Thoughts on Chilly Embryos

(August 10, 2009)

If you can consider, against the logic our best science offers, the possibility that humans have souls - some ineffable artifact specific to each individual, independent of his or her neurotransmitters, hormones, and the miles of intestines hidden like buried cables - when do you think that feature arrives or develops? Superstitious people used to say that the soul enters the body at the moment of quickening, when the mother first feels her baby move inside her; at that point, the abstraction of pregnancy becomes an undeniable reality, and a foetus becomes a child. But now that we can see inside women as easily as we can plant cameras to keep an eye on those subterranean cables, we know that babies start moving much earlier in pregnancy, long before their mothers can feel much other than crankiness and morning sickness.

It goes beyond that, too: there's no physical basis for the soul, but if you're going to ignore the lack of evidence and consider the option, why wouldn't you suspect that a human body contains its soul for as long as it is alive? In that case, your offspring might receive it the moment the fertilized cell splits into two. Whatever makes it a unique being starts there, whether there is anything mystical to that uniqueness or not; it is already itself, before anyone else notices or cares. In fact, the idea of a soul is probably secondary to this whole thought; I'm interested in the uniqueness, the distinctive personhood of that clump of cells.

(I don't know where you think I'm taking this argument, but it's not going anywhere near the abortion debate. I'm pro-choice to the bone, and the last thing I want is to encourage people to restrict or chastise women who feel the need to make the impossibly difficult decision for termination. And if, back on the topic of souls, you can also accept that whatever makes that foetus a person will persist beyond his or her physical life, is it so inexcusable to snuff out that life and release the eternal part to its next phase? Either the foetus is just a microscopic clump, which case it won't be aware of the choice, or it has some spiritual component which will not be harmed by termination.)

And after three winding paragraphs, here's where my thought experiment is actually heading: IVF. Specifically, the fact that infertile couples have multiple embryos prepared for implantation, but only implant as many as are required to create a successful pregnancy. If they then conclude they do not wish to have more children - not at that time, and maybe not ever - they must decide what to do with the remaining embryos.

Some people terminate them, but many are unwilling to do so, either out of a sense of indecisive protectiveness (these are their potential children, and it's not as if the mother has an unexpectedly swelling belly that requires immediate action) or because they want to hedge their bets. If those little groups of cells are your last chance at getting pregnant again, you may not want to dispose of them out of hand. George Bush has asked such parents to offer them to other couples so that they don't go to waste, but that option is extremely unpopular. Most people who get IVF - educated, successful, determined - don't want others to raise their children for them, even if they didn't want to do it themselves. It's the same reason adoption isn't as popular as abortion in that demographic, or possibly all demographics for which abortion is readily available.

So they freeze them instead, leaving them in cryogenic storage for an indefinite period of time. The embryos aren't babies in any real sense of the word; they're barely multi-cellular, and have nothing that approaches consciousness or physical independence. But if, somehow, they have something beyond this one life inside them, that something is suspended in limbo. Even if they don't, they are some humans' potentially viable offspring, unique and alive. They are in a freezer awaiting use, mechanical failure, or theft.

I'm not sure how I feel about that, but it's triggering my imagination in a number of ways. The mystic side of me (which is shambling and tired, but which still has a bit of life in it) says that we're trapping spirits, which should get to either live their lives or return to the place whence they came. The practical side of me is horrified by the idea that people's potential progeny are in such a vulnerable position because they're being treated as afterthoughts; how would you feel if your embryos were stolen and implanted into someone else, someone whose ethics or lifestyle you may or may not respect? What happens when a freezer's motor burns out, as one inevitably will? Is that manslaughter, neglect, or just poor management of someone else's property?

Is it ethical, or even realistic, to attempt to cryogenically preserve our offspring for indefinite periods of time, until we're older or dead or replaced by robots? What does that do to the children those embryos might still get to become, culturally and spiritually? Given that most of us accept that women have the right to abort unwanted children, does that give us the right to put unwanted embryos into stasis for as long as suits us, or forever if we forget about them? If they have souls, what happens to them?