Ransoming Embryos

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Throughout various points of the church calendar we are reminded of how God establishes the value of human life, namely, by the incarnation of God the Son—Christ. No doubt, this divine affirmation is needed now more than ever in a context where discussions on the value of all human life are a part of everyday conversation. But this post isn’t a typical bioethical argument, although it has implications for it given the importance of the subject, namely the human embryo. While other issues could be discussed, for our purposes here we offer some suggestions for thinking through one important issue concerning the embryo, the problem of so-called embryo glut (i.e., excess), which, we think, affords Christians an opportunity for redemptive action, i.e., the rescue of a human life frozen in a perpetual state of inactivity. One author describes the problem of embryo glut this way:

“Over time—as fertility drugs have gotten more powerful and lab procedures more efficient—it has become possible to coax more and more embryos into being during the average cycle. Moreover, as doctors transfer fewer embryos back into patients, in an effort to reduce multiple births, more of the embryos made are subsequently frozen.”[1]

By reflecting on Christ’s incarnation one has principles for recognizing the value of all human embryos that offer guidance for ransoming the embryo (i.e., the opportunity to save a life otherwise left to a frozen state of inaction). Christians—the last group you’d think would be divided about this subject—are among those in most need to be reminded of such. For, there are some on the left side of the argument, for which the primacy of “whole life” concerns of an individual is a central plank. By “whole life”, there is an emphasis on the care of children not simply in the womb of the mother but also for their emotional, financial care growing up and their opportunity later on in life. Likewise, there are those on the right, for whom the very starting point of human life, namely the embryo, is of principal importance. Cutting through the polarization that marks so much of our contemporary discussions of human life, we offer the following reflection on the importance of the embryo whose starting point is God the Son’s incarnation. For, it is the Logos enfleshed where God reveals himself most clearly.

Our reflection begins in 1 John 4, given its emphasis on Logos-enfleshed. The passage offers the Christian several guiding principles for ‘testing the spirits’, i.e., testing doctrinal claims. John tells the reader that those who ‘know’ God (i.e., in some participatory sense), ‘love’ God, having themselves come ‘from’ God (an extension of his argument in chapter 3). John is not speaking in the abstract. He is concerned with ‘walking in the light’—the light of Christ—as both a doctrinal and practical matter, even if he gives some logical priority to the doctrine we ‘confess’ (see 4:1-3), over and against the proto-gnostic challenges of his day. John’s overarching claim seems to be something like the following: "Our Christian practice is centrally tied to the confession of the Logos enfleshed." This is how we know that we love God that we walk in the love God manifested in his Son.

Taking John’s pronouncements as our cue, we ought to consider that the sanctity of the embryo is bound up in Christ’s human origin. John’s epistle shows God’s action of giving life and blessing. Resonating consistently with God’s action throughout redemptive history, God gives life and blesses life in Christ’s life. The basic ligaments of the argument are threefold.

  1. If God assumes embryonic human life, then God establishes the value of embryonic human life by assuming human life.
  2. God assumes embryonic human life.
  3. Therefore, God establishes the value of embryonic human life.

In a recent exploration of the incarnation, Oliver Crisp makes a similar claim when he shows that God not only, eventually assumes an adult human life, but that God assumes an embryonic human life.[2] Often the discussion of the incarnation in theological circles is a discussion of metaphysics (i.e., the study of being and its structure), but there is a related confessional stance that is important to axiology (the study of value). We are not unfamiliar with arguments for the value and dignity of human life in the Christian tradition. Common arguments from the ‘image of God’, for example, maintain that all human beings created in God’s image bear out some value and dignity (e.g. Genesis 9:6). But, more specifically, this line of reasoning should be applied to the life of the embryo. If the Logos, the second person of the Trinity, assumes human life in the womb of Mary, it stands to reason that God is not only stamping the value of the human, as an adult out of the womb, God endorses the value of life in the womb itself, and hence, it is not only a valuable life but one worth saving. By the incarnation, God enters into the full pattern of human origination. In light of this, God gives embryonic life and blesses that life at every stage of development.

The reader may raise other modern concerns from the nature of the embryo itself. However, the careful reader will recognize that many of these concerns are not strictly speaking concerns that the Church’s reflections have had, even if the heart of the issue has been a settled issue. Christians may have good natural theological reasons for thinking that the embryo is, in fact, ensouled and that the embryo is, in fact, a human substance.[3] Many have argued that the substance in the Mother’s womb has the pluri-potentiality for full human functioning and is not an appendage of the Mother and is not identical to the Mother’s body.[4] One could argue, however, that the embryo is not yet ensouled. In either case, we have no reason to devalue the embryo. As several Roman Catholic thinkers note, the nature of the embryo as ensouled or delayed does not avert the value of that life as human life. Instead, the embryo is still valuable and dignified, and it would be wrong to prevent that very life from entering into a meaningful relationship with God.[5] These sorts of arguments have their place but are superseded by the pattern of the incarnation when reflecting on the embryo. Having established reasons—and Christological reasons at that—for thinking that embryonic life matters to God, for which reason it ought to matter to us, there is another concern confronting us today.  And we suggest that this idea ought to guide our thinking about contemporary issues in medicine and technology, but, particularly, in this case the saving or rescuing of human souls from a perpetual state of frozen inactivity.  

The desire to have and to hold a gift of life can now be satisfied with the astonishing means of overcoming certain types of infertility. Depending on the specific cause, there are a variety of ways to overcome infertility, from artificial insemination to in vitro fertilization (IVF). One of the most successful ways to overcoming infertility is in vitro fertilization, which is a process whereby a female’s eggs are harvested and fertilized by a man’s sperm in a petri dish after which the resulting embryo is returned to the woman’s womb for implantation. Through Divine providence, the process of in vitro fertilization has brought great joy to many. There are, however, various worries that deserve our reflection. Let’s take one.

In many cases the process of in vitro fertilization includes the harvesting of many eggs and the attempted fertilization of multiple eggs at one point in time. The latter practice is not an essential step in the process, as it is only necessary to fertilize as many eggs as are intended to be implanted. It is, however, the typical practice and generally is done for the sake of convenience, cost-effectiveness, and to avoid the woman having to undergo a repeat cycle involving an additional round of drugs and daily injections. Oftentimes those who opt for in vitro only have the intention of bringing one or two embryos to maturation. Herein lies the worry: we have an excess of embryos. The question then is: What do we do with this excess? Many well-meaning families not wishing to destroy their embryos because they value the embryonic life end up freezing them through cryopreservation, not knowing what to do with them. As mentioned earlier some have called this the problem of ‘embryo glut.’ But again the problem is that this embryo either has a soul or, at a minimum, is a human life that, as a frozen entity, will, arguably, not have the opportunity in this life to enter into a deep and meaningful relationship with God. These too are valued by God, as we argued above. A frozen embryo is not a fully functioning human life and it lacks the requisite functioning capacities to move, to make choices, to relate with others, and, most important, to relate with God. In other words, embryos, in this state, exist in a state of inaction. To leave these embryos in such a state is not an inconsiderable problem.

Thinking God’s thoughts after him, as it were, Christians have a paradigm for thinking about the little embryonic human being. God affirms the life that he gives to us, as pictured in the incarnation. God blesses that life with its attendant ability to enter into deep and meaningful relationships, with God in particular, and God intends for that life to experience the life of human design. As Christians confess that by the incarnation, Christ becomes the agent of God’s redemptive action, we are called in our confession to act in redemptive ways. So, what does this redemptive action have to do with embryo glut, you ask? More than you might think, actually.

First, this may cause us to re-think specific methods for IVF. What originally appeared as a blessing from God has, with our consumerist desire for immediate blessing, together with our propensity to think less about the long-term consequences of our choices, created a new problem called ‘embryo glut’. Second, with no recession of embryo glut in sight, there is a new problem, which affords an opportunity for ransom. Like Christ’s ransom of sinners whereby he pays death’s debt to divine justice with his life, we too share in a similar work of ransoming embryo’s by the self-sacrificing work of buying back with our own life, as it were, the life that would otherwise be imperiled. How do we do this? Not unlike traditional adoption, there is a new kind of adoption called embryo adoption.[6] By ransoming embryos, and giving up our lives for another, we too share, though as in a shadow, in the redemptive work of God’s rescue of human life.

Embryo glut is yet another worry for the Christian guided by principles of life in our contemporary world. It raises not only a new concern but also a new opportunity for Christian redemptive action. As Christ affirms embryonic life by assuming one to himself, we too have an opportunity to ransom that life.


[1] Liz Mundy, “Souls on Ice: America’s Embryo Glut and the Wasted Promise of Stem Cell Research” Mother Jones July/August 2006, https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2006/07/souls-ice-americas-embryo-glut-and-wasted-promise-stem-cell-research/.

[2] See Oliver D. Crisp, God Incarnate: Explorations in Christology (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 110-120. Also see David Albert Jones, The Soul of the Embryo (London: T&T Clark, 2006). Jones shows that the most persuasive “Christian” argument for the value of the embryo is the incarnation of God the Son, but he shows throughout the book that the Patristics, the Medievals, and the Reformers were in agreement that the embryo is either intrinsically valuable or Divinely perceived as valuable (i.e., embryos assume value extrinsically in virtue of their relationship to God).

[3] For a variety of different options on the origin of the soul, see Joshua R. Farris, The Soul of Theological Anthropology: A Cartesian Exploration (New York: Routledge, 2017), pp. 55–96.

[4] Cf. Jones, The Soul of the Embryo.

[5] David Albert Jones, “The Human Embryo in the Christian Tradition: A Reconsideration,” Journal of Medical Ethics 31 (2005): 710–714, https://jme.bmj.com/content/31/12/710.

[6] Cf. Thomas Berg and Edward Furton, eds. Human Embryo Adoption: Biotechnology, Marriage, and the Right to Life (Philadelphia: The National Catholic Bioethics Center, 2006) and Sarah-Vaughan Brakman and Darlene Fozard Weaver, eds. The Ethics of Embryo Adoption and the Catholic Tradition: Moral Arguments, Economic Reality and Social Analysis (New York: Springer, 2007). Also see: https://adoptembryos.org (accessed on November 25, 2018).