book on women and faith to be released in 2022. Ericka hosts the Worth Your Time podcast. She has been published in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Christianity Today, USA Today, and more.

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Reader0112

In theory IVF can work with a single egg, but the odds of success are incredibly low and the costs (of stimulation and egg retrieval) are exceedingly high. My husband and I were counseled based on literature data: if 10 eggs are retrieved, only 7 will fertilize, only 3 of those remaining will survive to 5 day transfer, and only 50% of embryos will implant. Add in 25% of pregnancies ending in miscarriage, and the numbers don't look quite so promising. We were hoping with those low odds to maybe get one chance and a possible sibling, unfortunately to be stored in the freezer until we could come back for him/her. God is not bound by statistics, however, and despite tearful, prayerful wrestling over the number of eggs to fertilize, we ended up with more embryos than we could have dreamed possible - the statistics did not apply in this case, and there is currently no diagnostic approach to improve predictions of success. We are committed to each and every one of those babies, but we are unable to know what tomorrow will bring. We are asking the Lord to preserve our ability to get each and every child.

Our original idea was to retrieve eggs and freeze them, unfertilized, for use at a later date. This seemed like a workaround to an ethical dilemma. We were counseled against this strategy, however, because research shows low rates of embryo viability when fertilizing thawed eggs (by comparison, frozen embryos, 90% of which survive thaw, are as viable as freshly fertilized). This statistic is likely suppressed when young career women are told to preserve their fertility while they advance their careers in their younger years. Large corporations often sponsor egg banking, but becoming a parent after said preservation is sadly not a given.

Some clinics are offering mini-IVF, which involves reduced stimulation (fewer eggs, fewer/no injections, lower cost), but egg retrieval is still an expensive surgery whether you retrieve two or twenty eggs. Unlike celebrities and designer-baby customers, a lot of parent hopefuls are like my husband and I: unable to have children without assistance and unable/unwilling to spend unlimited money to make the dream a reality. He and I are grateful we were give a chance to parent, obtained through the Lord's common blessing of scientific advancement. We did not approach IVF or keeping our kids in a freezer lightly, and economical considerations had to be made. The $15-20k cited in the article is real, often not covered by any health insurance, and it is strictly for the chance to become pregnant, no guarantees. I think it is a common misconception that IVF is pursued strictly out of selfish motives, i.e., designer babies, but at least for my husband and I, it came after the deepest pain we had ever endured and offered nothing more than a chance to overcome physiological setbacks.

I don't want to dismiss the God-fearing families who turned their sorrow into joy through adoption, fostering, and loving nieces and nephews fiercely. We cried and prayed and sought the Lord month after month of gut-wrenching agony, and He gave us this way to pursue this calling. He will continue to write our story, and He is ever faithful to do it.

I never understood IVF or the motivation for it until it was me. I would tack onto this author's point that education is a necessary aspect of IVF, for those entering into it and those in community with IVF patients. Those considering it need to be aware of the questions to ask, and I am grateful she raised this issue because it needs more coverage.

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Does anybody know if IVF could work with a single egg at a time? Why is it so necessary that they fertilize all those extra eggs?