As the pro-choice argument goes, a woman should have the right to decide what happens within her own body. If she becomes pregnant but isn’t ready to be or doesn’t want to be, it’s up to her to decide what to do with the baby growing inside her. After all, it’s her body.
But what if the baby is not inside of her? What if the baby is still an embryo, frozen in an IVF clinic, waiting to be implanted in her uterus? Does a woman’s right to choose then trump the father whose sperm makes up the other half of its existence?
Or to add another player to the mix, what about a surrogate carrying a baby? What about her body, her choice, her rights when things don’t go as planned?
These ethical issues are not mere hypotheticals, as situations involving assisted reproduction make headlines often. A few recent high-profile cases are raising new questions about parenthood and life created in a lab.
There’s actress and former View co-host Sherri Shepherd, who conceived a child with her husband’s sperm and a donor’s egg, carried in a surrogate’s womb. When Shepherd’s marriage ended mid-pregnancy, she wanted nothing to do with the child, which was hers though she had no biological links to it. A legal and ethical battle ensued over who’d raise the boy and who’d be responsible for child support, involving all four adults and spanning across several states.
Even more recently, Nick Loeb, ex-fiancé of Modern Family’s Sofía Vergara, wrote an op-ed in The New York Times arguing that the embryos the pair created through in-vitro fertilization during their relationship have a right to live. Loeb and his famous ex had agreed that their embryos would be implanted in a surrogate, but since they split up, they remain frozen. “Shouldn’t they be defined as life, not property?” he asked in The Times, going on to say:
Does one person’s desire to avoid biological parenthood (free of any legal obligations) outweigh another’s religious beliefs in the sanctity of life and desire to be a parent? A woman is entitled to bring a pregnancy to term even if the man objects. Shouldn’t a man who is willing to take on all parental responsibilities be similarly entitled to bring his embryos to term even if the woman objects?
These are issues that, unlike abortion, have nothing to do with the rights over one’s own body, and everything to do with a parent’s right to protect the life of his or her unborn child.
This point will come up again as people turn to such technologies to conceive or secure hope of conceiving in the future. We’re used to hearing the abortion debate framed as a woman’s right over her body versus a baby’s right to life, but this situation is different. When the embryo isn’t inside a woman’s body, from a pro-choice perspective, who makes the decision? And from a pro-life perspective, what do we do when a frozen embryo requires a womb to live?
Loeb’s conviction is to find a woman to carry these babies—his daughters—so he can raise them with or without Vergara’s support. Traditionally, some pro-life Christians would oppose surrogacy… but in cases like his, it may be the only way to save their lives.
The debate over assisted reproduction can get heated, especially among those of us who believe life begins at conception. As one who once felt the sting of infertility, I know the pain and confusion that comes with thinking about the plethora of options available. But the plethora of options are now forcing our society to ask the fundamental question about the embryo: Is it a human life or merely a potential for life?
The fact that The New York Times (hardly known for pro-life convictions) would publish Loeb’s op-ed declaring his frozen embryos as his children, as lives with souls, suggest that perhaps more and more sectors of our society don’t believe embryos are merely “clumps of cells.”
A growing number of Americans seek to conceive through assisted reproductive technologies. Desperate for a baby, they care deeply about every embryo. Will it implant? Will it grow into a healthy baby we can hold in our arms? Or will our tests and waiting and trying be in vain? More and more, people are talking about embryos not as cells with the potential for life, but human life itself. This shift has the power to reshape our culture’s thinking about other life issues, including abortion.
The pain in Loeb’s words are revealing. Medicine and a culture of death try to pretend like these frozen embryos are not worthy of the same attention as those of us breathing on the outside of the wombs. But many parents who have felt the sting of waiting for their children and losing embryos in the process know otherwise.
Long before celebrity fertility cases made headlines, Christians have been thinking about what happens to the hundreds of thousands of frozen embryos leftover from IVF treatments, with many (including CT) taking a stance against technologies that risk devaluing and commodifying human beings and human life.
Along with these strong reservations (which I also affirm), we also need to acknowledge that the solutions to some of the dilemmas we face are not always straightforward. Nor do we have to condemn people, desperate for children, who have resorted to technologies whose dangers we are increasingly discovering. But as our society grapples afresh with the ramifications of advancing medical technologies, we have an opportunity to reassert the basic truth that these embryos are human life.