Daily Archives: September 22, 2006

Is “abortion” different from “embryo disposal”?

It was a Saturday morning and I was walking down a street I’m rarely on when I saw the men and women with rosary beads and heard them softly singing the words, “this is the day that the lord hath made.” I thought it seemed strange. There was no church nearby. Then I noticed the storefront in front of which they stood was actually the entrance to the women’s health clinic on that street. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I was immediately defensive and angry. I wondered if these people came every Saturday to hold their vigil here. You see, this is a clinic that offers abortion services in addition to all the other women’s health services it also provides.

As I walked home I found myself thinking about several articles I’d read recently about fertility clinics, unused embryos, and the ethical issues surrounding their storage, disposal, or use in research. And while stem cell research has certainly generated a fair amount of controversy, the other two issues seem to be largely ignored in public discourse, and are left out, entirely, of the still-raging fights around abortion. And I thought, why on earth are these protesters not outside of fertility clinics.

Fertility clinics create way more embryos than will ever be implanted. And they also allow for screening of embryos for gender and for genetic abnormalities (with the assumption that some will be rejected). Given that these procedures result in a tremendous number of embryos that will be destroyed, why are we even talking about abortion as a controversial issue? Why do we still have to fight battles to protect the right to safe and legal abortions?

The framing of the various ways that embryos are destroyed is very instructive:

Fertility clinic destruction of embryos is framed as an unfortunate but necessary outcome of helping generally heterosexual generally married couples to have children.

Abortion is framed in terms of helping women (the discourse rarely focuses on couples) to avoid having a child.

So, destroying several embryos to make sure that a woman can have a baby and fulfill her dream to be a mother is acceptable. Destroying a single embryo to make sure that a woman who does not want to have another child can fulfill some other dream is unacceptable.

Hmm. Kristin Luker made the observation 20 years ago that abortion politics are really a referendum not on abortion per se but on women’s obligation to be mothers.

They are also a referendum on the freedom to enjoy sex without the intention to procreate. If you have sex without intending to reproduce, and you accidentally get pregnant, you are supposed to “face the consequences,” by carrying the child to term. If, on the other hand, you want to reproduce and are having trouble, you can create unwanted embryos and dispose of the ones you don’t use.

It is time for policymakers and judges to be consistent. Procreators should not have rights that non-procreators don’t have. The termination of an unintended pregnancy should certainly not be considered a criminal act if the destruction — or eternal suspended animation — of intentionally created embryos is seen as a medical necessity.

For an interesting scholarly article on the disposal practices of fertility clinics, click here.

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