Thawing the Frozen Embryo Myths

July 2006. A study funded by the Rand Corporation in 2002 determined that there are about 400,000 frozen human embryos being stored in the United States in fertility clinics. One of the chief arguments used to justify embryonic stem cell research involves the claim that these embryos are "just going to be thrown away anyway," and therefore, we should "get some good out of them." Perhaps Katie Couric put it most bluntly during one of her interviews in 2001 when she asked White House aide Karen Hughes this question: "Of course, many of these frozen embryos will be discarded because they won't be needed, so they'll be thrown in a dumpster anyway. Does it trouble President Bush that these things are being thrown away when they have the potential to save lives?" This widely repeated and seductive argument has ensnared not only numerous commentators and lawmakers, but also other Americans, and many Catholics as well. It is worth considering the various fallacies and falsehoods embedded in this argument.
 
The first fallacy is the idea that most of the currently frozen embryos have been earmarked for destruction. In point of fact, the vast majority of these embryos are not slated to be thrown out; rather, according to the same Rand Corporation study, approximately 88% are being kept in storage for future family building. The actual number of embryos that have been designated for disposal is quite small, only around 2.2% of the total. The fraction designated for research is also quite small, about 2.8%. Of the original 400,000 frozen embryos, therefore, only perhaps 11,000 would actually be available for destruction at the hands of researchers who would like to harvest stem cells from them.
 
The second fallacy is that every embryo will be useful for providing stem cells. In the real world of laboratory science, it is often necessary to destroy 15 or 20 embryos before you succeed in getting just one embryonic stem cell line. The process is inefficient. Hence from the 11,000 embryos mentioned earlier, one could reasonably expect just a few hundred stem cell lines. Thus, the seemingly impressive number of "400,000 frozen embryos," hides the real truth that the number of stem cell lines you could expect to get is too small to be of use in treating large segments of the population who have various diseases. In other words, vast numbers of embryos beyond those currently frozen would still be required to treat diseases, if it ever, in fact, becomes possible to treat human diseases in the future with embryonic stem cells. The push to strip-mine embryos that are stored in the deep-freeze is but the opening salvo of a broader effort to produce many more doomed embryonic humans in Petri dishes for research purposes. Canada, for example, recently announced a new policy that will permit research not only on embryos taken out of the deep-freeze, but also on freshly prepared, never frozen, in vitro fertilization embryos. Similar experimentation using fresh human embryos is also legal in a number of states throughout the United States, as long as private, rather than government funds are used to pay for the experiments.
 
The third fallacy concerns the idea that when embryos will be "thrown out" by somebody and are going to "die anyway", that somehow gives me carte blanche to destroy those embryos myself for research. In point of fact, however, the unethical behavior of others can never condone immorality on our part. Somebody's imminent death, moreover, does not create a license for us to subject them to lethal forms of experimentation. Organs, for example, may not be forcibly taken out of death-row inmates merely because such prisoners are going to "die anyway." The language of Katie Couric sets a misleading tone for the discussion, by suggesting that embryos are mere objects, "things" for our manipulation, ultimately little more than dumpster-bound material. Representative Chris Smith, on the other hand, sets a more proper tone when he observes that it is, "…highly offensive, insensitive and inhumane to label human embryos as excess or throwaway or spare."
 
To put it simply: human beings are never disposable, whether in the form of a zygote, an embryo, a fetus, a neonate, an infant, a child, an adolescent, a teenager, an adult, or a 90 year old woman. Each of us exists as a remarkable biological continuum that extends from conception until death. Our fundamental and unique value is never determined or diminished by our stage of development. Dr. Alfred Bongiovanni of the University of Pennsylvania once testified at a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing in these words: "I am no more prepared to say that these early stages represent an incomplete human being than I would be to say that the child prior to the dramatic effects of puberty is not a human being."
 
As fellow human beings, human embryos ought never to be the subjects of death-dealing experiments aimed only at benefiting others. The violations here are grave enough that Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, head of the Pontifical Council for the Family in Rome, recently stressed how the automatic excommunication that happens when a Catholic knowingly and freely chooses an abortion should apply equally to a researcher involved in destructive embryonic research. The Cardinal was quoted as saying, "To destroy the embryo is equivalent to an abortion, and the excommunication applies to the woman, the doctors, [and] the researchers who eliminate embryos." An excommunication is the heaviest spiritual sanction the Church can render. As long as it is in force, it bars the excommunicated individual from the church community and from receiving most of the sacraments. It also places his eternal salvation in jeopardy until such time as the excommunication is lifted. Hence, parents must be especially attentive to never hand over their embryonic children who are still frozen to researchers eager to extract their stem cells. Catholic scientists and politicians likewise should be especially attentive to steer clear of research or legislative efforts aimed at promoting the destructive harvesting of the youngest and most vulnerable members of the human family.
 
Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D. earned his doctorate in neuroscience from Yale and did post-doctoral work at Harvard. He is a priest of the diocese of Fall River, MA, and serves as the Director of Education at The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. See www.ncbcenter.org