(Originally published in The Society of St. Sebastian)

The question of whether the disposal of embryos created through the In Vitro Fertilization process violated Tennessee’s “Human Life Protection Act,”[I] an act which criminalizes abortion as a Class C felony in all cases other than when it’s done to save the life of the mother, was recently discussed by various representatives of Tennessee.[II] The discussion arose after Senator Jack Johnson was approached by a woman undergoing IVF who wondered if she would be violating the law if she discarded her excess “fertilized embryos.” To clarify, there is no such thing as a “fertilized embryo.” Rather, the moment male sperm fertilizes a female egg a new embryonic human being is created.[III]

The legislators made it clear that this act does not apply to embryos created through IVF, but only applies to women who have living, unborn children within their bodies. Hypocritically, the act also defines an “unborn child” as “…an individual living member of the species, homo sapiens, throughout the entire embryonic and fetal stages of the unborn child from fertilization until birth.” The act also defines “fertilization” as “…that point in time when a male human sperm penetrates the zona pellucida of a female human ovum.” An unborn child is, therefore, a human being from the moment of fertilization, and embryonic human beings should be protected under this act. For the sake of honoring the dignity and worth of innocent life, it’s imperative that those writing Human Life Protection Acts educate themselves on the commodification of human lives that takes place in the IVF industry.

From the moment their embryonic lives begin, persons created in laboratories through the IVF process are treated as expendable through experimentation and disposal.

Genetic Screenings

Embryos are first tested for viability based primarily on visual inspection. As stated by the former embryologist, Dr. Craig Turczynski, “…The current method of evaluating viability is based on visual inspection and we have some ideas of what makes a viable embryo, but it is imperfect. Things such as symmetry, fragmentation, stage of development for the age of the embryo, vacuoles, appearance of the cells, shape, etc. The field has used PGD [Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis] to try and confirm viability but even that is being questioned now because of the embryo’s capacity to self-correct by pushing abnormal cells to the placenta.”[IV]

Blastocysts (early embryos) are screened for chromosomal abnormalities which are the leading cause of miscarriages. However, these tests are prone to false positives,[V] showing blastocysts as having abnormalities when they were indeed normal, resulting in thousands of humans being discarded daily. Embryologists at the Center for Human Reproduction were witnessing failed IVF attempts with embryos initially declared “normal,” and observed thousands of babies born from embryos that were deemed “abnormal.” This happens because embryos have the ability to push abnormal cells to the tissue that will become the placenta, resulting in no abnormal cells remaining in the fetus.

Researchers have also found[VI] that embryos with no chromosomal abnormalities have suddenly stopped developing three days after fertilization because they simply fail to make the proper transition in how they obtain energy. Could this be because of the unnatural environments[VII] to which embryos are subjected during the IVF process?

Likelihood of Live Birth

Only 7% of lab-created children are actually born alive.[VIII] A study from 2015 found that out of 1,500 women who had undergone the egg-freezing process at age 35 or younger, “the chance of live birth increased from 15% for women who froze just 5 eggs, to 61% for women who froze 10 eggs, and to 85% for women who froze 15 or more eggs.” In 2016, a study conducted on 1,171 IVF cycles using frozen eggs found that “…for women under 30, each egg retrieved had an 8.67% chance of resulting in a child; for women over 40, that chance dropped to less than 3% per egg. So, to achieve a 50% estimated live birth rate, a woman over 40 will need to freeze significantly more eggs than a woman under 30.”

To gain a better view of the number of children who survive the IVF process, Dr. Turczynski stated of data from the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology in 2019, “…there were a total of 298,689 cycles initiated and 56,067 of those cycles used previously frozen embryos. This means that there were 242,622 newly stimulated cycles. If one uses the median number of eggs per retrieval of 9 (Sunkara et al. 2011, 9), it would indicate that an annual estimate of 2,183,598 embryos per year are created in the United States. From these 2,183,598 embryos, there are about 55,000 babies born per year (Dusenbery 2020), leaving over 2 million embryos per year that are either placed in cryostorage, used for research, or discarded in medical waste. Between 48 and 85 percent of the embryos are cryopreserved (“National Summary Report” n.d.), but, eventually, many of the frozen embryos are abandoned. They are either left in suspended animation indefinitely, discarded, or used for research (Simopoulou et al. 2019, 2448). This abandonment is a prime example of the immoral approach of ART resulting in additional problems with no morally licit solution.”[IX]

For those “lucky” embryos that make it out of cryopreserve with the intention of being transferred and hopefully continuing to survive, what is the likelihood that they will survive the thawing process? In a study done on 6,019 frozen embryos,[X] 95% survived the thawing process. That seems a high percentage, but what about the other 5% of human beings who didn’t survive? Furthermore, when embryos do thaw successfully, they often collapse and it is difficult to tell if they are viable.[XI] Then, of course, they must face the gaming wheel of chance that is the transfer process.

What about those children who get donated to and eventually discarded through scientific research? They are allowed to be experimented on 14 days[XII] past fertilization, or up to when the nervous system begins to develop the primitive streak,[XIII] this being the marking of the space the maturing spinal cord will eventually fill. Researchers are calling for an additional 14 days to extend their legal research window[XIV] to 28 days past fertilization, hopefully, to gain a more in-depth understanding of the development of the nervous system and organs. These are nervous systems and organs belonging to unique human beings, however, and they should not be treated as empirical subjects.

How many embryonic human beings have been created intentionally expendable and were snuffed out almost immediately? Karen Camper, House Minority Leader of Tennessee, stated that the ruling to not criminalize the disposal of embryos was a “victory” for those women suffering infertility and their physicians who won’t be punished for trying to “bring miracles to families.”[XV] The creation of human life is indeed a miracle, but Human Life Protection Acts certainly aren’t treating children as miracles by protecting certain pre-born lives over others.

[i] Tennessee General Assembly, “Human Life Protection Act,” Thomson Reuters, last modified May 10, 2019, https://www.tn.gov/content/dam/tn/attorneygeneral/documents/pr/2022/pr22-21-human-life-protection-act.pdf

[ii] Sam Stockard, “AG opinion: Disposal of human embryos not transferred to uterus doesn’t violate law, Tennessee Lookout, last modified November 1, 2022, https://tennesseelookout.com/2022/11/01/ag-opinion-disposal-of-human-embryos-not-transferred-to-uterus-doesnt-violate-law/

[iii] Steven Ertelt, “44 Quote From Medical Textbooks Prove Human Life Begins at Conception,” LifeNews, last modified November 1, 2022, https://www.lifenews.com/2022/11/01/44-quotes-from-medical-textbooks-prove-human-life-begins-at-conception/

[iv] Craig Turczynski, “Questions and Answers from the ITEST Webinar – In Vitro Fertilization and the Sanctity of Human Life,” Institute for Theological Encounter with Science and Technology, last modified November 19, 2022, https://drive.google.com/file/d/1wBDo2VcfOtqxAxliFsuRSbCXhr2RUPF_/view?usp=share_link

[v] Katherine Fenz-Rockefeller, “IVF Test Actually Rules Out Viable Embryos,” Futurity, last modified June 3, 2021, https://www.futurity.org/ivf-fertilization-embryos-pregnancy-2574772/?utm_source=rss&utm_m edium=rss&utm_campaign=ivf-fertilization-embryos-pregnancy-2574772

[vi] Clare Wilson, “Why two-thirds of IVF embryos suddenly stop developing,” New Scientist, last modified June 30, 2022, https://www.newscientist.com/article/2326772-why-two-thirds-of-ivf-embryos-suddenly-stop-developing/

[vii] Sneha Mani, et al., “Epigenetic changes and assisted reproductive technologies,” Epigenetics, last modified July 25, 2019, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6961665/

[viii] Steve Doughty, “1.7 million embryos created for IVF have been thrown away, and just 7 percent lead to pregnancy,” Daily Mail, last modified December 31, 2012, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2255107/1-7-million-embryos-created-IVF-thrown-away-just-7-cent-lead-pregnancy.html

[ix] Craig Turczynski, et al., “Assisted Reproductive Technology and Natural Law: How Seven Years as an Embryologist Revealed IVF’s Disordered Approach to Patient Care,” The Linacre Quarterly, last modified October 22, 2022, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/00243639221128393

[x] Ana Cobo, et al., “Outcomes of vitrified early cleavage-stage and blastocyst-stage embryos in a cryopreservation program: evaluation of 3,150 warming cycles,” American Society for Reproductive Medicine, last modified August 6, 2012, https://www.fertstert.org/article/S0015-0282(12)01843-2/fulltext

[xi] Inside IVF, “Embryo Freezing and Thawing: What You Need to Know,” Fertility Smarts, last modified November 18, 2020, https://www.fertilitysmarts.com/embryo-freezing-and-thawing-what-you-need-to-know/2/2081

[xii] International Society for Stem Cell Research, “2021 Guidelines for Stem Cell Research and Clinical Translation,” ISSCR, last modified June 1, 2021, https://www.isscr.org/guidelines/blog-post-title-one-ed2td-6fcdk

[xiii] Giulia Cavaliere, “A 14-day limit for bioethics: the debate over human embryo research,” BMC Medical Ethics, last modified May 30, 2017, https://bmcmedethics.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12910-017-0198-5

[xiv] John Appleby, et al., “Should the 14-day rule for embryo research become the 28-day rule?,” EMBO Molecular Medicine, last modified August 7, 2018. https://www.embopress.org/doi/full/10.15252/emmm.201809437

[xv] Sam Stockard, “AG opinion: Disposal of human embryos not transferred to uterus doesn’t violate law, Tennessee Lookout, last modified November 1, 2022, https://tennesseelookout.com/2022/11/01/ag-opinion-disposal-of-human-embryos-not-transferred-to-uterus-doesnt-violate-law/