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.


Filed under News and politics, public discourse, sex

3 responses to “Is “abortion” different from “embryo disposal”?

  1. ausblog

    Over 3,500 terminations per day, 1.3 MILLION per year in the United States alone.
    50 or 60 MILLION per year World Wide.

    I am a pro-lifer who has no religious convictions at all . I didn’t need the fear of god or anything else to come to my decision, just a good sence of what is right and wrong.
    You see we were all once a fetus. Is it beyond the realm of possibilities that when your mother first learned she was carrying you, she may have considered her options? What if she had decided to terminate? Would that have been OK?
    You would not exist, if you have children they would not exist, and your (husband or wife) would be married to someone else. You would have been deprived of all your experiences and memories. In this day and age with terminations being so readily available and so many being carried out, if you make it to full term
    you can consider yourself lucky. Lucky you had a mother that made the choice of life for you. Don’t you think they all deserve the same basic human right, LIFE?
    I’m all for contraception, prevention is certainly better than termination.
    Did you know you can get an implant that is safe, 99.9% effective, and lasts for three years? Just think girls not even a show for three years, wouldn’t that be great? I think too many people rely too heavily on the last option (abortion), I think if abortions weren’t so readily available people would manage their reproductive system far better resulting in a fraction of the number of unwanted pregnancies.
    World wide there are over 50 MILLION aborted pregnancies each year. In America 3,500 terminations carried out every day, that’s over 1.3 million every year, 50% of all cases claimed that birth control had been used, 48% admitted they took no precaution, and 2% had a medical reason. That’s a stagering 98% may have been prevented had an effective birth control been used. Don’t get me wrong, I suspect the percentages in Australia would be much the same.
    Just a lot of unnessessary killing.
    I am convinced that in the not too distant future, people will look back at many of the practices of today with disbelief and horror.

    I think the point of conception is when life began for you. This was the start of your existance. Your own personal big bang. Three weeks after conception heart started to beat. First brain waves recorded at six weeks after conception. Seen sucking thumb at seven weeks after conception.


  2. I don’t think there is any argument that can be validly made that would be ‘for’ embryo destruction but ‘against’ abortion.
    As you point out so well, an abortion is a reaction to a mistake, a bad choice, a medical problem, etc. Whereas embro destruction is the necessary result of intentional creation.
    Of course, all of these issues have been politically framed to the degree that they have little to do with the real world and everything to do with the frame.

  3. Yet again I’ve learnt something major from your blog! I know very little about the ways and means of fertility clinics, nor have I given much consideration to what happens to all those embryos etc.

    Thanks for continually changing and challenging what goes on in my head…