The Story: Fertility clinics across America are struggling with a growing number of abandoned embryos—many that are being left behind by Christian parents.
The Background: NBC News recently ran a feature story highlighting the problems of children being created and then cryogenically frozen and abandoned in the embryonic stage of development. While this may seem like a story from a dystopian science-fiction novel, it’s an all-too-common reality in the age of in-vitro fertilization.
As Mary Pflum notes in her article, in the 1990s, many fertility clinics considered it necessary to inseminate as many of a patient’s eggs as possible, because many embryos didn’t make it through the freezing and thawing process. Although IVF techniques have improved and made the creation of “excess embryos” unnecessary, the practice is still common. As embryologist Christine Allen says,
“[But] you still see many physicians with the mentality of, ‘the more, the merrier.’ So you see [some women] having 40, 50, or 60 eggs retrieved in a cycle and the embryologist gets the orders from her doctor to inseminate all of them—and the question isn’t asked if the patient even wants that many inseminated.
“Nobody’s going to have 30 kids,” she said.
Embryos that aren’t implanted in the womb are cryogenically frozen and put into storage. No one knows for sure how many frozen embryos are currently being stored in America, but the credible estimates range from 90,000 to several million. The cost of storage usually runs from $500 to $1,000 a year per IVF patient, leading many parents to abandon their created but unimplanted children.
Pflum points out that while clinics have different definitions of what constitutes an “abandoned embryo” the term generally refers to a situation in which a patient has not paid storage fees related to a frozen embryo for five or more years (sometimes as little as one year), and fails to respond to letters and calls from the clinic.
The clinics can’t simply give the children to other parents and are hesitant to destroy them:
“What if one day someone shows up and says, ‘Where’s my embryo?’ And you wind up on the front page of the newspaper for destroying someone’s embryo? The damage would be done,” he said.
For that reason, Patrizio said, his clinic doesn’t destroy abandoned embryos.
Richard Vaughn, a founding partner of the International Fertility Law Group, a national law firm that specializes in fertility matters, with offices in New York and Los Angeles, said he knows of no fertility clinics willing to dispose of abandoned embryos.
“They don’t want to be responsible for a wrongful death,” he said.
The result is that more children are being abandoned each year with no solution in sight. “I think many of us realize that we have a bit of a mess and I’m not sure doctors know how to fix it,” Craig Sweet says. “But we need to try.”
Why It Matters: The abandonment and death of embryos outside the womb is one of the most scandalous and oft-ignored issues with the Christian pro-life movement.
Over the last few decades the pro-life community has begun to show more concern for embryo destruction that occurs outside the womb. Yet while we have taken tentative steps to oppose efforts to destroy embryos for speculative scientific research (i.e., embryonic stem-cell research) we have turned a blind eye to how, out of the desire to have a child, our fellow citizens—including many Christians—have created “extra” or “spare” embryos that are abandoned to die.
Whether in the womb of a woman or in a storage locker in a fertility clinic, all human embryos have the same moral status and deserve the same level of protection from harm. The pain of infertility does not provide an exemption from this obligation.
Every year the suffering caused by infertility leads many Christian families to turn to IVF. These procedures are inherently expensive, often costing between $10,000 and $30,000 per treatment, and the likelihood of success is dismally low. Even the best technique offers less than a 50 percent chance that a live birth will occur. Because of these obstacles, couples are often tempted to set aside ethical concerns in order to increase the chances of fulfilling their desire for a child by creating more embryos than will be implanted.
Whether IVF itself is completely acceptable for Christians is a question worthy of debate. In the absence of clear scriptural guidelines, there are bound to be disagreements (I would almost always advise against IVF, though I respect those who do not share my qualms). However, there are some methods and approaches that are indisputably unethical and temptations to act immorally abound. The result is that almost every fertility clinic in America has become a dystopian orphanage in which children are created and then put into suspended animation until they die.
The extra expense required to avoid moral wrongdoing may be substantial or even prohibitive. But the cost of destroying the embryo is even higher. It is never God’s will that we abandon or kill one child in order to give life to another. As parents and followers of Jesus our obligation is clear: we should never create a child that we know will be abandoned and left to die. If IVF cannot be done morally, then it must not be done at all.