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The Death of Embryos and “The Conception Problem”

To embrace an embryo, we must conceive what has been conceived.

(Image: kishivan | us.fotolia.com)

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.

About Stacy A. Trasancos 3 Articles
Stacy A. Trasancos holds a PhD in chemistry and a MA in dogmatic theology. She teaches chemistry and physics at Kolbe Academy and science and theology courses at Holy Apostles and Seton Hall University and is the author of Science Was Born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki and Particles of Faith: A Catholic Guide to Navigating Science.

7 Comments

  1. Charles Krauthammer has similar reservation regarding embryos perhaps more foreboding if we discard definition, what things are. “Embryos never should have been in cryogenic storage, embryos are more than commodities” (Trasancos). Krauthammer argues in Things that Matter if we discard what the “Thing” is strictly for utilitarian and scientific purpose then we’ve crossed the proverbial Rubicon to darker paths. “Conception is a word that unites faith and science”. It defines human life at the moment of conception. This is Stacy Trasancos’ essential contribution in combining her scientific knowledge with her theological expertise.

  2. Part of the problem is that people have bought in to the idea that Anthony Kennedy expressed so well: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” The lie is that there is no truth beyond this individualized “definition”.

    The idea is appealing, because it works for some things. If I don’t like the story of the 1970’s version of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, I can always decide that the 2000’s version is “the real one”. If I don’t like the story of Red Riding Hood recorded by the Brothers Grimm, I an always decide that the version in HOODWINKED is “canon”. I can do this because these are works of fiction; they exist only in our imaginations.

    We can even choose the names we give things in real life. If I want to define a planet in such a way that Pluto is still a planet, that’s fine, although I should make it clear that I am not using the same definition as the International Astronomical Union.

    The problem comes if I start changing the mass, radius, composition, or orbit of Pluto. Maybe to me, a planet is any body large enough to be bent into a roughly spherical shape by gravity, too small to have ever sustained fusion, and interesting enough to be worth the expense of robotic exploration — I’m free to make that definition; on the other hand, if I say Pluto has the same mass as Jupiter, or that it orbits only 100 miles above the surface of the earth, I’m just plain wrong.

    It is a feature of reality that it is often messy and/or inconvenient; it may also be more wonderful than we can appreciate at first. Reality is what we CANNOT change by just wishing it were otherwise.

    • One of the best former justices in the Appellate System Robert Beezer summed up Anthony Kennedy’s concept of Liberty as “So broad and melodramatic as to seem almost comical in its rhetorical flourish”. Without parameters it doesn’t define anything except to promote license. Former editor of Liberty Clifford Goldstein nonetheless believes “What Kennedy says does, in fact, encapsulate basic Jeffersonian conservatism”. I’m not a Jefferson scholar although Jefferson who authored the Declaration of Independence was criticized by justice Robert Bork for the notion of “pursuit of happiness”. I disagree with Bork on that though I fully agree with his prophetic book Slouching Towards Gomorrah.

      • The real conflict today is between those who say that everything is subject to being redefined and those who say that no, some things are beyond the ability of humans to change. If nothing is secure from change, you can be quite sure that it will be the strong imposing their definitions on the weak. I suspect that is why so many in power support sins to which they are not even tempted.

  3. “Admittedly, it is hard to make yourself mourn the loss of someone’s embryo.”

    Having experienced multiple miscarriages (and fully believing that life begins at conception, I might add, so I have high hopes of enjoying eternity with the children I lost; I can’t bring myself to believe they will be in limbo), I can say that for me, the grief I experienced following the loss of babies I had already seen on ultrasound, with little arms and legs waving, was completely different than the grief I felt upon miscarrying just a few days after my period was due.

    I don’t think you will be able to overcome the human tendency to feel more sorrow over the loss of a baby that looks/feels human already than over the loss of a human zygote, no matter how much one believes they are both human life.

    The visceral horror the vast majority of people feel over the idea of dismembering an 8-month old fetus is just not going to exist at the thought of embryos dying because of a freezer malfunction. We naturally feel more of a connection to other humans in part because they look and feel “human” to us. No amount of imagination will overcome that inborn tendency.

    I fully believe IVF is grievously wrong, but sometimes I can’t help but ponder God’s love in bringing great goodness even out of such sin. All those human individuals never would have existed without IVF, and now we have good reason to believe they will enjoy an eternity of joy with God, never having had to experience any suffering whatsoever here on earth. Those IVF parents, should they make it to Heaven, will enjoy eternity together with far more children than they ever knew here on earth. In many cases, probably more children than most of the rest of us have! It’s a strange thing.

  4. The burden of attempted childbearing is most difficult for the family. But, as usual, the real heavy lifting is on the mother. She is the target of IVF. Since it’s her body, she decides how to proceed. Her most challenging moment is when she miscarries an IVF implanted embryo.

    If the husband is infertile hopes fade for children. If the couple have tried everything short of IVF, are they destined to remain childless? If IVF is intrinsically EVIL, what optiond do they have?

  5. Catholics need to see the newly conceived child in the light of the Holy Spirit shed upon it through the teaching of the Church and revealed in the Scriptures:

    Where were you when Christ suffered an agonizing and humiliating death for your sake?

    Where were you when Christ, being fully human as He was (except for sin), asked the Father if there was any way that horrible cup could pass from Him and the Father’s will still be accomplished?

    Where were you when He, in His divinity, considered what eternity would be like without you, and found that thought more horrible than anything that the Roman soldiers were going to do to Him?

    Where were you when He then declared to His Father “Not my will but thine be done”?

    He resolved to do whatever it took to have you with Him forever. His divine determination must have been revealed in His voice when He announced to those who came to arrest Jesus of Nazareth “I am He!” His love for you that was revealed in His voice so frightened those who heard it that they fell to the ground. It must have in some way been like the growl of a mother bear to someone who thinks they are going to take her cub from her. There was no way Christ was going to spend eternity without you. He had resolved to do whatever it took to have you with Him forever.

    Where were you? You weren’t even a fertilized egg yet.

    A couple of thousand years went by and something wonderful happened. You arrived in this world in your mother’s womb. Did Christ then decide He didn’t really care what happened to you for the next nine months, but after that He would resume loving you? Is there a nine month gap in God’s eternal love for you? No. There isn’t. When you were just an embryo you were a precious child of God who He had already loved heroically and passionately unto a brutal death on a cross.

    God sees not just an embryo being destroyed; He sees the entire life He had willed being destroyed. The infant. The cute toddler. The playful six-year-old. The teenager. And so on. Every abortion, from conception onward, kills someone precious to God.

    We need to look at the embryo in the light provided by the Catholic faith and by the Scriptures.

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