By Brad Boswell
In ethical and political circles, the term “pro-life” evokes primarily — and for some people, exclusively — the issue of abortion. It means opposing any act that leads to the direct and intentional destruction of an unborn child in a mother’s womb. While this battle is certainly worth fighting, it is not the only pro-life issue and to be consistent, pro-lifers need to expand their position of opposition.
The bedrock of the pro-life argument is the belief that human life, with all its moral entailments, begins at conception — a belief that can be grounded not only in religion, but also in science and philosophy. An embryo at any stage of development is a human being, having the right of life; thus to destroy it is to commit murder.
It is estimated there are between 400,000 and 500,000 embryos preserved in a frozen state in labs and clinics across the country. Some think this number is increasing by as many as 20,000 a year.
These embryos — humans — were begotten in vitro with no intent by their parents or scientists to implant them in their biological mother – or anyone, for that matter – and allow them to grow and develop into mature human beings. They are a lost generation; most are fated to remain in a freezer until they decay, are thrown out, or, if the legal climate changes, are dissected under a microscope for research.
In vitro fertilization offers the possibility of bearing children to couples – or singles – that are otherwise unable to have kids. Scientists take the necessary building blocks from both a man and a woman and unite them – the event known as “conception” – in a Petri dish. One or more embryos are then transferred into a woman – not necessarily the biological mother – in the hope that they will implant in the womb, resulting in a pregnancy.
Since the success rate of pregnancy using in vitro fertilization is well less than 100 percent and since this whole process is expensive and physically demanding to the woman, fertility clinics generally create multiple embryos per procedure — oftentimes as many as 12. This way, if the first attempt to implant an embryo fails the couple can try again without having to pay the huge financial and physical costs to create new embryos.
When the parents have successfully given birth to as many children as they want, the excess embryos are generally thrown away or frozen. Nine, 10 and sometimes 11 children are denied the opportunity to develop to maturity.
Thirty years of these practices have led to the cryopreservation of half a million people, who are probably never to be thawed out and allowed to become a part of society. The mere existence of so many embryos presents a perplexing ethical dilemma: What should we do with them? Designate them for research as some have suggested? Simply forget about them?
Equally perplexing is the question of how pro-lifers should look forward, given the practices surrounding in vitro fertilization. The creation of embryos that are effectively doomed never to be brought to maturity is little better than abortion. How then should we address this ethically condemnable practice?
The answer to such questions deserves a book’s worth of thought. Since nowhere near such space is available here, the next ethics column will be dedicated to exploring some starting points for answering these questions.