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The humanity of an embryo

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 living in Indianapolis. She is the author of Leaving Cloud 9 and Reason to Return: Why Women Need the Church & the Church Needs Women. 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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