By / Jan 19

In late 2017, an embryo that had been frozen for 24 years was born via a procedure termed frozen embryo transfer.[1] The procedure was facilitated and performed at the National Embryo Donation Center in Knoxville, Tenn., a faith-based organization that is one of the largest organizations of its kind. As this is a procedure that some Christians may be thinking about utilizing for their own families, here is what you should know about frozen embryo transfer.

What is frozen embryo transfer (FET)?

Frozen embryo transfer (FET), also known colloquially as “embryo adoption” or “rescue surrogacy,” has been around for more than 35 years, as the first successful report of this procedure was in 1983.[2] In FET, an embryo (fertilized egg) that has been previously frozen and given up for donation is implanted into woman’s uterus.

FET is a procedure primarily used to treat infertility. Persons searching for infertility solutions who may not be able to afford in vitro fertilization (IVF)[3] or other artificial reproductive treatments, or have objections to their use, have viewed FET as a way to still have the birthing experience. However, FET is not only for those who are infertile. It can also be utilized by a fertile woman who wishes to adopt an already frozen embryo.

Why are embryos frozen?

It is common practice for couples undergoing IVF to be encouraged to have additional embryos cryopreserved for future use.[4] Approximately 40 percent of persons undergoing IVF have additional embryos frozen for a later attempt, should their current round of IVF be unsuccessful, or to continue building their family at a later time. Embryos may be frozen and kept in short-term storage at a clinic for persons who want to attempt further IVF cycles, or they may be transferred to more long-term cryobank facilities.

Currently, up to one million human embryos are stored in the U.S.[5] Of these, it is estimated that only between one to six percent are currently available for adoption.[6] Hence, while IVF can be thought of as a way of creating life via reproductive technology, EFT provides a womb for that life to develop as was intended of human life.

What can be done with frozen embryos?

Many Christians would affirm that an embryo, even though it has not been implanted into a woman’s uterus, is a human life. As a human life, it is worthy of the same dignity and respect as any other image-bearer of God.

Once embryos are created utilizing IVF, if a person(s) decides they have completed their family while still having some embryos frozen, then they have a choice to make:

  1. Destroy/discard the embryos
  2. Keep the embryos frozen indefinitely
  3. Donate the embryos for scientific research
  4. Donate the embryos for adoption

Many Christians would affirm that an embryo, even though it has not been implanted into a woman’s uterus, is a human life. As a human life, it is worthy of the same dignity and respect as any other image-bearer of God. Hence, if an embryo is a human life and fellow image-bearer, then several things follow regarding the four options above.

First, while discarding embryos may be quick and discontinue a person’s obligation for them, it is also morally problematic, as it destroys human life.

Second, opting to keep embryos frozen indefinitely may seem like an easy choice for the parents, yet this is not optimal because it does not allow the life to grow and flourish as God intended for his creation.

Third, donating the embryos to science, if someone holds that they are human lives, is akin to the first choice. While the intention may be that the embryo has potentiality to advance science and assist in providing a disease cure, the process would still destroy the embryo, which is morally problematic.

The fourth option is the most life-affirming of the possibilities because it allows the embryo to develop and eventually be born, as was intended. This option also allows couples to fulfill the command to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28).

How is FET similar to traditional adoption?

In “traditional” adoption, a couple agrees to be the parents of either an already-born or about-to-be born child. FET is not legally considered adoption by U.S. law, as cells are merely property, not people.[7] Hence, embryo adoption is managed by U.S. property law, where the “owners” of the embryo (i.e. the genetic parents) have to donate the property (i.e. the embryo(s)). Nonetheless, if an embryo is a human life, which many Christians would affirm, then adopting an embryo is very similar to traditional adoption because it provides a new home for the child, as well as a new identity.  

What are some potential concerns with FET?

FET does cause a separation of the unitive and procreative dimension of marriage. That is, it goes against the creation norm for marriage and procreation by introducing a third party into the equation. This has been written on at length elsewhere, primarily by Catholic moralists. Yet, any qualms that one may have about violating the unitive and procreative norm may be overridden by taking into account the rescue of an embryo that is destined either for indefinite cryopreservation or destruction.

One could make an argument that if a person or couple wants to adopt, then the wisest and most loving course would be to adopt an already-born child, as these children have tangible needs (food, clothing, shelter, love), and should be given the opportunity to accept the gospel message. This concern should certainly be taken into account, yet it seems that we do not have to pit one against the other: traditional adoption vs. embryo adoption.

Russell Moore has written that we are often too drawn to an either/or ethic rather than a both/and.[8] To be certain, there are areas where our ethic must be either/or: serve either God or money; either be faithful to your spouse or not. There is no middle ground or room for compromise on these issues. Yet, Scripture also shows cases of both/and: Jesus is both God and man. To choose one in opposition to the other leads to a misrepresentation that breaks down completely. If we believe it is good to see orphans go to loving homes, then this includes orphaned embryos. The best thing that could happen to orphaned embryos is not simply to be left in a frozen, forgotten about state, but rather to be welcomed into a loving family, just as Jesus receives the little children (Matt. 19:14).

How should followers of Christ think about embryo adoption?

The doctrine of adoption is at the core of Christianity. In adoption, God the Father sends God the Son, Jesus, to earth as an embryo. Nine months later, the God-man, Jesus, is born. And it is through the person and work of Jesus that the Father adopts us as his own sons and daughters. The Apostle Paul writes of this adoption,

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:14-17a).

The doctrine of adoption is, in a very true sense, the gospel itself. Our identity as children of God, and our inheritance with his kingdom, is grounded in the person and work of Jesus. Yet, as Russell Moore has pointed out, adoption is also mission: “In this, our adoption spurs us to join Christ in advocating for the poor, the marginalized, the abandoned and the fatherless.”[9]

Hence, the same principle that is at work in the theological doctrine of adoption—where God rescues the helpless and adopts them into his kingdom—is also at work in earthly adoption, both traditional forms and embryo adoption. If we view frozen embryos as perpetual orphans until they are either implanted into the genetic mother’s uterus or adopted, then this will lead to us advocating for their lives, against their destruction, and for their ultimate adoption.  

By / Dec 14

Editor’s note: This is the eighth article in a monthly series on what Christians should know about bioethics.

Since the early 1990s, about 10 million children have been born because of in vitro fertilization. While this reproductive technology has been a blessing to many infertile couples, it has come with a high price: for every child conceived through IVF, there are between 5 to fifteen humans who will die in the embryonic stage.

This means that roughly 100 million humans were created that will die outside the womb.

Of these human beings, approximately 3 percent will be donated for use in embryonic stem cell research programs.

The debate about the morality of research that destroys human embryos has waxed and waned for the past fifteen years. But rather than achieving a consensus on the issue, Americans are still divided. Unfortunately, the complexity of the issue and the peculiar terminology used often prevents many Christians from developing a fully informed opinion on the matter.

Roughly 100 million human were created that will die outside the womb.

Here is what you should know about embryo destructive research and how it relates to the ethics of “making life.”

What are stem cells?

In the human body there are around 200 different cells. Most cells are a particular type (such as the ceruminous gland cell) and have a specific function (in the case of the ceruminous gland cell, producing earwax). Stem cells differ, though, in that thy are relatively undifferentiated and unspecialized – they have not yet obtained a special structure and function

These cells are multipotent, meaning they can give rise to several other differentiated and specialized cells of the body (for example, liver cells, kidney cells, brain cells). All specialized cells arise originally from stem cells, and ultimately from a small number of embryonic cells that appear during the first few days of development.

How are stem cells different than other types of cells?

Stem cells have two unique characteristics: (1) an almost unlimited capacity for self-renewal (they can theoretically divide without limit to replenish other cells for as long as the person is alive) and (2) they retain the potential to produce differentiated and specialized cell types. As stem cells within a developing human embryo differentiate within the cell, their capacity to diversify generally becomes more limited and their ability to generate many differentiated cell types also becomes more restricted.

Why are stem cells so important to research?

There are two main reasons stem cells are of interest to both scientific and medical research. First, stem cells provide a valuable tool for studying both normal and abnormal cellular processes. By learning how stem cells differentiate and become specialized, scientists hope to gain a better understanding of how cells in general work and what can go wrong. Second, stem cells may prove to be an indispensable source of transplantable cells and tissues for repair and regeneration. If stem cells can used to produce new and differentiated cells that are damaged because of disease (such as Parkinson’s disease) or injury (e.g., spinal cord damage), it would transform regenerative medicine.

What are embryonic stem cells?

Embryonic stem cells (ESCs) are stem cells that have been taken from the inner cell mass of a blastocyst, a embryo of about 150 cells that has not yet implanted into a woman’s uterus. (“Embryo” is the term for humans (and other mammals) in the stage of development between fertilization and the end of the eighth week of gestation, whereupon the being is referred to as a fetus until the time of birth.)

Where do the embryos for embryonic stem cells come from?

Some infertile couples that wish to conceive turn to in vitro fertilization (IVF). Oftentimes during the process, more embryos are created than are implanted into a woman’s womb. If they have no intention of giving birth to these embryos, the couple can donate them for research purposes. Currently, all human embryonic stem cell lines in use today were created from embryos generated by in vitro fertilization (IVF).

What are adult stem cells?

The term adult stem cells simply refers to any non-embryonic stem cell, whether taken from a fetus, a child, or an adult. Adult stem cells are sometimes referred to as somatic stem cells to differentiate them from human germ cells, sperm cells, and egg cells).

What is a stem cell line?

A stem cell line is a family of constantly dividing cells, the product of a single group of stem cells, which can be grown indefinitely in the laboratory.

Why is there a controversy over ESC research?

The process of obtaining stem cells leads to the destruction of the embryo from which the cells are taken. Because human life begins at conception, embryo destruction is immoral since it is the destruction of a human being. Even some people who do not believe that human embryos are deserving of full moral status worry about what the effects of normalizing such practices may have on society.

Advocates of ESC research, however, argue that it is unethical to impede potential advances that could heal disease and relieve the suffering of fully developed human beings. They believe that the moral status of a 150-to-200-cell early human embryo should not take precedence over responsible scientific inquiry.

Doesn’t the government ban the use and funding of embryonic stem cells research?

Research using cells taken from destroyed embryos is illegal in many countries, including Germany, Austria, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, and New Zealand. Most African and South American countries also have some form of restriction or ban.

However, in the United States there are no restrictions on research and only minimal restrictions on government funding of embryo-destructive research.

In 1995, Congress attached language to an appropriations bill prohibiting the use of any federal funds for research that destroys or seriously endangers human embryos, or creates them for research purposes. This provision, known as the Dickey Amendment, has been attached to the Health and Human Services appropriations bill each year since 1996.

In 2009, President Barack Obama issued Executive Order that lifted all restrictions against federal funding of stem cell research. The courts ruled that the language of the Dickey Amendment prohibited the use of government funds to directly destroy an embryo, but could not prohibit funding a research project using embryonic stem cells.

President Trump has not overturned the previous administration’s policy.

Aren’t embryonic stem cells more effective than adult stem cells at treating diseases?

No. In fact, just the opposite is true: there are more than 70 conditions currently being treated with adult stem cells, and zero with embryonic stem cells. Despite the media hype of the early 2000s, embryonic stem cell research has proven to be useless at treating medical conditions.  When tested on animals, embryonic stem cells turned into tumors. As biological engineer James Sherley once explained, “Figuring out how to use human embryonic stem cells directly by transplantation into patients is tantamount to solving the cancer problem.”

Government and private funding sources have consistently shown a preference for adult stem cell research. For every dollar spent on embryonic stem cell research, 4 dollars are spent on research using adult stem cells. However, because of its unethical nature, more needs to be done to oppose any federal funding and discourage private funding of embryo destructive research.

Can Christians support embryonic stem cell research?

Several passages in the Bible strongly suggests that human life begins at conception

 (cf. Job 31:13-15; Psalms 51:5; 139:13-16; Matthew 1:20). The Bible is also clear about the taking of innocent life (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17). For these reasons, Christians should not support medical research that requires killing innocent human beings at the earliest stage of their development.  

By / Apr 28

“The issue of research involving stem cells derived from human embryos is increasingly the subject of a national debate and dinner table discussions,” said President George W. Bush in a 2001 speech announcing his policy on embryonic stem cell research. More than a decade later, the discussion and debate has not only continued but has become increasingly confusing and contentious. Unfortunately, the complexity of the issue and the peculiar terminology used often prevents many Christians from developing a fully informed opinion on the matter.

Download the brief for more information.

By / Dec 12

“The issue of research involving stem cells derived from human embryos is increasingly the subject of a national debate and dinner table discussions,” said President George W. Bush in a 2001 speech announcing his policy on embryonic stem cell research. More than a decade later, the discussion and debate has not only continued but has become increasingly confusing and contentious. Unfortunately, the complexity of the issue and the peculiar terminology used often prevents many Christians from developing a fully informed opinion on the matter.

Though not intended to be an exhaustive explanation of this important topic, we believe this will help to clarify and explain the questions most frequently asked about embryonic stem cell research.

What are stem cells?

In the human body there are around 200 different cells. Most cells are a particular type (such as the ceruminous gland cell) and have a specific function (in the case of the ceruminous gland cell, producing earwax). Stem cells differ, though, in that they are relatively undifferentiated and unspecialized—they have not yet obtained a special structure and function.

These cells are multipotent, meaning they can give rise to several other differentiated and specialized cells of the body (for example, liver cells, kidney cells, brain cells). All specialized cells arise originally from stem cells, and ultimately form a small number of embryonic cells that appear during the first few days of development.

How are stem cells different than other types of cells?

Stem cells have two unique characteristics: (1) an almost unlimited capacity for self-renewal (they can theoretically divide without limit to replenish other cells for as long as the person is alive) and (2) they retain the potential to produce differentiated and specialized cell types. As stem cells within a developing human embryo differentiate within the cell, their capacity to diversify generally becomes more limited and their ability to generate many differentiated cell types also becomes more restricted.

Why are stem cells so important to research?

There are two main reasons stem cells are of interest to both scientific and medical research. First, stem cells provide a valuable tool for studying both normal and abnormal cellular processes. By learning how stem cells differentiate and become specialized, scientists hope to gain a better understanding of how cells in general work and what can go wrong. Second, stem cells may prove to be an indispensable source of transplantable cells and tissues for repair and regeneration. If stem cells can be used to produce new and differentiated cells that are damaged because of disease (such as Parkinson’s disease) or injury (e.g., spinal cord damage), it would transform regenerative medicine.

What are embryonic stem cells? 

Embryonic stem cells (ESCs) are stem cells that have been taken from the inner cell mass of a blastocyst, an embryo of about 150 cells that has not yet implanted into a woman’s uterus. (“Embryo” is the term for humans and other mammals in the stage of development between fertilization and the end of the eighth week of gestation, whereupon the being is referred to as a fetus until the time of birth.)

Where do the embryos for embryonic stem cells come from?

Some infertile couples that wish to conceive turn to in vitro fertilization (IVF). Oftentimes during the process, more embryos are created than are implanted into a woman’s womb. If they have no intention of giving birth to these embryos, the couple can donate them for research purposes. Currently, all human embryonic stem cell lines in use today were created from embryos generated by IVF.

What are adult stem cells? 

The term adult stem cells simply refers to any non-embryonic stem cell, whether taken from a fetus, a child or an adult. Adult stem cells are sometimes referred to as somatic stem cells to differentiate them from human germ cells, sperm cells and egg cells.

What is a stem cell line?

A stem cell line is a family of constantly dividing cells, the product of a single group of stem cells, which can be grown indefinitely in the laboratory.

Why is there a controversy over ESC research?

The process of obtaining stem cells leads to the destruction of the embryo from which the cells are taken. Because human life begins at conception, embryo destruction is immoral since it is the destruction of a human being. Even some people who do not believe that human embryos are deserving of full moral status worry about what the effects of normalizing such practices may have on society.

Advocates of ESC research, however, argue that it is unethical to impede potential advances that could heal disease and relieve the suffering of fully developed human beings. They believe that the moral status of a 150-to-200-cell early human embryo should not take precedence over responsible scientific inquiry.

Doesn’t the government ban the use and funding of embryonic stem cell research?

Research using cells taken from destroyed embryos is illegal in many countries, including Germany, Austria, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and New Zealand. Most African and South American countries also have some form of restriction or ban.

However, in the United States there are no restrictions on research and only minimal restrictions on government funding of embryo-destructive research.

In 1995, Congress attached language to an appropriations bill prohibiting the use of any federal funds for research that destroys or seriously endangers human embryos, or creates them for research purposes. This provision, known as the Dickey Amendment, has been attached to the Health and Human Services appropriations bill each year since 1996.

In 2009, President Barack Obama issued Executive Order that lifted all restrictions against federal funding of stem cell research. The courts ruled that the language of the Dickey Amendment prohibited the use of government funds to directly destroy an embryo, but could not prohibit funding a research project using embryonic stem cells.

Aren’t embryonic stem cells more effective than adult stem cells at treating diseases?

No. In fact, just the opposite is true: there are more than 70 conditions currently being treated with adult stem cells, and zero with embryonic stem cells. Despite the media hype of the early 2000s, embryonic stem cell research has proven to be useless at treating medical conditions. When tested on animals, embryonic stem cells turned into tumors. As biological engineer James Sherley once explained, “Figuring out how to use human embryonic stem cells directly by transplantation into patients is tantamount to solving the cancer problem.”

Government and private funding sources have consistently shown a preference for adult stem cell research. For every dollar spent on embryonic stem cell research, four dollars is spent on research using adult stem cells. However, because of its unethical nature, more needs to be done to oppose any federal funding and discourage private funding of embryo-destructive research.

Can Christians support embryonic stem cell research?

Several passages in the Bible strongly suggest that human life begins at conception

 (Job 31:13-15; Ps. 51:5; 139:13-16; Matt. 1:20). The Bible is also clear about the taking of innocent life (Exod. 20:13; Deut. 5:17). For these reasons, Christians should not support medical research that requires killing innocent human beings at the earliest stage of their development.