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A More Human Society

On freezing embryos and consciences

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Richard
Doerflinger

Days apart, clinics offering in vitro fertilization in Cleveland and San Francisco had malfunctions in their storage tanks, endangering thousands of frozen eggs and embryos. Women's Health magazine called it a "fertility clinic nightmare" that may deprive hundreds of women of their chance for a child. We can all sympathize with their plight, and pray they will find a way through their crisis.

The president of the San Francisco clinic told The Washington Post that resulting discussions with families have been emotional. "Anger is a big part of the phone call," he said. "We need to think: If this tissue doesn't work, what are the next steps, and have you not feel defeated."

The clinic told news media there is still some "viable tissue" in its tank. The clinic in Cleveland says it is investigating which "specimens" were affected.

I don't think these families were angry about losing "tissue" or "specimens." Some of the embryos were frozen in the 1980s, and families kept paying hundreds of dollars a year for storage after their reproductive years had likely passed.

When embryonic stem cell research was debated nationwide almost two decades ago, Americans found that hundreds of thousands of embryos were in frozen storage. Scientists and politicians said families should be encouraged to donate the embryos for stem cell research that destroys them.

They forgot to ask: Why were so many preserved this way in the first place? The answer is that many parents cannot bring themselves to end their lives, or even stop paying the storage fee. They see the embryos as their newly conceived children, not "tissue."

That insight also drove one stem cell researcher to a discovery that may help millions. When Dr. Shinya Yamanaka of Japan was considering pursuing embryonic stem cell research, this father of two girls viewed an embryo under a microscope at a fertility clinic.

"When I saw the embryo, I suddenly realized there was such a small difference between it and my daughters," he later told The New York Times. "I thought, we can't keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way."

He discovered how to alter ordinary adult cells to act like very versatile embryonic cells -- a discovery that revolutionized medical research, winning him a Nobel Prize in 2012. And we no longer see such fierce campaigns to destroy embryos for their stem cells.

Why are in vitro fertilization clinic personnel blind to such insights? Because if they saw embryos as children, they could not do their jobs. They use eggs and sperm to produce embryos in the inhospitable environment of a petri dish, selecting the "best" embryos for trying to start a pregnancy.

Usually they transfer two, three or more embryos to a woman's body, hoping that one survives. Usually none of them do. Occasionally more than one survives, and many clinics offer "selective reduction" to families that want one child at a time. Over 80 percent of the embryos die, and freezing poses additional risks -- even without a malfunction.

The Catholic Church warned against this approach decades before it brought any child to birth. Pope Pius XII saw that if you depersonalize procreation -- if you divorce it from the union of embodied love between husband and wife -- you undermine respect for the resulting new life.

In vitro fertilization children are as fully human and as worthy of respect as any of us -- and that is why we need better ways than in vitro fertilization to help families with fertility problems. The clinics' cavalier references to "tissue" and "specimens" invite us to reflect on the wisdom of what the church has said all along.

Richard Doerflinger worked for 36 years in the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He writes from Washington state.

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