My Daughter Is a Person; Her Frozen Embryo ‘Possiblings’ Aren’t

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Commentary Abortion

My Daughter Is a Person; Her Frozen Embryo ‘Possiblings’ Aren’t

Lindsay King-Miller

Protecting abortion access for her, especially as conservatives try to push the definition of "life" earlier and earlier, feels just as immediately personal as fighting for my own bodily autonomy.

I’ve always been pro-choice. It’s fundamental to my worldview as a feminist: Every person should have the unfettered ability to control when, how, and with whom they reproduce, end of story. My reproductive rights catchphrase of choice is not “safe, legal, and rare;” it’s “free abortions on demand.”

But when I married my genderqueer partner (who, like me, has a uterus), I figured the part of my life where abortion access was even theoretically a personal concern had ended. Abortion access, while still a huge political priority and something I believe in deeply, took a backseat to other issues that had more impact on my everyday life.

Then my partner had a baby—and protecting abortion access for her, especially as conservatives continuously try to redefine when life begins, feels just as immediately personal as fighting for my own bodily autonomy.

My partner’s desperately wanted pregnancy, the result of two years of trying and an expensive round of in vitro fertilization (IVF), was totally hellish. He had intense heartburn, no appetite, and vomited so much his esophagus bled, all of which culminated in being five pounds under his pre-pregnancy weight on the day he went into labor. If I’d been on the fence before, watching my partner struggle through the challenges of pregnancy and birth—and knowing that in the grand scheme of things, we were breathtakingly lucky that everything went so well—would certainly have crystallized my conviction that no one should ever be forced to continue a pregnancy they don’t want.

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But nothing underscored the importance of reproductive choice quite like holding my daughter in my arms and thinking, “This is the beginning of a life.”

Before I met my child, I stayed clear of the “when does life begin” facet of the reproductive rights debate. To me, it never really mattered whether a five-day embryo was morally the same as an infant five days after birth. The important thing, I thought, was that even if an embryo was a person, they did not have the right to another human being’s body without that human being’s consent—as no one does. (For example, you cannot be legally compelled to donate an organ, even to a person who will die without it.)

Throughout the IVF process, we had opportunities to get attached to our potential offspring at every developmental stage. First, there were the eggs my partner’s ovaries were stimulated to produce at a dizzying pace, essentially fast-forwarding through a year and a half of his reproductive life. The reproductive endocrinology (RE) clinic collected 17 egg cells. After the eggs were introduced to the sperm cells from our donor (a process I couldn’t help picturing as an awkward singles mixer event, like gamete speed dating), we received updates every couple of days on how many of the developing embryos were on track to become viable blastocysts. From 17 eggs, only ten successfully fertilized; every other day for a week, we heard back from the clinic as the field narrowed again and again. By the end of the week, we had only three blastocysts that stood a chance of implanting in my partner’s uterus.

According to hard-line anti-choice zealots, every single one of those embryos that stopped developing before they could even be called blastocysts was morally indistinguishable from an actual human child. If you look at it that way, before my partner was ever pregnant, we were already the bereaved parents of seven dead children.

I don’t have to tell you that this makes no sense, right? If fertilized eggs were children, RE clinics would be responsible for countless deaths, since every round of IVF results in more eggs fertilized than actually become pregnancies. Yes, as a prospective parent, there’s a sense of sorrow each time you hear that a few more embryos didn’t make it. It’s scary and painful, especially if you’ve been trying for years to have a child (as most people have by the time they resort to IVF). You don’t want to lose another chance. But that’s what it is: a chance. A shot. A possibility. When an embryo fails to develop past three days, that sucks and you feel sad about it. But we’re talking about a sharp and acute sorrow, not a lifetime of grief. Because an embryo is not a baby.

Of the three embryos that made it to blastocyst, we transferred the highest-quality one—as determined by the clinic based on a complicated set of criteria indicating its potential viability—into my partner’s uterus. Miracle of miracles: It implanted, and it developed normally, and my partner took a pregnancy test and we cried over the faint pink line as it shimmered into being, and we cried way more on a snowy evening in November when our actual daughter burst red-faced and alive into the world, and that’s when we became parents.

The other two blastocysts are currently chilling out in a freezer at an RE clinic in Arizona. I think about them a lot. My partner and I have started talking about when to schedule another transfer. In some ways, trying for a second pregnancy feels more momentous than deciding to go for it the first time, because now, in addition to our dreams and hopes of what our family will look like, there’s a child in the picture. A real, breathing, pretzel-crumb-scattering toddler whose needs have to be taken into account first and foremost. Can we afford a second child? Yeah, probably. Can we afford a second child without negative impact to the child we already have? Maybe not.

But if you embrace anti-choice logic to its conclusion, we already have three children. To a “life begins at fertilization” hard-liner, the frozen embryos in Arizona are entitled to the same love, concern, resources and time as my actual daughter. Doesn’t that make it fundamentally clear just how unsustainable that version of reality is?

I have one child. I hope one day that will change, but it hasn’t yet. Who would argue with a straight face that my partner and I are morally obligated to have two more children, no matter how it affects our daughter, because those blastocysts have an inalienable right to grow and live? Most reasonable people are capable of discerning the difference between my daughter and her frozen embryo siblings (sometimes my partner and I call them her “possiblings”). If the clinic caught fire and there was time to save either the freezer full of embryos or a living human child, would anyone hesitate for even an instant?

Of course not. Fertilized egg cells are potential children, but they are not the same thing. Denying an embryo the environment and resources it would require to grow into a baby is not morally equivalent to ending a life.

But while that seems to be common sense in discussing IVF, the same logic doesn’t get applied to abortion, at least not by its opponents. While they occasionally spare a few syllables to condemn IVF for creating and disposing of non-viable embryos, they rarely demonstrate the same levels of vitriol for it. We seldom, if ever, see protesters lining up outside RE clinics the way they do outside Planned Parenthoods. Republican state legislatures aren’t passing waves of laws intended to restrict IVF or ban it outright, although that could end up being a side effect of so-called personhood laws.

An embryo created and grown in a laboratory, outside of another human’s body, can be considered somewhat dispassionately as a cluster of developing cells that could become—but is not yet—a human life. Most of us, regardless of stance on abortion, can understand the motivations for transferring it or not depending on the parents’ situation. But as soon as we as a society imagine that fertilization taking place inside a human body, the patriarchal need to control women’s bodies kicks in.

The question of IVF reveals the pathology of anti-choice rhetoric. People who want abortion outlawed are not acting from the desire to protect potential life above everything else, including women’s bodily autonomy. If that were the case, why aren’t they protesting to save my frozen embryos? Perhaps because controlling women’s bodies—not all people who can get pregnant are women, but people who oppose reproductive choice usually don’t acknowledge that—is the goal. Redefining human life to begin at sperm-meets-egg is merely the vehicle. Leaving a fertilized egg in a freezer where it can’t develop is one thing, but removing a fertilized egg from your body because you don’t want it there offends the patriarchal sensibility to its very core.

Anti-choice pundits like to talk about protecting children, and it’s true that I have never felt such a surge of protectiveness as I did the first time I held my daughter in my arms. In that instant, I understood the word primal in a way I never had before. I was ready to protect her from every imaginable danger. That comes before any loyalty I feel to the embryos that were created alongside her. They might one day be my children, and if and when that happens I will love them with an endless ferocity, but right now I have one daughter, and her needs come first.

And her needs, as someone who has a uterus and might one day become pregnant, include reproductive choice. There are few things in this world I would lay down my life for, but here is one of them: My baby, my daughter, my joy, will never and I mean never be forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term. Not while I am breathing.

Never doubt that pro-choice parents will do what it takes to protect our children—and that includes protecting their right to choose. If I have to pick between my living daughter and her maybe-someday siblings, my kid wins out every time. Her reproductive freedoms are far and away more important to me than a blastocyst’s right to snuggle up in a cozy uterus, even the blastocysts that might someday be my second born. When anti-choice activists talk about protecting children, I wonder why they’re so much more concerned with protecting hypothetical babies than the present and future needs of living kids. Would I sacrifice my daughter’s bodily autonomy for the lives of those two frozen embryos-or any other embryos? No way. She’s my child. It’s really not a choice.