Frozen Embryos: Biotech's Hidden Dilemma
Ron Stoddart, director of Nightlight Christian Adoptions, a nonprofit that facilitates Christian adoption, David Cook, a Wheaton College bioethics expert, and Ellen Painter Dollar, the author of a forthcoming book about Christian perspectives on reproductive and genetic technology, weigh in on what should be done with frozen embryos left over at fertility clinics.
Adopt Frozen Embryos
For those who believe that life begins at conception, only one choice remains.
When couples choose in-vitro fertilization to create embryos to help build their families, the unused embryos are frozen for future attempts at pregnancy. Most couples are unprepared for what to do with remaining embryos once their family is complete. There are over 500,000 embryos currently frozen in storage at American clinics.
Although together these embryos occupy a space the size of a 12mm cube—the size of a board game die—they represent the population of a city the size of Atlanta. Size is subject to perspective. We all look mighty small from the moon. But to God, we are wondrously made and valuable at every stage of development.
In 2009, a public opinion survey asked what should be done with remaining embryos. Most respondents said that the embryos should be donated to other infertile couples (68.8 percent) rather than being destroyed (5.9 percent) or being donated for research (which also destroys them).
To answer this question from a Christian perspective, we must first understand what an embryo is. Unlike an egg or sperm cell, an embryo is a complete pre-born human being with a full set of chromosomes and DNA. Just like you and me, it is a unique human unlike any other on earth. Science tells us that life begins when a sperm and egg unite. From that point forward, the embryo needs only nutrients and a safe place to grow to develop into a child.
So what are we to do with the large number of embryos who occupy such a tiny space? Fertility clinics typically give patients four choices: donate the embryos to another couple, donate the embryos for research, destroy the embryos, or keep the embryos in frozen storage. We may agree that the best choice is for the couple who created the embryos to try for another pregnancy with them. But what if the couple does not want additional children?
In that case, donating the embryos to another couple seems like the most loving choice. But the donor family might be concerned about another family parenting "their child" (a concern shared by every birthmother who has chosen adoption over abortion).
More than 3,000 children have been born in the United States through embryo donation or adoption. Fertility clinics have had embryo donation programs for over 20 years, but embryo adoption, a process whereby donors are actively involved in finding parents to receive the embryos, began in 1997 with Nightlight Christian Adoptions' Snowflakes program. Donors have a choice in what to do with their remaining embryos.
For those who believe that life begins at conception and is worthy of protection and a chance to impact the world as God intended, only one choice remains: birth.
Take Responsibility for Embryos
There are no ideal scenarios, but we must work for a solution.
Before we can set significant guidelines regarding the fate of unused, frozen human embryos, we must ask: Who is responsible for them? Since embryos cannot make decisions, who gets to decide whether they will be donated, adopted, or destroyed?
Parents decide for their children, and families decide what will happen to an unconscious or dying family member.