Leave No Embryo Behind
The coming war over in vitro fertilization.
Last week at the White House, President Bush showcased embryo adoption as an alternative to embryonic stem-cell research. The event alarmed the in vitro fertilization industry. Proponents of embryo adoption "have an explicit political agenda to actually take away choices from infertility patients," an industry spokesman told the New York Times.
Actually, an explicit agenda is what pro-lifers don't yet have. Already overwhelmed by patient advocates in the fight over stem cells, they have no death wish to confront the millions of Americans whose families have tried IVF. Promoting embryo adoption—finding somebody to rescue surplus embryos so IVF couples can go on making them and leaving them behind—is an attempt to avoid that confrontation. But last week's House debate over stem cells signaled that the confrontation is coming. Pro-lifers don't think anyone, including a parent, has the right to doom an embryo to death. They're on a collision course with IVF.
To understand how adoption fits into the embryo debate, you have to understand how adoption fits into the abortion debate. Adoption is what pro-lifers talk about when they don't want to talk about banning abortion. It's a way to say yes and talk about something nice so you don't have to say no and talk about something ugly. Bush has been throwing money at embryo adoption for years, because it's easier to fund what you like than to ban what you don't—in this case, the production of extra IVF embryos. "You shouldn't create through IVF more embryos than are going to be implanted," a spokesman for the Family Research Council told the Times. "But when it's clear that a couple are unable to or unwilling to implant an embryo—that basically they've abandoned the child—then we see embryo adoption as a solution to the problem."
Embryo adoption is a great idea. But it's already running into the obstacle that bedevils old- fashioned adoption: Most people would rather abort their unborn offspring than let somebody else raise it. Only 2 percent of leftover embryos have been put up for adoption. That's less than the percentage donated to research *. So if you're determined to rescue these embryos and stop the production of more, eventually you have to do what pro-lifers have done in the case of abortion: confront the parents.
Four years ago, when Bush first discussed stem-cell research, he remarked sympathetically that IVF "helps so many couples conceive children" and that some leftover embryos were "donated to science." He referred three times not to the embryo's "life" but to its "potential" for life. "Many people are finding that the more they know about stem cell research, the less certain they are about the right ethical and moral conclusions," he said.
Since then, Bush's language has hardened. Last week, he called IVF embryos "real human lives" just like "the lives of those with diseases that might find cures" through stem-cell research. Embryos were no longer being "donated to science" (pro-lifers hate the term "donate" since it implies generosity and property rights); according to the president, their parents had chosen to "turn them over for research that destroys them." Bush implicitly contrasted these parents with those who chose the "life-affirming alternative" of embryo adoption. On the House floor, Majority Leader Tom DeLay called embryonic stem-cell research "the dismemberment of living, distinct human beings." Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., called it "the slaughter of human life."
It's hard to see how people who think this way can go on tolerating the surplus creation, freezing, and disposal of millions of IVF embryos. If you think they'll leave it to you because you're the parent, you don't understand pro-lifers. They believe what DeLay and other House Republicans said last week: Embryos belong to "the human family." It takes more than you and your spouse to decide your embryo's fate. It takes a village.
That's why Bush says "there is no such thing as a spare embryo." He buys the pro-life argument that the terms "spare" and "surplus" are misleading. If you and your spouse make two dozen embryos and implant only a few, the rest are spares to you. But they aren't spares to another couple who wants them. From a pro-life standpoint, you've "abandoned the child," as the guy from the Family Research Council said. Or, as Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, the GOP's pro-life point man in Congress, put it on the House floor:
Parents of human embryos are custodians of those young ones. They are not owners of human property, and the public policy we craft should ensure that the best interests of newly created human life is protected … The cryogenically frozen male and female embryos that the genetic parents may feel are no longer needed for implanting in the genetic mother are of infinite value to an adoptive mother who may be sterile or otherwise unable to have a baby.
Do you understand now? You're just the embryo's custodian. Congress may decide it's better off with a different mother. "How do we evaluate which embryos should be allowed to be sent to research and how many to be adopted by infertile couples so those embryos can be developed into full human beings?" Rep. Marcy Kaptur, a pro-life Ohio Democrat, asked her colleagues. "Who will decide? Is it just a matter for the individual couple, or is there a larger, societal responsibility to protect life?"
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Photograph of embryo on the Slate home page by Tim Boyle/Getty Images