'Embryo jewelry' a sign we've taken the wrong path, IVF critic says

Human Embryo File Photo Credit Firstbrook Just Click 100 via Flickr CC BY NC 20 CNA 2 3 15 Human Embryo, File Photo. | Firstbrook Just Click 100 via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

For one critic, a report that IVF-conceived embryos are being cremated and turned into jewelry for their mothers shows the basic problem with the artificial creation of human embryos.

"I have no words. I have no category for who would think this would be something good to do," said Jennifer Lahl, the founder and president of the California-based Center for Bioethics and Culture.

"It's so undignified that these embryos have been destroyed to become jewelry," she told CNA. "I thought, 'My gosh, it really has hit rock-bottom'."

Lahl, who has a background as a pediatric critical care nursing and hospital administration, has long been a critic of egg donation and IVF.

Now, the small Australian company Baby Bee Hummingbirds is turning embryos into keepsake jewelry.

A story in the Australian mothers' website Kidspot portrays the process as a solution to "extra" embryos that are created in the in-vitro fertilization process. It recounts the story of a couple who had conceived three children, including twins, but faced financial strain in paying for the annual storage of the leftover embryos and could not imagine disposing of them or donating them.

"I don't believe there is any other business in the world that creates jewelry from human embryos, and I firmly believe that we are pioneering the way in this sacred art, and opening the possibilities to families around the world," Amy McGlade, the founder of Baby Bee Hummingbirds, told Kidspot.

Families send the jeweler IVF straws containing the embryos, which are cremated into embryo ash, which is then incorporated into the jewelry.

Since 2014, Baby Bee Hummingbirds has made 50 pieces of jewelry with embryos. About 4,000 of its other works of jewelry use breastmilk, placenta, hair, ashes, or umbilical cord stumps.

The pieces cost from $80 to $600.

"It's special because the embryos are often signifying the end of a journey, and we are providing a beautiful and meaningful way to gently close the door," McGlade said.

For Lahl, however, the process is no solution to frozen embryos.

"The solution is to stop creating surplus embryos. The solution is to stop freezing human embryos, so that parents aren't left with these ethical dilemmas of what to do with them when they decide they don't want any more children," she said.

"If anything it creates even more complex ethical problems, a new novel way of disrespecting human life."

Lahl objected that "creating life and calling it surplus" is "an undignified view of early, nascent human life." She worried that IVF treatment and the creation of human embryos is the consequence of the belief that parents have "a right to pursue that child at whatever cost, and at whatever manner."

"It loses sight of the fact that children are intended to be gifts and blessings, not something we have a right to."

McGlade, the jewelry business founder, promoted the use of embryos in jewelry.

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"Reactions from families who understand the journey are amazing and heartfelt. They are so grateful for our service," she said. "What a better way to celebrate your most treasured gift, your child, than through jewelry? It's about the everlasting tangible keepsake of a loved one that you can have forever."

Kidspot cited one mother who had her embryos turned into jewelry through the business.

"I'd heard others had planted them in the garden but we move a lot, so I couldn't do this," said the mother, who had the seven embryos placed in a heart-shaped pendant. "I needed them with me."

She said the six years of IVF treatment was "painful, tormenting, a strain on our marriage and just plain hard."

"Finding this has brought me so much comfort and joy," she said. "I finally at peace and my journey complete."

"My embryos were my babies – frozen in time," she said. "When we completed our family, it wasn't in my heart to destroy them. Now they are forever with me in a beautiful keepsake."

The Catholic Church stresses that all human life – including those in the embryonic state – have an invaluable human dignity. Catholic teaching opposes IVF.

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However, Lahl stressed the need for compassion for those who have used IVF to treat infertility.

"We need to approach anybody struggling with infertility with a lot of grace and mercy," she said. "We need to understand that infertility is a real grief. People just naturally assume that when they are ready to start their family that children will come. We have to be incredibly understanding."

"We also have to be prepared with the facts on what is really involved in reproductive technology. People are uninformed about the risk of these technologies, the ethics of using these technologies and all the problems that come about."

She said in-vitro fertilization is "fraught with ethical problems" due to the health risks to the mother, the conceived children, the cost, and the way in which the use of medicine creates more problems, rather than treats and heals conditions.

"Most of the people who enter into the assisted reproductive technology enterprise don't get a baby," she said. "Overwhelmingly, IVF cycles fail."

The process has a high failure rate and typically costs six figures to successfully conceive and bear a child through IVF.

Lahl said others should consult resources about the field, such as the website of the CBC Network. Her network covers topics like infertility issues, egg donation, sperm donation, surrogacy, assisted reproductive technologies and their health risks to women.

Although she is not Catholic, she said Church teaching on these issues was "rich and important."  

"I think the Catholic Church has gotten these issues quite right. If you really look at the evidence and the medical literature, it will only reinforce the teaching of the Catholic Church."

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