Embryos Unbound

Embryos Unbound March 31, 2014

April’s First Things boasts not one but two worthy articles on embryos.  I agree with much in each.  One, “The Ancients on Abortion” by Sarah Klitenic Wear, gives a history lesson on ancient embryology to observe that Greeks then—not unlike Americans now—debated whether souls were present before or after birth.  The other, Jennifer Lahl and Christopher White’s “Biotech Babies,” worries about the infertility industry and cautions Christians against too-ready embrace of assisted-reproduction technologies.

The topics are two halves of the same puzzle, the meaning and morality of how babies are made.  The way that puzzle takes shape in these pieces, though, leaves a maternal gap in the middle.  Both articles have an omission that becomes conspicuous in the pairing.

Wear, associate professor of classics at Franciscan University of Steubenville, surveys Hellenic philosophers (and their followers) on the embryo: while some thought the soul came straight from male “seed” and a few insisted the soul did not enter until birth, most thought babies were ensouled at some point during gestation.  She argues that questions about the humanity of the unborn can be handled by science but answers get beclouded by ideology: then as now, some insist the child does not have a soul until after he or she is born, even though the best available scientific evidence demonstrates the contrary.  When science reveals more about embryo development, our opinions about it should change in turn.  Aristotle and the others drew conclusions based on the knowledge of their day; “[k]nowing what we know today,” Wear argues, would have allowed them to adjust arguments accordingly.

Title notwithstanding, her article is not really about abortion.  Does embryo ensoulment only get readers if addressed alongside abortion?    Most of the article is about what happens when the embryo grows, during gestation.  The fact that embryos do all that growing and ensoulment while women carry them in utero is implicit here, but strangely so.  How odd, and unfortunate, that the necessary fact of a mother’s tie with the embryo only arises in context of abortion, as though the mother is only interesting if she tries to harm the child.  The mother’s role is relevant, since most of Wear’s ancient commentators, and some modern ones too, agree that the event of ensoulment happens inside her body.  (For more on the soul of the embryo, see David Albert Jones’s eponymous book.)

Lahl and White, both with the Center for Bioethics and Culture , open with the story of an evangelical woman who became a surrogate mother out of gratitude and Christian witness.  The article contends that the “baby-producing industry” harms gamete donors, the couples who use these “donated” components, and most of all, the children born through third-party reproduction.  Much of the article ponders burdens laid on those children.  Lahl and White rue the way third-party reproduction makes embryos an abstraction, pulled outside of the “natural reality of male and female sexual union” and that “joint collaboration of both parents.”

But the way embryos appear in both of these First Things articles—and in many other otherwise sound pro-life arguments—they are already abstracted from the natural reality of human maternity.   Babies are not just products of combined gametes and time.  They need a mother’s continuing collaboration in procreation, the moral act of providing of food, shelter, nurture, heat, hormones.   In focusing on donor-born children, the authors miss a chance to take on that big question: is a mother doing anything important in gestating a child, or is that work of incubation outsourceable to just about anyone?

Requiring careful consideration of the moral meaning of both gestation and the embryo, surrogacy is one of the thorniest assisted-reproduction conundra.  It  should not to be undertaken lightly by Christians as a model “of how to turn private sufferings into public goods,” in language borrowed from Lahl and White.   Their FT article deserves to be read in conjunction with other work done by their center, including their films Breeders and Eggsploitation.  And here, from another source, comes Hilary Sherratt with encouraging evidence of the gravity with which Christian writers in the rising generation address these issues.

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