Early one morning at the National Embryo Donation Center in Knoxville, the embryologist has already begun a day of transfers. She carefully withdraws tiny plastic straws from liquid nitrogen tanks and dips the tubes into a controlled-temperature bath. She checks and rechecks names and numbers.
After taking the straws to the microscope’s stage, she snips off the ends. Slowly, slowly she pushes a plunger through the straw. One by one the embryos move into the Petri dish that contains the proper media for safe thawing and expansion. The tiny persons, having been suspended in cryogenic limbo for months—even years—swell with the ingress of fluid. Two, six, at times as many as one hundred cells. Breathtaking.
The embryologist moves the embryos from one solution to the next, bringing them back to normal fluid balance. The healthy ones become apparent quickly. Others remain unchanged, crystallized, having failed to survive the freeze-thaw process. She hears only the hum of the heating equipment, recognizing the tragic death of a fellow human being.
For the surviving embryos, appointments have already been made. Background checks completed. Donating and adoptive parents paired. Medical checks completed for the adoptive mother. Hormonal preparation has been completed for the transfer on this special day.
The fertility specialist rechecks the identification and status of embryos before a final consultation with the recipient mom. He explains the current status of the embryos and obtains proper consent. The operating room is prepared.
The specialist examines the recipient mom to determine the precise location for placing the embryos. Having completed this, he uses instruments and ultrasound to pass the special catheter through the window to the adjoining lab.
The embryologist, standing on the other side of the window, moves the embryos to the final solution, draws them up into the transfer catheter, and passes it back to the fertility specialist. Using ultrasound guidance, he transfers the embryos to the proper location.
Once finished, he withdraws the catheter, and passes it back to be reexamined. Finally, the embryologist checks to ensure that the embryos have made the move from tube to uterus.
From this moment each embryo must accomplish what God designed the embryo to do—to implant by finding a suitable site in the uterine wall and growing into it. The hormonal environment has been optimized, but the miracle remains in the hands of God.
What has just occurred with this transfer of a once- frozen embryo? Is this a tissue transplant or an adop- tion? Can a microscopic person truly be adopted?
Rapid advances in assisted reproductive technologies have resulted in an unanticipated theological and ethical dilemma. From the first successful IVF-ET procedure in 1978 until now, the efficiency and availability of such high-tech procedures has resulted in an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 cyropreserved (frozen) embryos. Cryopreserved embryos, though containing a mere few cells are clearly living beings—as evidenced by their further development and delivery of numerous viable offspring to date.
What options are available for these tiny human beings?
- Designation for research or experimentation? This results in the death of the embryo.
- Supposed “compassionate transfer” wherein frozen embryos are returned to the womb at a time when implantation is virtually impossible? This too results in the death of the embryo.
- Terminal thaw, allowing the frozen embryos to return gradually to room temperature in the Petri dish? Again, the result is the death of the embryo.
- Long-term or permanent cryopreservation? A paralysis of indecision for parents.
- Donation and adoption by screened parents willing to accept transfer of the embryos with the goal of development and delivery into a family? This option alone provides these tiny children with a life, a home, and a family.
I am convinced by the theological and biological evidence that a new human life and person begins when the chromosomes of the sperm align with the chromo- somes of the egg, and activate—a process called syngamy. Thus, the one-celled embryo, the zygote, is indeed and in truth a person.
The principle of the sanctity of human life declares that each and every human being is of inestimable value by “being” not by “doing” or achieving certain maturation levels. Every human being is a person, worthy of honor and respect and an eternally significant part of God’s plan to glorify Himself through creation, whether that life exists for one day or exceeds one hundred earthly years.
If one sees procreation as a gift from God for his ultimate glory, the value of the preimplantation embryo is seen as immeasurable. Each cryopreserved embryo represents a tiny human, made in the image of God, worthy of dignity, respect and protection. Once one ascribes full human personhood to the embryo, even in its cryopreserved state, such options as destruction, terminal thaw, and experimentation become an affront to human life because they constitute the willful death of a fellow human being.
If we look at the embryos themselves, the solution becomes clearer. Suppose that it were possible to retrieve viable embryos from the fallopian tubes in an ectopic—or tubal—pregnancy, a medical emergency in which the mother’s life is at risk and the embryo could be frozen until the mother heals, such that transfer could take place then. Most would applaud such a solution to a situation that at present always ends an embryo’s death. A human life, having innate value, has been rescued.
Such is the opportunity with the existing population of frozen embryos. While I have serious reservations about freezing human embryos in the first place, these embryos already exist. Christian ethicists and theologians must remain consistent in their view of the sanctity of human life. Embryos, having endured frozen limbo for years, even decades, have no voice and no chance if we fail to speak on their behalf.
Watching that morning as the embryologist removed each embryo-containing straw from liquid nitrogen and observing those that survived the thaw was a profoundly moving experience. So few of these tiny children get the chance to develop and grow. Some couples with biological children are open to embryo adoption. Others with untreatable fertility issues who want to have children are likewise open to this process.
Each represents sacrificial love “for the least of these.” The broader pro-life community must prayerfully consider that beyond opposing abortion, beyond opposing embryonic stem cell research, beyond speaking on behalf of pre-born babies, and beyond raising awareness for national and international adoption, we must add one more group to those deserving our advocacy. We must include the adoption, the survival, of our tiny frozen neighbors, to the very last straw.
About the Author: William R. Cutrer (M.D., University of Kentucky) serves as C. Edwin Gheens Professor of Christian Ministry and as the Director of the Gheens Center for Family Ministry at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. After a successful medical career, he served as a senior pastor in Mesquite, Texas. He has been a guest lecturer at numerous colleges, churches, and other institutions. Dr. Cutrer is the author or co-author of several publications, including Sexual Intimacy in Marriage, and his most recent release The Church Leader’s Handbook: A Guide to Counseling Families and Individuals in Crisis.
[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in The Journal of Discipleship and Family Ministry 3.1 (2012). Click here for a PDF copy of this article. Dr. William Cutrer passed away subsequent to the publication of this issue. You can read a brief tribute to Dr. Cutrer here.]