An embryonic quandary

petridishScience and faith can come at odds for some couples who consider the implications of in vitro fertilization. The Chicago Tribune recently tackled this struggle with a focus on the Potters, a suburban Chicago couple who must decide the fate of two embryos that were not implanted in the womb.

Mollie has lamented how little the media discusses such a common practice, so kudos to the reporter for finding a couple that would be so open about their predicament. The reporter also explains the science behind in vitro fertilization, showing the couple’s options:

They could place the embryos in the womb for gestation when they are ready to have more children. Another couple could adopt the embryos. They could donate to science. Or they could thaw the embryos and discard them.

The faithful predicament is somewhat buried, but we find out that Adriana Potter is a lapsed Roman Catholic who believes that the most life-affirming choice would be to donate the embryos to research.

The freedom to make that decision without condemnation is one of the many factors Adriana finds appealing about the Methodist church, where the couple will baptize their children right before Christmas. Raised Roman Catholic in Brazil, Adriana began to drift after a heart-wrenching divorce.

The first part of this quote makes it seem like churches who do give specific direction on in vitro fertilization are condemning. Perhaps that is what Adriana thinks, but it would have been nice to hear it from her. Also, since she is a lapsed Catholic, does faith still inform her decision?

Anyway, her husband Robert Potter, a lifelong Methodist, would rather donate the embryos to an adopting couple.

Robert Potter imagines having more children to fulfill God’s mandate to be fruitful and multiply. But if they decide to have no more, he favors donating the embryos for another couple to do the same. Viable embryos should not be taken for granted, he said.
“It’s not just a moral (issue). It’s a waste,” he said. “Why would you waste an opportunity if it’s a good one?”
… Robert doesn’t trust that every embryo fulfills a greater purpose. He can’t imagine sentencing two potential children to short lives that would end in a laboratory.

Towards the end of the article, the couple’s pastor, The Rev. Norma Lee Barnhart, pastor of Elmhurst First Methodist Church shows how she guides her members through these decisions.

The Methodist church endorses stem cell research, though it doesn’t dictate that’s what a couple should choose. Citing First Corinthians 13:12, a letter the apostle Paul wrote 2,000 years ago describing the process of maturing in one’s faith, she prescribes time and patience.

“In our faith those decisions are made by the person with God’s help and with the help of the church community,” she said.

“If we just live with the ambiguity of the unknown and try to stay in the moment, eventually God gives us the answers we need in the time that we need them.”

Although this particular Methodist pastor endorses stem cell research (what about embryonic stem cell research?) and does not give guidance on what a couple should choose, the United Methodist denomination does offer more specifics.

For this reason we should not create embryos with the intention of destroying them, as in the creation of embryos for research purposes. Neither should we, even for reproductive purposes, produce more embryos than we can expect to introduce into the womb in the hope of implantation.

Does this pastor realize that she is contradicting her denomination’s position? Perhaps this is an area where the reporter could have probed a little bit.

The Tribune also offers a sidebar on a developing think tank that plans to create a kit to share with patients about the range of perspectives. The sidebar quotes a Rabbi and a Lutheran pastor, but it doesn’t tell us where they stand on the issue. The article says that “the [Catholic] church cautions against IVF,” and the final quote from a member of the Chicago Archdiocese’s bioethics commission might make you think that the Catholic Church could be on the fence about the issue.

“The real solution is not to create the problem at all,” he said. “In the end, Catholic moralists would say they have to sit down with a priest with some background in these questions who can work out what the various implications are … and try to guide them toward a responsible decision.”

Donum Vitae makes the Catholic church’s position quite clear: “The practice of keeping alive human embryos in vivo or in vitro for experimental or commercial purposes is totally opposed to human dignity.”

You only get so much space in a sidebar, but it would be helpful to see summaries of theological stances instead of a few vague quotes on how couples often consult religion in making these decisions. If the couple is willing to talk some more, it would be nice to see a follow up with the couple to find out what impacted their final decision.

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  • Chris Bolinger

    Does this pastor realize that she is contradicting her denomination’s position?

    I doubt it. Does she realize that phrases like “the ambiguity of the unknown” are laughable? A decent reporter would have asked a few follow-up questions, starting with, “Um, what?”

  • Suzanne

    I think this excerpt from the Methodist statement on the ethics of stem cell research better addresses the situation described in the story, doesn’t it?

    “Given the reality that most, if not all, of these excess embryos will be discarded—we believe that it is morally tolerable to use existing embryos for stem cell research purposes. This position is a matter of weighing the danger of further eroding the respect due to potential life against the possible, therapeutic benefits that are hoped for from such research. The same judgment of moral tolerability would apply to the use of embryos left from future reproductive efforts if a decision has been made not to introduce them into the womb. We articulate this position with an attitude of caution, not license. We reiterate our opposition to the creation of embryos for the sake of research.”

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Thanks for adding that, Suzanne. The statement I quoted comes first in the Methodist’s guidelines, so I think the assumption is that you should not create more embryos than necessary. Then, if there are extra embryos, they should be donated to research. Unless I’m reading it wrong, the church still recommends not creating more embryos than necessary.

  • Suzanne

    I agree, and I think one of the comments in the sidebar really gets to the whole moral dilemma here: We’re looking at the issue not at the beginning of the journey, when people are deciding about IVF, but at the middle, when they’ve already made a decision that creates the moral quandary.

    I’d also like to see these stories look at the moral vs. financial problem of IVF — it might be more ethical to only create enough embryos for one implantation, but financially, it’s more expensive. And for couples whose IVF isn’t covered by insurance, they’re faced with doing it the less expensive way or perhaps not doing it at all.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    That’s a good idea, Suzanne. Especially since it looks like doctors are recommending placing one embryo in the womb instead of two: http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-ivf-twins29-2009oct29,0,3567866.story

  • Pingback: Embryos’ fate: A ‘fertile debate’ ends “loved” children’s lives in a laboratory « Cooperating with Grace

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