by Laura Elm, Executive Director. Sacred Heart Guardians and Shelter.
Written in response to a Perspective published online in Washington Post: Why new anti-abortion laws may make it harder to conceive.
When this article popped up in my feed, and knowing that the authors’ reference was to conception by IVF, my first thought was, of course these laws could affect access to assisted reproductive technologies. It’s only logical that laws that limit or prohibit the killing of a human being in utero could also pose a threat to the killing of a human being in vitro. The only difference between the humans in each of these cases is geography.
But if this story made the news, then maybe that logic does require additional explanation. Unfortunately neither the article nor its authors’ recently published book provide readers with a definition of the subject at hand: the embryo. Perhaps they assume that people already know what an embryo is. In my experience, IVF/ART industry workers frequently substitute “fertilized egg” for “embryo,” or use “egg” and “embryo” interchangeably. Because understanding the nature of an embryo is critical to any argument for or against IVF, and in combination with the call-to-action rhetoric used in this WP article (“…rights curtailed;” …laws can impinge”), I hope I can write something that will both inform and balance the discussion.
A human embryo is a human being.
At fertilization (the fusion of a sperm to the egg’s membrane; also known as conception) the embryo, a new living organism, comes into being. We empirically know it is a new organism (and different from the a sperm or egg cell egg) by its cellular composition and behavior. It is not just a cell (single or “clump”), tissue of <abc>, or something with the potential to become a <abc>. Furthermore, as organisms are classified according to their species, this particular organism is a Homo sapiens; that is, a human being. Therefore, an embryo is fully a human being. Embryo is the appropriate term for this living organism from fertilization through week 8 of gestation. After that, this human being will progress through such developmental stages as fetus, newborn (or neonate), infant, child, adolescent, and so on.
That a human embryo is a human being is not a belief, a philosophy, a hypothesis, or an idea to be “maintained.” It is a fact. Even if it is a fact that is inconvenient or unlikable, it is still true. (Of note: “fertilized egg” is synonymous with “embryo.” Still a human being.)
With these facts established, it makes sense that anti-abortion laws would protect the unborn, whether located in a woman’s Fallopian tube, uterus or in a laboratory dish.
An abortion mentality, that it, saying it is OK to kill pre-born human beings, is what makes Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART) technologies like IVF possible in the first place (although many hopeful parents-to-be are unaware of how this technically plays out).
Why do embryos (human beings) die in IVF laboratories?
- They self-arrest in the culture process. That is, they simply do not live long enough to be either transferred to a uterus or cryopreserved. This cause of mortality accounts for the death of 100s of 1000s of embryos (human beings) every year.
A trend in IVF laboratory and clinical protocol is to transfer embryos on Day 5, rather than on Day 3, forcing the embryos to prove survival skills in an artificial environment for an additional 48 hours. Doctors and embryologists often set expectations with IVF patients that about half of their embryos will be lost between Day 3 and Day 5. What if Louise Brown had been kept in culture for just a little longer? Would she have survived long enough to be transferred? (I think she was transferred when she was only 8 cells big, perhaps not even at Day 3 of her life).
*Math Quiz* How many embryos (human beings) died in this IVF scenario (taken directly from a popular online discussion board). Answer at the bottom of this article.
We retrieved 21 eggs, 17 fertilized, 8 made it to blast, 2 were transferred fresh and only 1 was of an excellent enough quality to freeze.
- Discard per visual grade given by the embryologist.
- Discard per poor PGD/PGS result (Chromosome issue? Undesired sex (“family balancing”)?
- Technical malfunction (think Ohio and California not that long ago…).
- Failure to survive the cryopreservation freeze or thaw process (known only when thawed for potential transfer).
- Donation to research, with subsequent discard.
- Elective thaw and discard of so-called “excess” embryos.
For those embryos transferred to the uterus as a group and plucky enough to implant, there is still the possibility of “selective reduction” (ie., abortion).
So that this article or the authors’ book don’t lead astray those Catholics who strive to live a moral life, a few words on the priest who was part of the unanimous recommendation regarding the funding of IVF research.
We can not know what exterior pressure or internal flaw moved Rev. Richard McCormick to tragically and inexplicably dissent from very clear, long-established Christian moral teaching on this topic:
“As regards experiments of human artificial fecundation ‘in vitro,’ let it be sufficient to observe that they must be rejected as immoral and absolutely unlawful” (Pope Pius XII, Allocution to the Second World Congress on Fertility and Human Sterility. 1956).
The Church continues to teach the faithful about these procedures through instructions such as donum vitae (1987) and dignitas personae (2008)*, helping us understand the dangers and indignities that procreating people in lab dishes (IVF), and the technical add-ons, forces on the youngest, most vulnerable human beings.
*For those not accustomed to the title format used by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church (the teaching office charged with giving authentic interpretation of the Word of God), they name the teaching document by the first few words of the work, in Latin. Here, “Gift of Life” and “Dignity of a Person,” respectively. And, contrary to popular belief, the Magisterium doesn’t “make the rules.” They help us understand the what and why of the truth that is.
Just because you can…. doesn’t mean you should.
So, what about Americans’ “constitutional right to an abortion?” Yesterday, owning people as slaves was constitutional. Did slavery go from right to wrong only when it became illegal? Tomorrow, what if sex-trafficking slips through with some obscure bill and becomes legal? Will people have to accept it? Procedures such as abortion and IVF are much more closely related than most people realize. Both involve the deliberate destruction of young human beings in an effort to serve the interests of older human beings. Both abortion and IVF are legal. Are both wrong?
*Quiz Answer. 14 embryos died.
- 17 embryos – 8 that survived to blastocyst stage = 9 died of self arrest.
- 8 embryos (blastocyst stage) – 2 (transferred) – 1 (cryopreserved) = 5 more embryos that were selectively discarded.
The remains of an embryo who died in an IVF lab must be treated with respect, just as the remains of all human beings. Above all, such remains are not to be considered as “medical waste” or treated in the same way as medical waste. The remains should be either buried or cremated in a respectful manner and place. Cremated remains should be either buried or entombed.