An embryologist, an embryo and National Adoption Month


Dr. Maureen Condic, a University of Utah bioethicist, was recently appointed to the National Science Board. Appointments are made based on leadership in research, education and distinguished service. She is the first board member from the University of Utah in 50 years and only the second ever.

In a Nov. 8 press release, the associate professor of neurobiology and anatomy and adjunct professor of pediatrics said, “Being appointed to the National Science Board is a tremendous honor for me and for the University of Utah. I am excited to be of service to our country and to the scientific community by bringing a focus on bioethics and biomedical research to this eminent body of scholars.”

By sheer coincidence, this columnist was privileged to hear Dr. Condic just last week. She was in Casper to deliver two lectures on human embryology. In the first, she detailed the development of the human embryo for the first week of life. Over the course of this lecture, she explained why all the scientific literature on the subject has concluded that the life of a human being begins at the moment of egg-sperm fusion.

That’s not an exaggeration. Thousands of independent, peer-reviewed publications support this uncontested conclusion. Not a single published study concludes anything other than that human life begins the very second the sperm meets the egg.

Condic’s second presentation built on these basic facts of embryology to examine several of the cutting-edge embryo technologies of our day. She took her audience through In Vitro Fertilization (IVF), “three-parent embryos,” CRISPR gene editing and the like. Her aim was to distinguish between ethical experimentation for healing and repairing human pathologies and unethical experimentation involving injury to and the destruction of human beings. Only days after her Casper lectures, a baby was brought home to southwest Wyoming who spotlighted the practical implications of what Condic said. Out of respect for her privacy, I will call her Mary.

Mary came into being in July 2014. Her biological parents donated sperm and egg to an IVF clinic. These were brought together in a laboratory where Mary was conceived along with numerous congenital brothers and sisters. Sadly, more children were conceived than were transferred into the womb of a waiting mother. So Mary was frozen at -320 degrees Fahrenheit--along with about a dozen of her siblings.

In a story that repeats itself all too often in IVF clinics around the country, the parents, for whatever reason, never gave Mary the opportunity for birth that they granted to some of her siblings. For more than three years she was in suspended animation, cryogenically frozen in liquid nitrogen.

In the United States alone, there are over 700,000 people indefinitely frozen as the “leftover” results of IVF procedures. Many of these children did not survive the freezing process, but we cannot know which ones until they are thawed. Those who did survive the freezing may die in the cold before ever feeling the warmth of a mother’s womb.

People are in general agreement that adults should never be frozen against their will. It is strange that this basic courtesy is not offered to the youngest and smallest. Countries as diverse as Bulgaria, Spain and Finland regulate the limits of IVF in various ways—including the number of embryos that can be transferred at one time. Similar limits that stem the out-of-control production of frozen embryos are not a perfect solution, but they could mitigate one of the most glaring ethical problems of IVF. There are others as well.

America’s IVF industry has virtually no regulation. The $4 billion industry lobbies incessantly against even the most common-sense laws. Meanwhile, the average citizen has no idea that the IVF industry has become such a powerful, unregulated and unethical creator of embryonic people with a bleak future. This is a scandal of epidemic proportions.

Besides passing laws to prevent or slow the freezing of still more embryos, many are wondering what to do with hundreds of thousands of abandoned children. Unethical scientists are eager to destroy them in various kinds of human experimentation. But others are looking to give them mercy.

One such organization is the Nightlight adoption agency. In 1997, it pioneered the very first adoption of a cryopreserved embryonic child. Considering the uniqueness of each frozen embryo, the agency dubbed its service “Snowflake adoption.” The adoptive parents of this first-ever “Snowflake baby” called her “Hannah,” which means “gift of God.” She turns 21 this year, and there have been more than 600 Snowflake babies since.

Embryo adoption begins with parents of frozen IVF embryos who are experiencing regrets and want to do something for their children. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that there are as many as 60,000 such embryos. These are painstakingly matched with parents who are willing to adopt the embryos and care for them in the best way they can.

Embryo adoption is not simply an alternate and cheaper route to IVF. Embryo adoption begins with a courageous and unqualified love for those adopted. Adoptive parents are not focused on “achieving a pregnancy.” They are focused on the frozen children themselves and doing whatever is in their best interest.

There are plenty of risks and heartaches along the way. The transfer process is an emotional roller-coaster, fraught with uncertainties. Adoptive parents may grieve to find that some of the children did not survive the freezing process. Others, unwilling to refreeze multiple living embryos, may risk multiple births in order to give their adopted children the best chance.

Those children brought to birth will typically encounter genetic abnormalities later in life. That’s the reality of any IVF process. Adoptive parents have been facing unknown risks alongside their children since adoption began. Embryo adoption is no exception.

Another injustice of the IVF industry is that embryos are not covered by current adoption laws. Rather, frozen embryos are treated as property by the state. They can be bought and sold, created and destroyed without any regard to their humanity at all.

Adoption agencies that value human life refuse to limit themselves to property law. They insist that applicants for embryo adoption be subjected to the same rigorous standards that any other husband and wife would go through before adopting a child. This process gives assurance to the parents of the embryo that their child will be well cared for. It also treats the child with the human dignity he or she deserves.

Not all Christian ethicists agree with embryo adoption. They wonder whether the practice will encourage unethical IVF profiteers to create even more frozen embryos. They worry that adoptive couples will focus more on the achievement of pregnancy than on the well-being of the child. Some have even compared embryo adoption to surrogacy, which creates a nine-month bond between mother and child only to break the bond in fulfillment of a monetary contract.

Embryo adoption is the very opposite of surrogacy. It is a gift to the child, not child abuse. Moreover, those who act unethically can be answered by sound, child-centered laws and clear pastoral counseling. Most of all, the concrete and compassionate care of the actual people who are literally frozen in time should not be denied because of the potential wrong doing of some.

November is National Adoption Month and the Saturday after Thanksgiving was National Adoption Day.

Statistically, the number of children rescued from the frozen state is negligible. Even after more than 600 live births, that still represents less than one tenth of a percent of America’s frozen embryos. But in the face of overwhelming numbers, the story cannot be told with statistics. True proportion is found in individual lives. For the people whose lives have been rescued, this is undisputable.  Watch Hannah’s uplifting video to see for yourself.

I had the privilege to ask Mary, too. Holding the six-pound, eleven-ounce newborn in my arms, I looked into her laughing eyes. Her big smile and soft coos lit up the room. Not only was her own joy at life obvious to all, she also brought joy to parents, grandparents, aunts and her nephew. She is a real person who has been freed from years in a frozen prison. Her life was God’s gift to the world over four years ago. Now that gift is unleashed to bless us all.

Jonathan Lange is an LCMS pastor in Evanston and Kemmerer and serves the Wyoming Pastors Network. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow his blog at OnlyHuman-JL.blogspot.com.

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