When Does Life Begin?
Somewhere between March 4th and March 5th, about 2000 frozen embryos and human eggs that were stored at a Cleveland-area fertility clinic were exposed to higher than acceptable temperatures and are likely no longer viable.
Obviously, the 900 families involved are devastated. Many of them had frozen eggs or embryos for the future because they had cancer or other fertility damaging illnesses. University Hospitals has apologized to the families over the storage failures, but will likely be the target of legal action by some of the families.
Yet what is interesting to me is the lack of response by the pro-life/evangelical community. Pro-lifers have been very vocal about the fact that “life begins at conception”, wanting to ban any procedure that would disrupt a fertilized egg from continuing it’s life, even before implantation. Here, though, we have the loss of hundreds of frozen embryos but have heard crickets from evangelicals. I checked Operation Rescue, LifeSiteNews, and Focus on the Family, but their websites have nothing about this event.
What’s going on? It could just be that there’s some “compassion fatigue” going on. It’s hard to get outraged about every little thing that goes on in the world of abortion, so it’s better to save your energy for late-term abortion, where you are more likely to make some legal changes and to change people’s minds.
I don’t think that’s what’s really going on. I think that most people recognized two things. One, in-vitro fertilization is here to stay. There are people who are going to have need of it for medical reasons (e.g. getting cancer during their reproductive years and wanting to freeze their gametes) as well as those who want to save their eggs, sperm and even embryos for implantation at a more suitable time for having children. It’s considered a social good by many people.
The second is that most people in society recognize that there is a moral difference between an embryo and a 28 week fetus. The loss of an embryo is a sad thing, but it is not the same as the loss of a healthy 28 week fetus. A 28 week fetus can live outside the womb in a NICU. It has all of its systems fully formed (except it’s lungs). Most importantly, it has a functional nervous system, suggesting that it is well on its way to becoming a sentient human being. Does this mean that the embryo has no value? No. But, somewhere between fertilization of the egg and birth, the embryo becomes a child. We may not know where that is, but we understand that it’s somewhere.
Does this mean that I’ve become pro-choice? No. I’m still firmly pro-life. But, I understand why we haven’t had a great outcry about the loss of these embryos. Their loss is tragic for the families involved, but it isn’t like the loss of several hundred fully developed babies.
Our pro-life movement needs some grounding in ethics. We need to see that there are shades of gray. We must be willing to accept something besides “life begins at conception”. Clearly, some kind of life begins at conception, but human life that is the moral equivalent of a living, breathing person outside the womb and who is worth significant sacrifice by the mother and others in society begins sometime after conception but before the third trimester. But when? I don’t know that answer. I don’t think anyone does. The pro-life community needs to have some real conversations about this topic.