You may have heard the extraordinary story of a baby who was born after being frozen as an embryo for almost 25 years.
The embryo was donated by a US couple and would eventually become Emma Wren Gibson, a healthy baby girl. She was “thawed” in March and transferred to mum Tina Gibson’s uterus. At the time of freezing, Emma’s new mother would have only been one-year-old herself. Just let that sink in!
“Do you realise I’m only 25? This embryo and I could have been best friends,” said 26-year-old Mrs Gibson of the remarkable feat, as reported by the BBC.
It was the faith-based National Embryo Donation Center that provided the fertilized embryo, which doctors there refer to as “snow babies” because of how long they are kept frozen.
But should such a practice of freezing a little life be an issue for Christians? It is a very difficult one.
So, what is it all about?
For starters, the Wikipedia summary puts it like this:
“Cryopreservation of embryos is the process of preserving an embryo at sub-zero temperatures, generally at an embryogenesis stage corresponding to pre-implantation, that is, from fertilisation to the blastocyst stage.”
Simply put, this process delays the growth of a human life in utero by freezing it at the very beginning. Thus, it can grant couples who are struggling with infertility the chance of having a baby. As a means of gifting someone a child, most would celebrate this method as something a wonderful achievement of science.
But as the mother of this latest “snow baby” declared: “I just wanted a baby. I don’t care if it’s a world record or not.”
By most accounts, the transfer of previously frozen embryos is becoming prevalent and is certainly becoming more successful. Data is extraordinarily difficult to come by, but 2001 statistics taken from 23 countries show that almost 42,000 frozen human embryo transfers were performed across Europe.
In the United States alone, a projected 700,000 children exist as frozen embryos, according to The Gospel Coalition.
Success rates are rocketing when it comes to embryonic transfer. As Shady Grove Fertility explained on its website:
“The success rates of an FET cycle are comparable to fresh IVF cycles—and sometimes result in a higher success rate because of the opportunity to optimize the lining of the uterus before implantation, among other reasons.
Both fresh and frozen cycles have the same primary indicator for success: the maternal age at the time of embryo freezing. Many patients wait several years between the initial freeze of their embryos and attempting a subsequent FET cycle. Any patient, no matter the amount of time between embryo freezing and thawing, can expect nearly the same potential for success as they experienced with the fresh IVF cycle that the frozen embryos came from.
Women 35 years and younger have over a 60 percent chance of pregnancy per transfer. This rate declines as the maternal age at the time of the freeze increases.”
But the other side of this comes down to the scientific meddling in the natural process of procreation. Effectively, cryopreservation places the timeline of a new human life in the hands of man. Once a well-formed embryo is achieved, it can be put to one side on the basis of convenience and family planning – to be revived or “thawed” years later.
Despite the moral ambiguity, many groups are choosing to embrace the use of human embryos and committing themselves to “saving” what they see as tiny little lives.
While the US government does not recognize embryos as human beings but as property, many Christians are seeking to invoke a Biblical view that cherishes all human life, at all stages of development.
Indeed, many pro-life campaigners believe that embryonic lives should be granted the same rights as any fully formed human being, and are going to great lengths to see this come to pass under the law.
One of those groups is Nightlight Christian Adoptions, who arrange for infertile married couples to “adopt” these head-of-a-pin-sized little human lives. Remarkably, since its first embryo adoption in 1997, its matching has resulted in more than 300 “snowflake” babies.
As pro-life organizations such as Nightlight hold that life begins at the earliest stages of conception, they subsequently believe that the fate of these embryos is an urgent moral crisis.
“We have learnt over the past 100 years that every child not raised by its biological parents will eventually start looking for them,” former Baptist pastor and President of Nightlight Christian Adoptions told The Telegraph. “Now we’re repeating the mistake with assisted reproduction because we’re creating a new set of anonymous parents through sperm and now embryo donation.”
In the US, there is currently no limit as to how long you can keep embryos deep frozen. In other nations such as Britain, embryos that have remained unused for over 10 years must be destroyed.
“I didn’t want my people in a freezer,” said one Christian woman who spoke to the Telegraph anonymously at a California IVF clinic about her plans to adopt an embryo.
“The thawing process is just very dangerous – but we loved the idea of these other couples realising that they were children they had frozen, and placing them for adoption.”
Having gone through two rounds of arduous IVF treatment herself, she was excited to help a new life into the world.
“Some people go to this because they can’t conceive but we have heard really great teaching and preaching on rescuing these embryos. God says he can put any baby in your arms and he will make it yours.”
But not all those seeking to adopt these embryos are struggling with fertility themselves. Some, on account of their Christian faith, harbor a fundamental belief that it is their calling to “rescue” these little lifeforms.
“Having never had fertility issues I was different from almost everyone else that has done embryo adoption,’ said 36-year-old Tamara. “We went to the fertility doctor and he thought I was crazy at first, so he sent me to a psychiatrist. I said to my husband, ‘If we adopt an embryo do you see that as taking care of a life in the same way as an orphan?’ My husband’s comment was, “I can’t think of anything that needs a home more than something that is frozen in liquid nitrogen.” Because of our world view we believe that life begins at conception, when the sperm and egg get together.”
So why do so many people feel as if they should donate their spare embryos? Much of it comes down to their fundamental view of the sanctity of life. Annabel Peterson knew that she could not destroy her embryos, so she put them up for adoption.
“I knew I didn’t want to give the embryos to research. I knew I didn’t want to destroy them but I had a really tough time parting with them – I was postponing it as much as I could,” she said.
Then came a defining moment of breakthrough when she was in the shower: “God spoke to me and said, ‘These are not yours.’ I said to my husband, ‘You are going to do everything. I’ll sign it but I don’t want to see it.’ We did the paperwork real fast.”
So, with that said, is it really morally and Biblically acceptable for Christians to partake in the freezing of embryos for a later date? Well, in light of President Obama’s 2009 executive order that effectively lifted the ban on federally funded stem cell research, many argue it is absolutely essential.
The key issue with using human embryos as a source for the extraction and testing of stem cells is that the embryos are destroyed in the process. Most Christians would argue that this is ethically and morally unacceptable. Indeed, the use of a human embryo for any kind of research normally requires the killing of that embryo.
So, again, is it Biblical to preserve human embryos for a later shot at life?
President Emeritus, Professor of History and Biblical Studies at Grace University, Dr. Jim Eckman, writes:
“Since one of our goals as Christians must be the protection of embryonic life, if “spare embryos” are produced through IVF and they are not used for implantation, it is ethically acceptable for these embryos to be frozen, provided that they are used, via future implantations, to produce a baby, not for experimentation. “
So, whilst it is arguably of crucial importance that Christians understand the dangers of “playing God” in the scientific engineering of human life; the saving, adopting and nurturing of “leftover” embryos could be seen as a vital work in preserving the sanctity of our God-given life.