The University Hospitals fertility clinic in Cleveland announced in March that 4,000 eggs and embryos in its storage facilities were “no longer viable.” A cryogenic tank had malfunctioned. The storage tank contained mostly embryos, so presumably at least half that number were human lives. Later in March, the Pacific Fertility Clinic Center in San Francisco also experienced a tank malfunction. This one caused the loss of thousands more embryos and eggs.
Yet little was said or reported about it by pro-life groups and news outlets. This made me wonder. How well are we explaining that embryos are real people? What more can be done?
When we pro-life people make the case that “life begins at conception,” invoking science and the purest of common sense, we face a population that does not see our point of view. “It’s just a clump of cells,” they say, “a blob of tissue.” We get frustrated; we feel like we’re fighting an uphill battle. But then when something like this actually happens, do our actions match our words?
One might conclude that we do not really believe human life begins at conception or that we do not think embryonic children have the same worth as older children. Admittedly, it is hard to make yourself mourn the loss of someone’s embryo.
I think it is a conception problem, but I am using the word in a different sense than usual in this context. We use “conception” to mean the action of conceiving offspring, of first coming into being. It is a tautology, but a beautiful and meaningful one. When we say that human life begins at conception, we literally mean human life starts when it starts.
However, the word also refers to our rational nature. It means to conceive in the mind, to form an idea, to grasp or create a concept, comprehension. It is contrasted with imagination.
In order to imagine something, the human mind needs pictures. We can imagine sunsets, playing in the ocean, and sipping tea because we have done those things or at least something similar. We can even imagine unicorns and flying spaghetti monsters because, though we do not believe them to be real, we can nonetheless form mental images. Imagination comes from our five senses.
To conceive is to think abstractly. It is a higher form of thought. We can reason what justice is, but we cannot draw a picture of it. Suffering has no shape or color, except metaphorically. Perfect circles, quantum wave functions, and the laws of thermodynamics proceed from our intellectual power, based on observation of the real world but advancing beyond it, generated within the mind. To be conceivable means to be logically noncontradictory, to be possible. Truth, we say, strikes a chord in the heart.
While I will refrain from a Princess Bride reference, I will invoke St. Thomas Aquinas. Conceptions do not just stay in the mind. Aquinas says that conceptions are communicated by the spoken word—“the word of the heart signified by the word of the voice” (ST I.27.1). Our words have power when they speak the truth written on our hearts. The word conception has significance in Catholic theology; it ties together the two meanings: to generate and to think. Of the Holy Trinity, we say that God generated a thought so perfectly that He conceived his only begotten Son, gave all of himself to the Son without becoming the Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity who became incarnate—the Word. When we say that humans are made in the image and likeness of God, we mean (in part) that we are intellectual, communicating creatures.
Conception is a word that unites faith and science. Biology informs us that a human embryo is a human organism. Divine revelation commands that all humans deserve dignity. So, even though an embryo does not have arms, legs, and chubby cheeks, even though we can never cradle an embryo in our arms, kiss a dimpled hand, or sniff a peach-fuzz head, these miniature humans are children all the same. To really believe it, though, we cannot rely on mere imagination. We need our intellects to grasp that life, in the hidden mysteries of the atomic world, begins at conception. To embrace an embryo, we must conceive what has been conceived.
Yes, this sort of thinking can be hard. In this age of the internet, where clicks, likes, and retweets count for success, emotion-filled sensationalism often rules the day. If we want to teach the public that life begins at conception, we have to lead people to complex thought. To do that, we have to be so thoroughly convinced and articulate ourselves, in our hearts and minds, that we see the loss of thousands of embryonic lives for what it is: a tragedy of great magnitude.
Back to the fertility clinics. Two class action lawsuits were filed in Cleveland and a third in San Francisco. The clients are trying to make sense of their losses. One attorney said his clients felt they lost their “family’s most valuable treasure.” Another mother, whose two-year-old son was conceived through IVF, said her “hopes and dreams” were destroyed. She and her husband stored embryos before he underwent chemotherapy and became infertile. They hoped for a genetic sibling for their son. Another mother, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and had five embryos stored in the cryogenic tank, said she is “grieving the loss” of her “own child essentially.” Something so “sensitive and precious,” she said, should have been better guarded.
A client who lost three embryos said, “It’s difficult to go on and have people reference it as tissue or cells.” So her attorney is arguing that “life begins at conception” and suing for wrongful death.
Meanwhile, the clients in San Francisco are suing for the “loss of human reproductive tissue.”
It will be interesting and important to see how these lawsuits develop. On one hand, the majority of people seem incapable of feeling anything for a ball of cells. On the other, these children were wanted, and society has declared wantedness as the indicator of personhood and value.
Which leads me to something very hard to say.
Wanted as they were, those embryos never should have been in a cryogenic storage tank. I know IVF is how our society deals with infertility, and I realize parents have an intense longing to bear their own flesh and blood. But if embryos are more than commodities, then they should not be frozen like mere meat until someone wants them. No one is owed a child, but a child deserves his parents. Plenty of children already do not have the love of a mother and father. Infertility, as great of a trial as it is, can be an opportunity to love without bounds.
Everything in life, no matter how difficult or painful, can be an opportunity to grow, including these embryos for the pro-life community. It is not too late to mourn their death, pray for them, and offer our love. There, in the word of the heart, can be found the truth about the thousands of children who died unknown in the cold. They are as real as you and me.