Abortion and hospitality: we know what we feel (sometimes)

Here is a story from the Cleveland Plain Dealer last week. It was a sad story for hundreds of Ohio families: “University Hospitals notifies 700 fertility patients of freezer ‘fluctuation’ and potential damage to stored eggs and embryos.”

University Hospitals has notified about 700 fertility patients and their families that the frozen eggs and embryos they had stored at one of its hospitals may have been damaged over the weekend when the temperature rose in a storage tank.

The problem, in one of two large freezers preserving specimens at the UH Fertility Center housed at the Ahuja Medical Center in Beachwood, was discovered on Sunday morning. It occurred some time after staff left the previous afternoon, according to Patti DePompei, president of UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital and MacDonald Women’s Hospital.

The liquid nitrogen freezer held about 2,000 egg and embryo specimens, according to Dr. James Liu, chairman of the department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at UH Cleveland Medical Center.

I read this and I am saddened for all of those families longing to bear children and saddened for the hospital staff who have been trying to help them achieve that. Those 700 fertility patients have invested a great deal of money, but more than that they have invested their hopes and dreams in this effort. And now those hopes and dreams are lost as their painstakingly preserved eggs and embryos are no longer viable. Some will try to start the whole, long and difficult fertility process again. For others — such as those whose eggs or embryos were frozen before they began cancer treatments that would damage their future fertility — starting over may not be an option.

That’s sad news. It is right and appropriate and accurate to feel sad — sad for those families and their lost hope.

But when you read this story you do not feel sad about the death of those frozen embryos. No one does.

You may think that you’re supposed to feel such sadness — that you’re supposed to be staggered by the immense tragedy of hundreds of human persons whose lives were snuffed out in a single blow. You may have been taught that this is what you’re required and expected to feel. You may have been taught this relentlessly, through years of rote repetition and insistent, uncompromising indoctrination. You may have been told that this is a matter of fundamental ethics or religion, and that it would be monstrously immoral of you not to feel massive, heart-wrenching anguish over the death of all these people — all these innocent babies.

You may have been taught that the sheer numbers involved here should make you 10 or 20 times more heartbroken over this freezer malfunction than you were over the shocking deaths of all those children in Sandy Hook.

But you do not feel that.

No one does. No one can. No one should.

Because that isn’t true. You already know that. Everybody already knows that — even the people desperately insisting otherwise.

That’s why those people don’t picket outside of fertility clinics, or demand legislation or constitutional amendments to ban them entirely. Because they know, even if they will never admit it, or never allow themselves to articulate the admission of it, that the human embryos lost last week at University Hospital were not yet human persons. They were potential human persons, but — despite all that sloganeering and indoctrination — everyone knows that’s not the same thing as actual human persons.

Some people will argue otherwise, insisting that every one of those frozen embryos was a person with equal legal standing and moral standing to any actual human person — an infant, a 6-year-old, a teenager, an adult.

But no one feels that.

No one feels that because we all know it isn’t true. These frozen embryos were potential human persons. That gives them significant moral value, but not the same moral value as that of actual human persons. The loss of hundreds of frozen embryos is sad because it means lost hope, lost potential future, for hundreds of families. But it is not anything at all the same as if hundreds of actual human persons had died in a single tragedy.

We all know this. We all recognize this.

That’s why we didn’t have a national moment of silence in commemoration of the lives lost at University Hospital.

That’s why Gov. Kasich didn’t order Ohio flags to be flown at half-staff in honor of these victims the way he did last month for two police officers slain in Westerville. That’s why anyone who seriously attempted to argue in public that the loss of these hundreds of human embryos was a greater tragedy than the death of those two officers would be rightly viewed as morally confused and contemptuously disrespectful toward those officers and their families.

Here’s the thing: The moral qualms that many people have about abortion do not stem from their actual, felt belief that potential human persons are morally indistinct from actual human persons. That’s their slogan: “Life begins at the moment of conception” — meaning actual human personhood begins at that moment of conception. But that’s not the actual source of their moral unease. What they’re worried about — the thing that pricks their conscience — is the potential for abortion to be a form of inhospitality.

This is why their complacent acceptance, or even their enthusiastic embrace, of IVF and other fertility treatments is not hypocritical. It surely would be if they really believed their slogan — if they really believed that the many embryos created and discarded by fertility treatments were actual human persons, morally indistinct from anyone reading this. To really believe that and yet still fail to oppose fertility treatments as wholeheartedly as they oppose abortion would be profoundly hypocritical.

But IVF and other fertility treatments are expressions of hospitality, not of the inhospitality that they fear (or cruelly, falsely presume) motivates most abortions. This is why it doesn’t — and why it shouldn’t — trouble their conscience, no matter what slogans they purport to believe.

The news from Cleveland last week is sad news. It is a story of dashed hopes and diminished futures and lost potential, all of which will be devastating for hundreds of people whose hopes and dreams were invested in the work being done at University Hospital. But it is not a story about the death or the “murder” of actual human persons. The pretense that it is will always be dishonest, because no one can ever feel it’s true.


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