On August 1st, in a move called “a pre-natural massacre” (Vatican’s newspaper L’Osservatore Romano) and “a new milestone for the culture of death” (Catholic World News), British scientists began the destruction of more than 3, 300 human embryos.

An appeal was made to 900 couples whose frozen embryos were scheduled to be destroyed, when the five-year limit on their storage had run out.

The embryos were the result of the test-tube baby treatment undertaken before August 1991, when the storage due to ethnical complications. MPs in Britain decided in 1990 that no frozen embryo should be stored for more than five years, but regulations agreed to earlier this year extended the limit to ten years (or in more exceptional circumstances, provided the couples consented).

Although reports in North America spoke only of 3.300 embryos which would be affected by the ruling, some 9,900 embryos were actually in questions. The 6,600 that were unaccounted for belonged to those “parents” whom the IVF clinics were able to contact. The fate of those 6,000, determined with “parental consent” in as follows: eight per cent were destroyed, up to 15 percent were donated to other couples or frozen for future use, but up to 30 per cent were offered for research. This final horror outstrips even the macabre mass destruction which took place.

Embryo’s fate

As to the 3,300 embryos whose “parents” could not be contacted, the question was what to do with them. Pro-life groups across the country and around the world offered to adopt the embryos. Within days of the story breaking, LIFE, a British pro-charity, said five couples had offered to adopt or foster abandoned embryos. A week before the mass destruction, Mario Ciampi of the Centre for Help To Life, said his office had heard from 100 women in the central Italian town of Massa Carrara and more requests were coming in from all over Italy to adopt the frozen embryos.

The overwhelming response in Italy was due to an editorial in the Church’s official newspaper L’Osservatore Romano which suggested that “in extreme circumstances” pre-natal adoptions be arranged.
Ruth Deech, chairperson of the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, rejected the proposed adoptions. “Consent is critical. If that can’t be obtained, storage has to cease.” No consent was necessary for the destruction of the embryos.

The whole issue surely provoked an ethical quandary. Even among the Catholic hierarchy, confused abounded. The official Vatican position was to allow the human embryos to be adopted; however Britain’s Cardinal Basil Hume said that the embryos should be allowed to die.

“I believe these frozen embryos are frozen human life, but I believe they should be…allowed to die and then disposed of in a dignified manner,” Cardinal Hume, the top catholic prelate in England and Wales, told BBC radio.

The cardinal later reaffirmed Catholic teaching against laboratory manufacture of human beings. He argued, however, that there is no duty to take “extreme means” to keep the embryos alive. “It is one thing to actually kill somebody,” Cardinal Hume said. “It is another to prevent that person from dying.”

The moral dilemma resulted from the fact that the whole procedure of in-vitro fertilization and its antecedent reproductive technology are relatively new procedures calling for moral directions. Although the procedure has been shown to proved otherwise infertile couples with children, it is nevertheless rejected by the church.

Further problems

Besides the foremost reason against in-vitro fertilizations – that it departs from the God-ordained order of conception resulting from the conjugal union of married couples – in-vitro fertilization proposes further ethical problems, especially for pro-lifers. Once one accepts the truth that life begins at conception, the whole concept of manipulation with human embryos becomes problematic. But why not fertilization? Why not give infertile couples the chance to have children of their very own? The answer lies in the actual in-vitro procedure itself.

The typical procedure involves the extraction of a number of eggs (usually around 15 or more) from the mother which are then fertilized by sperm from the father (or donated by a third party) in a Petri dish or test-tube (hence the name “test tube” baby).

The embryos are then examined and three or four of the more promising looking ones re implanted into the mother in the hopes that one will survive. Embryos judges to be inferior are “allowed to die,” while the remainder are frozen and thus able to be stored for later usage.

According to statistics from the Human Fertilization and embryology Authority, the IVF success rate per attempt ranged from 4.9 per cent to 23.7 per cent in the year ending in March 1995, with a national average of 14.5 percent. Almost 20, 000 women had test-tube baby treatment that year, resulting in almost 25, 00 “treatment cycles” or attempts at artificial impregnation.

So with a little simple math we can see that (since each cycle uses four embryos) 100, 00 embryos were implanted. So taking the 14.5 per cent national average there were approximately 3,500 live births resulting from the treatments. Although it may sound impressive to have 3,500 children born this way, one must recall that an embryo conception has already taken place – these are human beings, God’s children.

Thus of the 100, 000 human beings created only 3,500 survived the procedure, not the best of odds. Those 96,500 lives were sacrificed in that year alone. Remember this says nothing of the embryos frozen for later use; those used in treatment cycles are used and not frozen. Thus the true scope of the pre-natal massacre is still more horrible than previously imagined.

As the debate rages, the original 3,300 embryos for whom no donor parents were founded, met an instaneous but cruel end. As the deadline passed, technicians at 32 British fertility clinics dropped the embryos into a solution of alcohol and vinegar. They were each destroyed within seconds.

In an ironic twist, the embryos were not permitted to be destroyed en masse, but had to be dropped into the solution individually.

Commentators later noted that there is no scientific reason the embryos had to be destroyed after the five year period. Theoretically, they could have been kept in a frozen state and successfully implanted at any future time.

The size and scale of the embryo destruction unleased debate all over the world and will no doubt force each nation to examine its own laws regarding embryo research and the state of new reproductive technologies. Canada, for example, had invited input from citizens about upcoming regulations on fertility clinics. The government claims the move was dictated by a June position paper, and not by the situation in Britain. Whatever the outcome of new government regulations, all those concerned with the sanctity of life and security of the preborn anxiously awaits the answers.