Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.
Apropos of the issue of the definitional power of euphemistic language, the NY Times today has an article on a growing movement among opponents of abortion rights and embryo research to “adopt” unused embryos left over from IVF procedures (i.e., to arrange to transfer them to women who are not the ovum donors, who will gestate them in order to prevent them being discarded or used in research). While the practice itself is not necessarily problematic, the organized movement in favor of such transfers is rife with manipulative language and demonstrative grandstanding. President Bush’s recent awkward baby-kissing was staged among a group of “adopted-embryo” children, and apparently such displays have become popular among right-wing politicians.
The “adoption” program is named “Snowflakes“, which is also its term for stored IVF embryos (they’re frozen, and each one is unique – get it?). The use of the term “adoption” is deliberate – an intended effort to blur the distinction between an independent child and an embryo (or even an unimplanted embryo resident entirely outside any woman’s uterus):
The adoption terminology irritates the fertility industry, abortion rights advocates and supporters of embryonic stem cell research, who believe that the language suggests – erroneously, they maintain – that an embryo has the same status as a child.
But for some conservative Christians, that is precisely the point.
“I think appearing with Snowflakes kids is a potent symbol, and I think it illustrates the truth, which is that the embryo is just that child at an earlier stage of development,” said Bill Saunders, director of the Family Research Council’s Center for Human Life and Bioethics.
The identification of the two carries over into the lives of the children born from these embryos, as well:
President Bush appeared with the McClures and 20 other Snowflakes families, kissing the babies, some of whom wore T-shirts that said “former embryo,” or “this embryo was not discarded.”
(Aside from the unfairness I always think is inherent in using young children as political props, this seems to me to tell the children their parents equate them with embryos. As objectionable as that is in moral-theoretical terms, it is an especially insensitive message to give to the children themselves, and at such a young age – still more so to make them wear it on their clothing!)
Not only are frozen embryos “adopted children”, but frozen embryos that are not “adopted” are thus “abandoned children”:
“Our position on I.V.F. would be you shouldn’t create through I.V.F. more embryos than are going to be implanted, and we don’t think any should be frozen,” Mr. Saunders said. “But when it’s clear that a couple are unable to or unwilling to implant an embryo – that basically they’ve abandoned the child – then we see embryo adoption as a solution to the problem.”
The program is not simply aimed at reducing the backlog of IVF embryos, but at implementing an ideological childbearing regimen that subsumes not merely the recipient mother’s desire for children but her marital status, religion, and personal politics – which participants in the program apparently regard as a good thing:
Couples must agree to adoption-like procedures: receiving families are screened and must undergo counseling, and Snowflakes allows donating and receiving families to designate criteria for each other, meet and maintain contact after birth. Adopting couples must agree not to abort any embryos.
Those conditions were fine with Bob and Angie Deacon of Virginia Beach, Va., who donated their 13 embryos after having twins and being discouraged from another pregnancy by a doctor. “With another program, to be honest with you, they could have been adopted by lesbian parents, and I’m totally against that,” said Mr. Deacon, 35.
The controversial aspects of the program are deliberately chosen as motivating tactics aimed at the conservative community:
As for conservatives’ political embrace of Snowflakes, Mr. Stoddart, who has sent state legislators a proposed embryo adoption bill, says that he is happy to oblige.
“The best way to increase awareness of embryo adoption is controversy,” he said. “The embryonic stem cell research debate has done more to publicize this than anything. Nobody’s going to put pictures of the president kissing a child in your paper just to publicize an adoption program.”
And, finally, conservative lawmakers are eager to promote this approach to embryo management. The Times article notes that various bills encouraging or funding such “adoptions” – and using the preferred “adoption” language of the program’s proponents – are moving through Congress and some state legislatures at this time. It does not mention that this has been a building wave for years now. The “Snowflakes” program was begun in 1997, and such bills have been floated in Congress for some time. It is interesting to note that their enthusiasm for distributing embryos to uteruses does not extend to protecting the women who own those uteruses from medical risks that would prohibit the tissue transfer in any other context:
Last week, the Food and Drug Administration issued guidelines that it said would “enhance the availability of embryos for donation,” by exempting embryos from medical screenings required of donated tissues, like livers or corneas. Many frozen embryos could not have met the screening requirements because many couples are not tested for communicable diseases beforehand.
(This is, of course, the same FDA that refuses to approve “Plan B” emergency contraception for OTC sale because of a safety issue the FDA itself did not even raise during its review process.)
The overall picture, then, is that conservative groups are promoting an ideological program to “rescue” embryos from wasting or research use while imposing absurdly intrusive personal and religious/ideological requirements on its participants and simultaneously evading established medical-safety requirements; a highly politicized FDA rushes to revoke its own safety standards for such procedures to accomodate this program, and conservative politicians are lining up not merely to endorse it but to be seen posing with children born through this program, who are conveniently labeled as embryo-equivalents on their own chests – all of them self-consciously employing insistently euphemistic language that equates disembodied embryos with 5-year-old children, and gestation with adoption.
Nobody thinks this is creepy?
UPDATE: The Snowflakes Web site currently has a press announcement about the Bush photo-op, stating that “Twenty one of our Snowflakes children joined him in order to put a face to these embryos under discussion.” I’m reverberating between wondering how an embryo has a face and the staggering bluntness of the declaration that the faces of these children are, indeed, faces of embryos. It’s as if children, as such, aren’t even visible to these people.
Meanwhile, “Pro-Life Infonet” has a story featuring a 7-year-old girl born from one of the embryos in the “Snowflakes” program. The story’s title?: “An Embryonic Stem Cell Named Hannah” (You can’t make this stuff up!)
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