The Paradox of the IVF Clinic and the Abortion Clinic: Are Some Embryos More Persons Than Others?

A Daily Mail article today notes accurately that the 2012 GOP platform on abortion would effectively outlaw many infertility treatments.


This is a riddle that’s long intrigued me, and one in which we perhaps “catch the conscience” of the anti-abortion movement:  If extreme anti-abortion forces define life as beginning at fertilization, then why don’t they oppose IVF treatments, which routinely destroy many excess embryos? Why don’t we see them picketing outside of fertility clinics instead of abortion clinics?

IVF treatments are performed in close to 400 centers nationwide. Over 60,000 babies are born each year through fertility treatments—including, as Daily Mail notes, some of Mitt Romney’s own grandchildren.

Many of these treatments involve the disposal of unused embryos, cultivated  from fertilization through to weeks-old in development, that weren’t selected for implantation.

One IVF treatment might yield as many as 20 “surplus” embryos.

An ART Embryo Lab survey conducted by the CDC in 1999 found that labs employed a variety of techniques to handle surplus embryos. Fifty-even percent (57%) of labs report that they “immediately discard” them, through incineration as medical waste, for example; 58% say their surplus embryos are “Cultured to Demise,” which means that they’re allowed to expire; 26% will “donate—for training” some embryos; 24% will donate embryos to research, with the patients’ consent; 19% will donate them to another patient, with the patients’ consent; and 12% will donate embryos for diagnostic purposes. These percentages exceed 100 because labs employed multiple disposal methods.

The Catholic Church does indeed have a theologically and doctrinally consistent stance. They do not support artificial conception, nor do they support the death penalty, nor do they support abortion exceptions, nor do they condone end-of-life euthanasia.

However misogynistic the Church may be, and deficient in handling its own sexual abuse problem, their stance about the status of a “soul” and of what constitutes a unique human life that musn’t be destroyed is consistent across the board.

But I rarely hear (if ever) other social conservatives protest IVF treatment.

Why would this be so? The same embryos get destroyed, at roughly the same point in their development. 

Pro-actively, some anti-abortion groups have begun programs to adopt frozen embryos. They also give embryos the designation of “snowflake” children.

But they don’t picket outside of fertility clinics. I’ve yet to see that happen. They don’t accuse would-be mothers of murder.

They don’t shame or criminalize proud moms of babies conceived through an embryo-destroying process each year.

It’s an ideological “tell” in abortion politics, I think:  Because for some, but not all, abortion foes, abortion isn’t only about an embryo. It’s about women’s rights, women’s power, and women’s agency, after the social revolutions of the last half-century.

Maybe because the woman who seeks IVF is tacitly following a pro-family, pro-natalist, pro-motherhood position, the fact that she is the “destroyer of embryos,” doesn’t grate on the conscience so badly, or matter so much.

But because the woman who seeks an abortion is destroying an identical embryo in the cause of avoiding motherhood, defining herself as something other than a mother, shirking this destiny, and, furthermore, had sex when she had no intention of becoming a mother, she’s a murderer.

And it’s worth noting here that abortion politics aren’t just men versus women. I’ve said before that the war on women is an intra-mural affair, as well. Not all American women seek, or have, the same sources of values, social identity or moral authority in the post-liberation age. Plenty of women have anger about other women’s lives and choices, and these women can be just as opposed to abortion as their male counterparts.

In any case, this riddle—the different fortunes of the abortion clinic and the IVF clinic—might lead you believe that abortion politics aren’t entirely about embryos. One embryo-destroyer is a sanctified mother; the other, a murderer.

It doesn’t make sense, if the personhood status of the embryo is the prime directive. It leads me to suspect that abortion politics are about the personhood and control of women as much as embryos. 

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