After my first reading of a Chicago Tribune article about parents deciding what to do with leftover embryos following IVF treatment, I was so confused I had to consult my smart friend Laura. I IM’ed her the link and asked, “Am I crazy, or does this article totally take it on faith (ha!) that everyone deciding what to do with an embryo is religious?” Laura’s verdict? “Man, those babies in the picture are cute. Especially the yawning one.” Also, “You are definitely not crazy. This is an article about Christians struggling with this decision, which is very interesting, but nowhere in the article does the writer specify that.”
Technically, that’s not true — 11 paragraphs into the article, the religions of the couple in question, Adrianna and Robert Potter, are mentioned (she’s a lapsed Catholic, he’s a Methodist). And after 10 paragraphs, the author, Manya A. Brachear, notes, “Such decisions, doctors say, are often informed and framed by faith” — which is enough to justify focusing on that angle for one article. But it would be nice if said article either led with a clear indication that it was doing just that, or else acknowledged that “What would Jesus do?” is not the central question facing every couple with embryos in storage. Laura continues, “There is no one saying, ‘Hey, guess what, embryos aren’t people’ — whether that comes from a scientist, an atheist, or simply a different set of Christians. There’s also no ‘here are some of the things that stem cell research is used for’ info. It’s all, ‘Your dead babies will go to Science, whatever that is.’”
That’s an exaggeration, but not by all that much. Writes Brachear, “At this time last year, doctors say, the absence of government funds combined with the economic downturn stalled most meaningful embryonic science, making donations to research a riskier and more radical option. Some laboratories stopped accepting donations, forcing some fertility centers to hold on to embryos despite parents’ preference to devote them to research.” So, wait, deciding that you’d like your embryos to go to science somehow becomes “risky” and “radical” if there’s a chance they might not be used for research? I guess that makes sense if, like Adrianna Potter, you only favor donating embryos to science to promote “the creation of new life” — she notes that research led to their ability to conceive via IVF, and would like to help other couples. Her husband, Robert, either wants to keep them “to fulfill God’s mandate to be fruitful and multiply” or donate them to another infertile couple. So for them, donating embryos to science with no guarantee that they’ll be used might indeed seem risky and/or radical. But what about couples who make that choice simply because they’d rather see the embryos go to good use than discard them? Because they believe in the promise of stem cell research — and at this time last year, were probably hoping that Obama would revoke the ban on federal funding for it, which he did? At this point in the article, there’s still been no clear acknowledgment that this particular debate has a faith-specific context — but any other context is completely ignored.
And that’s the subtle part. Later, Brachear writes, “Robert doesn’t trust that every embryo [donated to science] fulfills a greater purpose. He can’t imagine sentencing two potential children to short lives that would end in a laboratory.” I’m sorry, I can get on board with “potential children,” emphasis on potential, but short lives? No. The idea that an embryo has a “life” that can be ended, even when it’s never seen the inside of a woman’s uterus, is a purely religious one; Robert seems to hold that belief as part of his faith, which is fine, but could we please get some quotation marks, or even a non-specific “he said” on that? Because otherwise, you’re asking the reader to accept the concept of embryonic personhood as a given. And boy, this reader doesn’t.
As Laura said, an article about Christians struggling with a decision that raises serious questions about their own faith versus science is a very interesting idea — and if the headline or subhead or first nine and a half paragraphs indicated that that is, in fact, the subject here, I would have an entirely different take on the execution. Instead, a peculiarly religious dilemma is universalized — “Families struggle with science, faith,” reads the subhead — and people who have no faith-based qualms about donating embryos to science (including many religious people, as well as those who don’t have faith-basied qualms, period) are simply not acknowledged. Not to mention, “struggling with science” is presented as wondering whether your embryos’ “lives” will have meaning in a lab — which, call me crazy, still sounds more like struggling with faith. At a time when anti-choice groups are sincerely attempting to redefine personhood as “the beginning of biological development” — raising the possibility of everything from miscarriages being investigated as potential homicides to pregnant women qualifying for the carpool lane — blurring the line between religious beliefs and observable facts is what I would call “risky” and “radical.”