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The Unchosen Frozen


The moral problems raised by human embryonic stem-cell research (or embryo destruction) and the disposition of "excess" frozen embryos are so closely related to in vitro fertilization that Americans need to rethink the assumptions supporting the procedure.

The television crews were ready. The tourists and autograph hounds were pulsing with excitement. The buzz was on: Superman was coming to Capitol Hill. Christopher Reeve, who had portrayed the Man of Steel in several movies but now was confined to a wheelchair as a result of a horse-riding accident, was in Washington to support the use of human embryonic stem cells in research, research that might cure injuries like his own.

A few weeks later, another beloved actor of his generation, Michael J. Fox who starred in the Back to the Future movies announced he was leaving his hit television show, Spin City, due to problems related to Parkinson's disease. Like Reeve, Fox supported research using human embryonic stem cells.

Other interested groups joined in. "What the patient groups have been saying all along is, 'Get on with this,'" declared Daniel Perry, chairman of the Patients' Coalition for Urgent Research, which had been formed to support funding of embryonic stem-cell research. "We want this for our loved ones."1 One television news program after another featured family members pleading that such research proceed.

Frankly, how could anyone argue with these dramatic and emotional appeals? Certainly the benefits of embryonic stem-cell research would, if realized, be enormous: a cure for Parkinson's disease for sufferers like Fox, regeneration of nerve cells for paraplegics like Reeve, a way of creating new organs for those needing transplants, and perhaps a cure for juvenile diabetes. (It must be noted that the claims for human embryonic stem-cell research have yet to be validated in laboratory tests and that "adult" stem cells can be taken from other sources umbilical cord blood, placentas, and a person's own tissues and organs without destroying human beings at any stage of development.)

Both Fox and Reeve explained their endorsement of human embryonic stem-cell research in the same terms. Since the frozen embryos left over from in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures an estimated 400,000 are only "a mass of cells slated for disposal," using them as research material promises to make them "useful." Reeve asked: "Is it more ethical for a woman to donate unused embryos that will never become human beings, or to let them be tossed away as so much garbage when they could help save thousands of lives?"2

A Reasonable Question

A reasonable question, and to many Americans a persuasive one. However, to "isolate" these stem cells for research, the embryo itself must be destroyed. If the human embryo is a human being, his destruction is no less than the taking of an innocent human life.

Since, as I will show below, embryos at all stages of development are human beings, embryonic stem-cell research can only proceed with the killing of the human being from whom the cells are harvested. One human being is being killed to be used as a source of cells or tissue for another, a practice that contradicts the ethical norms of Western culture.

At least since the time of Hippocrates, an ethic that respects human life has guided the disciplines of medicine and science. The Nuremberg Code, which condemned the atrocities of the Nazis and affirmed the ethical principles of the civilized world, declared: "No experiment should be conducted where there is an a priori reason to believe that death or disabling injury will occur." Indeed, it even requires that "proper preparations should be made and adequate facilities provided to protect the experimental subject against even remote possibilities of injury, disability, or death."3

Such experiments cannot be justified simply because they promise great benefits. As the Ramsey Colloquium stated, "A principle that says something should not be done unless there are strong motives for doing it is no principle at all."4 The case of embryonic stem-cell research is ethically indistinguishable from one in which researchers kidnapped some human beings off the streets in order to conduct lethal experiments on them in the hope of finding a cure for the cancer suffered by other human beings.

Human embryonic stem-cell research is thus essentially a moral question, not merely, as Reeve and Fox would have it, a practical matter of exploiting available resources. How society deals with the issue is a policy question.

That the destruction of embryos takes innocent human life is a judgment based not on theory or theology, but on what biology teaches about the beginning of human life. It is far from being the mystery it is sometimes touted to be. Life begins at conception. More precisely, life begins upon the fertilization of an oocyte or "egg" by a single sperm cell.5

The question of when ensoulment takes place is a different question. While we cannot know, absent divine revelation, when an unborn child is "ensouled," we do know scientifically and biologically when that child's life begins. Protecting human life gives us the best chance of protecting ensouled human life. Further, in a democracy, where we must persuade fellow citizens who are not theists, we can best persuade them to protect the unborn child's life by pointing them to a scientific reality.

Human from the Beginning

How could the fertilized egg ever develop into a human baby, child, teenager, and adult if it were not a human being from the moment of fertilization? All the many billions of human fertilized eggs created in the history of the world have never not a single time grown into any other kind of being: never a fish, never a bird, never a cow. A fertilized egg has only one possible end: to grow into a person who is just like us.

The reverse is also true. While they will one day look like we look, we at one time looked like they look. Every one of us was once a single-cell embryo or zygote. The scientific terms zygote, morula, blastocyst, embryo describe the different early stages of development of each human being, as the more familiar terms infant, child, adolescent, adult describe the later stages of development. We all passed through these stages of development.6

The development of the embryo confirms its uniqueness as well as its humanity. Each human cell contains 46 chromosomes. Upon fertilization, the 23 chromosomes from the sperm are joined with 23 from the oocyte to produce the 46. The fertilized egg is now genetically complete and genetically distinct from its parents.

With its unique set of 46 chromosomes, the fertilized egg is more than a simple cell like the sperm or the oocyte it is a living human being. Beginning as a zygote (single cell), it develops into a morula (three days) and then into a blastocyst (five to seven days). In week two, it becomes a two-layer embryo, and in week three, a three-layer embryo. It continues to grow, through the eight-week embryo period and the subsequent fetal period, into a baby that a mother will one day hold in her arms.

The human zygote produces specifically human proteins and enzymes. It genetically directs its own development. That growth is continuous, and, though the embryo undergoes significant change, it does not undergo what philosophers call substantial change it does not change in nature from one kind of being into another. It possesses, from the first, the active capacity for full development.

I called the newly created human being a "fertilized egg," but that is not technically accurate. From fertilization, it is no longer an egg or an oocyte of any kind. It is a distinct, one-of-a-kind human being. As the French geneticist Jerome Lejeune wrote, "Science has a very simple conception of man; as soon as he has been conceived, a man is a man. He is a being, and being human, he is a human being."7

Supporters of embryonic stem-cell research justify the destruction of human embryos by drawing a distinction between the embryo in its earliest and in its later stages of development. They argue that until the embryo implants itself firmly into the wall of the mother's uterus, it is a "pre-embryo" that lacks moral stature and therefore may ethically be subject to lethal experimentation. Although demythologized by the plain scientific facts, this notion has played a decisive role in some court decisions finding that the "pre-embryo" is property, not a person.

From a biological perspective, the only difference implantation makes is whether the embryo will receive the nutrition and hospitable environment it needs to survive. If not successfully implanted, the embryo will die. Similarly, if a man lost in the desert does not find an oasis with shelter and water, he will die. In each case, the being that dies is a human being who has been a human being since fertilization. An environment inhospitable to humanity does not unmake the humanness of what it kills.

It is misleading and inaccurate, then, to argue that there is any moral difference between an embryo before and after it implants. Rather than call the embryo prior to implantation a "pre-embryo," it should accurately be called an "unimplanted" embryo. An embryo is an embryo, regardless of its location.

Excess Embryos

How did we come to the place at which so many people would endorse research that is lethal for its (embryonic) human subjects? Perhaps as Reeve's comment suggests some have been driven to press hard for embryonic stem-cell research by the unforeseen offspring of IVF, the estimated 400,000 embryonic human beings in the United States currently locked in suspended animation.

Four hundred thousand is a huge number. How did we get so many? Typically, IVF results in the creation of large numbers of embryos, for three reasons. One, initial attempts at implantation in the woman's womb usually fail, and the doctor wants to have extra embryos on hand to use in multiple attempts; two, each attempt at implantation uses several embryos to increase the chances that at least one will successfully implant; and three, the extraction of eggs from the mother (or donor) is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive, so it is best to get as many eggs as possible the first time. And sometimes the couple wants to create and freeze "additional" embryos in case they want more children in the future.

Eggs, however, cannot be frozen. Thus they must be fertilized and frozen as embryos. In this way, in the United States, 400,000 embryos have been created that were not implanted in a woman's womb but placed in cryogenic freezers in IVF facilities. Most of these embryos will never be reclaimed by the original couple. When the couple no longer wants them, they become "extras" or "excess" and are left frozen in storage.

No one knows how long embryos live in storage, but no matter how long they will survive, the question arises: what is to be done with them? May they be "adopted" or "rescued"? If not, may they be thrown away? Or must they be kept frozen (and alive) forever? The question of the ultimate disposal of frozen human embryos builds sympathy for embryonic stem-cell research, whose supporters press for a "good use" for these embryos.

The moral problems raised by human embryonic stem-cell research (or embryo destruction) and the disposition of "excess" frozen embryos are so closely related to IVF that Americans need to rethink the assumptions supporting the procedure. That will not be easy, as IVF has become more common than one might think; many fertility clinics automatically prescribe it without testing for the underlying causes of infertility.8 Other procedures to correct the problem are overlooked, though they may be less expensive, have as great a success rate, and offer the woman other health benefits as well.9

Christians who favor IVF typically do so only for married couples. Marriage is, and has usually been recognized as, a human good in and of itself, not merely as an instrumental means to some other end, whether procreation or pleasure or companionship. The marital union of the husband and wife is actualized (or consummated or realized) in acts that are procreative in type, that is, in sexual intercourse. Since each human person is a unity of body and spirit, such acts actualize a true two-in-one communion of persons.

The desire of married couples for children is natural. Children are a fulfillment of the marital union. But no one has an absolute right to have a child. All life is a gift from God. He is not obligated to give it; we have no right to demand it. Thus, the natural desire of a married couple to have a child does not justify the use of any and all means that will produce a child.

IVF substitutes technology for the natural marital act. Oocytes are surgically removed from the wife and sperm is obtained from the husband (or sometimes from another male) by masturbation, and the two are then combined in a petri dish by a technician. The biological parents merely provide the "material" that the technician combines to "create" life. The child is truly "manufactured." He does not come into being by virtue of the couple's one-flesh union that is realized in the marital act, poetically described in both Christian and Jewish traditions in Genesis 2:24.

Furthermore, since IVF ordinarily results in the creation of many more embryos than can, or will, be implanted, the couple ends up intending or willing the creation of children who will be relegated to eternal storage or to a "throw-away" death. This surely violates the child's right to justice and life.

A Logical Consequence

The reassessment of IVF and its legacy can only help American citizenry deal with the new challenges of biotechnology, including embryonic stem-cell research. When IVF became available, the American public not only embraced the practice, but also began, I believe, to lose respect for human life. IVF taught Americans (however unconsciously) to view children as products and disposable products in fact. We see the extreme consequences of this not only in abortion but also in the increased instances of abandonment of babies in dumpsters.

And in the ideas of some bioethicists. Georgetown's Thomas L. Beauchamp believes that human beings who do not measure up may "be aggressively used as human research subjects and sources of organs."10 Princeton's Professor Peter Singer, perhaps the best known bioethicist in the United States, believes that infants have no rights until they attain "personhood," a date he has trouble fixing precisely, though he selects the end of the first month after birth as a rough estimate. Until that time, infants can be killed or used as subjects of research or of organ harvesting, without moral censure.11

Though shocking, his views are the logical consequence of the same ethic that justifies human embryonic stem-cell research and the destruction of embryonic human beings: Only certain human beings are to be recognized as persons who have full moral dignity and rights. Until, and unless, one is fully sentient and/or rational bioethicists like Singer would teach us one is not a person. Ironically, some handicapped advocates of human embryonic stem-cell research may not, under the terms of this utilitarian ethic, qualify as persons and hence might be subject to research even lethal research without their consent.

Perhaps because Americans were largely unwilling to face the realities of IVF and to wrestle with its moral implications when it first became possible, the country today stands on the brink of becoming a society in which moral reflection is reduced to a question of technical feasibility.


  1. Quoted in Rick Weiss, "U.S. to Issue New Rules for Research on Embryo Cells," The Washington Post, August 23, 2000.

  2. Testimony of Christopher Reeve, Labor, Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee of the U.S. Senate, April 26, 2000.

  3. For the text, see

  4. "The Inhuman Use of Human Beings: A Statement of the Ramsey Colloquium," First Things, January 1995.

  5. Human cloning is simply an asexual process that results in the creation of an embryonic human being. Thus, since the entity in question is the same (a human embryo), it should be treated the same regardless of whether it was created by sexual intercourse or asexual reproduction.

  6. No one was ever a sperm or egg cell. It is only the union of the two that produces a human being. Unless such union takes place, each sperm cell and each egg cell begins and ends its existence as a sperm cell or an egg cell.

  7. Jerome Lejeune, The Concentration Can: When Does Human Life Begin? An Eminent Geneticist Testifies (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), p. 72.

  8. Remarks of Thomas Hilgers, "Managing Infertility," at the "Great Jubilee and the Culture of Life," Cambridge, England, July 4, 2000. See also the remarks of British in vitro pioneer, Robert Winston, to the Italian paper, Avvenire, Zenit News Agency, August 22, 2000.

  9. "NDIF Patients Confirm Impossible Pregnancies," Newswire, September 7, 2000; "Surgeon Performs First Fallopian Tube Reconnection Surgery," Business Wire, August 14, 2000.

  10. Wesley Smith, "Is Bioethics Ethical?", The Weekly Standard, April 3, 2000, p. 26.

  11. "Dangerous Words," an interview with Peter Singer, Princeton Alumni Weekly, January 26, 2000, p. 18.

Where We Stand Today

President George W. Bush's decision on August 9, 2001, to provide federal funds only for research using stem-cell lines developed from embryos before the date of that decision did not settle the question of public policy.

First, since the President's decision is simply an order to the National Institutes of Health, another president could reverse it and Congress could pass a law mandating funding for embryonic stem-cell research and even appropriate funds for it. Second, the decision left the responsibility for permitting or banning such research to the states. Third, it did not prohibit private industry from funding research based on embryo destruction. Thus, even if one state prohibited it, venture capitalists could fund such research in another state.

Fourth, the President's decision is continually challenged even within his own political party. It is quite likely that a president elected from the Democratic party would revoke the ban. As a presidential candidate in 2000, Al Gore endorsed human embryonic stem-cell research and federal funding of it. Fifth, the question whether human embryos should be destroyed in research is at the heart of the debate in the US Senate over whether to ban so-called therapeutic cloning.

For these reasons, the moral and policy issues associated with stem-cell research continue to be of vital importance, requiring careful reflection by Christians and other people of good will.


William L. Saunders. "The Unchosen Frozen." Touchstone Vol 17 no. 2 (March, 2004).

This article reprinted with permission from Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity.

Touchstone is a Christian journal, conservative in doctrine and eclectic in content, with editors and readers from each of the three great divisions of Christendom Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox. The mission of the journal and its publisher, the Fellowship of St. James, is to provide a place where Christians of various backgrounds can speak with one another on the basis of shared belief and the fundamental doctrines of the faith as revealed in Holy Scripture and summarized in the ancient creeds of the Church.


William L. Saunders serves as senior fellow and director of the Center for Human Life & Bioethics at the Family Research Council ( A graduate of the Harvard Law School, he was recently profiled in that law school's inaugural Guide to Conservative/Libertarian Law.

Copyright 2004 Touchstone




Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved