Which Came First, the Child or the Embryo?

In high school biology class, students learn that when egg and sperm cells unite, a zygote is immediately formed. The zygote splits into two cells, and those two cells each split again in a process that keeps repeating itself. A few days later, when the zygote is still less than the size of the period at the end of this sentence, it begins its travel down a fallopian tube to the uterus. At the start of its little journey, the zygote is relabeled a “blastocyst.” It retains that label until implantation in the uterus, where it is again relabeled to become an “embryo.” Eight weeks, and many cell divisions later, the embryo gets relabeled yet again, and is called a “fetus.” If all goes well, after about a nine-month period of fetal growth, a healthy human baby is born and finally receives an individualized moniker like “Jonathan” or “Marianne.”

With in vitro fertilization (IVF) the traditional labeling becomes obscured. Egg and sperm cells are “harvested” and then united outside of the human body. The fertilized egg is lab-nurtured and surgically implanted directly into the uterus. It makes no journey down the fallopian tube, so there is no “blastocyst” stage to label. Perhaps because growth occurs in a Petri dish rather than in a fallopian tube, the “zygote” label is also dropped and the “embryo” tag is commonly applied as soon as egg and sperm cells are united. When it all occurs within the human body, the process is continuous and the stage labels simply offer convenient developmental markers. When the process begins in the lab, it might not be continuous; extra embryos may be formed and cryogenically frozen for back-up or future use. The frozen embryos may be kept in that suspended state for months or even years.

Procreation sentiment can be morally complicated and controversial: When do cells, zygotes, blastocysts, embryos, or fetuses become human beings? The cells are alive from the very beginning, and they are human cells, so does that make a cell or an assemblage of cells a human being? A fertilized human egg certainly has the capacity to grow, develop, and become recognized as a human being, but is it irrefutably a human being when still just one cell, or two cells, or four cells? It’s complicated; it’s a controversial issue over which many people earnestly disagree.

The Alabama Supreme Court tried to “uncomplicate” a complicated issue when it authoritatively ruled that all human embryos are children. To bolster its authority in the matter, chief justice Tom Parker cited God’s word, or at least his interpretation of previously interpreted translations of some pragmatically chosen words commonly attributed to God. He’s a judge, a Christian judge, so many Christians and perhaps even some nonsectarians might assume his interpretation to be correct, or the faithful and learned judge wouldn’t have interpreted it that way. Perhaps the faithful and non-faithful alike should be thankful for the judge’s judicial insight and his willingness to guide us all to the correct meaning of God’s conveyance. Really though, what else could the words mean? When God says (Jeremiah 1:5) “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations,” God is obviously not just citing his omniscience; he is clearly stating that embryos are children – it’s right there between the lines.

So, thanks to the perceptive judge, it was uncomplicated for at least a few days: the court’s ruling made it clear; embryos don’t become human beings, they are human beings from the very first moment of conception (just as God so clearly and unequivocally informs us through his prophet Jeremiah). Pro-Choice advocates were thus put on notice: every abortive procedure, no matter how early, must come to be seen as an act of murder because every human embryo is a human child. Logically, the ruling’s impact could not be limited to just surgically abortive procedures; it must also apply to birth control measures that prevent the implantation of an embryo, and then of course to IVF procedures that produce extra embryos stored (at least temporarily) for future use. Doctors and staff at IVF clinics suddenly found themselves in a dangerous predicament: continuation of normal medical practice might conceivably result in discarded or irreparably damaged embryos, so IVF personnel could henceforth be charged with malpractice and/or murder.

It was a severe, but uncomplicated ruling, and then it got complicated again. Alabama’s Republican Governor and its Republican legislature realized that the consequence of the Supreme Court’s ruling wasn’t confined to just degenerate Pro-Choice advocates; many of their own Republican and Pro-Life voters also utilize birth control measures and favor accessibility to IVF treatments. They surely didn’t want to alienate that part of their constituency. But they also didn’t want to alienate their most righteous Pro-life constituents that would likely be firmly supportive of the court’s “embryos are children” ruling. So, Alabama’s governor and its legislature chose a course of action that would hopefully keep all their constituents in the fold. To that end, Justice Tom Parker’s interpretation of God’s word would not be assailed. Going forward, Alabama would continue to criminalize and prosecute abortive acts, because embryos are children and children must be protected. But in IVF settings, Alabama would assume the “three wise monkeys” position (see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil) and hold that nothing regarding clinical embryonic treatment appeared to be amiss. In blissful concurrence, Governor Kay Ivey signed a bill that will “provide civil and criminal immunity for death or damage to an embryo to any individual or entity when providing or receiving services related to in vitro fertilization.”

It really is complicated, isn’t it? In one setting, the state will hold that discarding an embryo is murderous and subject to criminal prosecution (with a penalty of up to 99 years in jail), but in another setting, the state will hold that discarding an embryo, while it might be murderous, will not be seen as murderous, and therefore not subject to criminal or civil prosecution.

Alabama’s legislative initiative and the governor’s signature adroitly addressed a court’s ruling that could have held negative political consequences for their Republican Party. Their quick reaction to the court’s decision averted that outcome, but also provided a behind-the-curtain reveal: no one really believes that embryos are actual living children. The Alabama legislative body doesn’t believe it, Governor Kay Ivey doesn’t believe it, and chief justice Tom Parker doesn’t believe it. They all certainly want to appear as if they believe it, and as an abstract argumentative position, they fervently avow that they believe it, but in the real world of physical reality, they don’t actually live like they believe it. They don’t truly believe that embryos are real children, and it’s likely that neither do most of the Pro-Life advocates who avidly say that they do.

If the Alabama legislators actually believed that embryos are real children, would they so nonchalantly have legalized the possible mutilation and murder of children at IVF clinics? If Governor Ivey truly believed that a proposed bill would legalize the culling and killing of real children, would she so eagerly have signed it? If Judge Parker truly believed that real children were being discarded (killed) in IVF clinics, would he then have been able to sit back after announcing his ruling and calmly watch it continue? If ardent Evangelical Pro-Life proponents actually believed that embryos are real children and a gift from God, wouldn’t there be thousands now stepping forward with available wombs to warm and rescue the frozen children held captive in IVF clinics?

“Embryos are children,” offers a definitive stance in Pro-Life/Pro-Choice debate. It’s meant to stifle any consideration that a transformative process might be involved in becoming a human being. Recent events in Alabama show the stance to be a pragmatic linguistic cudgel rather than a truly held actionable belief. “Embryos are children,” is figuratively accepted by those who espouse it, but literally applied to those who don’t. It thus allows for a “three wise monkeys” allowance towards those discarding an embryo in one setting while calling for a 99-year prison sentence for those doing the same thing in another. The allowance is acceptable because the avowal of belief is real, but the belief itself is not.

Vern Loomis lives in the Detroit area and occasionally likes to comment on news and events that interest him in whatever capacity available. Besides Dissident Voice, his other musings can be found at Transcend Media Service, ZNetwork, CounterPunch, The Humanist, and The Apathetic Agnostic. Read other articles by Vern.