A true and current tale: A person of my acquaintance, wishing to have a child with his wife, was discussing his lack of success with another friend, a female who with her own husband has lovely and vigorous sons. This second couple, apparently fine parents in every way, resorted to in vitro fertilization to achieve their own pregnancy. Thus, their apparent children – the ones to be seen in the strollers, or playing in the yard – are not their only children. The rest are frozen in some sterile repository, out of sight if not mind.
In a gesture of intended friendship, the woman offered her friend and his wife one of their frozen embryos. For use as their own child; for inducement of pregnancy; for raising and loving. A gift of a human.
The concept of a person as gift is as old as the concept of people as owned objects. It is a gesture reminiscent of slavery: how telling that the brave new world of technologically-manipulable humanity has returned it to casual discourse in the West. Still, we should be charitable and note that there is another applicable metaphor here – namely, the offering of a child for adoption. If children are not property (we assume that the possession of humanity inherently negates that), then they are wards, and to an extent transferable as such. But transferable as gifts? Well.
Let us add a confounding variable to the situation. Extending the adoption metaphor, let us posit that the mother offering you her child does so with the declaration that the child is useless to her. If you refuse, she will slit her daughter’s throat and leave the child to die. Your course of action seems obvious enough: you take the child immediately and spirit her to safety, away from the mad mother.
This is a seemingly extreme scenario, but it is not an unrealistic one. When the child in question is a frozen embryo, non-utility to the parent is the usual determinant of life or death. Let us therefore return to my acquaintance: he is offered the embryo, which of course must be implanted in his wife, who in turn must endure a full pregnancy and give birth. If he agrees, they will have a child to raise and love. If he refuses, the likelihood is that the embryo will, in time, be killed. My acquaintance’s friends are not uniquely awful, nor are they threatening this end to coerce him into acceptance: it is simply the fate of the vast majority of embryos created for IVF. They are created in a batch, implanted in a batch, aborted in a batch, and the remainder are stored in a batch. At the point at which the parents’ money runs out or they decide they want no further children, the storage facility thaws the embryos, which swiftly die. Their vanishingly tiny corpses are disposed with the flotsam of medical waste, consigned to unmarked graves amidst blood samples, soiled cloths, and used needles.
The recipient of this strange offer is therefore de facto in the position of the person facing the hypothetical mad mother. His acceptance is not merely the receipt of charity, but the giving of the same inasmuch as he will rescue one of the children from its near-certain fate. His refusal, on the other hand, is likely a death sentence for the unborn child he is offered. There is some moral refuge in the unknowability of the child’s fate. Perhaps the parents plan on cold storage – for eternity. Perhaps they will, in time, want more children and themselves bring to term the very embryo they are presently offering. Perhaps.
Perhaps the mad mother threatening to slit her daughter’s throat doesn’t really mean it. Perhaps the little girl will squirm free.
The rationally good answer here is a difficult one. You perform the “rescue” – and then you must persuade your wife to carry someone else’s child as a charitable act. A woman of ordinary moral sense will nonetheless shrink from this, and there is no holding the instinctual revulsion against her. What is right is what is here unnatural, and it is the sense of the latter, paradoxically, that enables us to grope our way to the former. This much is true on the individual level: on the societal level, it is easy enough to conceive of the widespread acceptance of such “gifts” under moral compulsion resulting in the perverse phenomenon of parents who care little for the humanity of their unborn – and there are plenty – assuaging their own consciences by trusting in the integrity of parents who do care about such things to rescue their unwanted progeny. The argument thus resulting states that it may be best to refuse these offers, and thereby discourage the larger phenomenon.
This works until the infant is left on your doorstep. Perhaps you abet child abandonment to take it in; but you abet the devil himself to kick it aside.
There is, of course, a short-circuit to these painful and difficult questions. Simply deny the humanity of the unborn. Simply refuse to acknowledge that humanity carries with it inherent value, in favor of “personhood” or some other nebulous construct. Lo, it thus becomes easy: these frozen things, which in a few months you might call “Johnny” or “Sarah” or “Emily,” are yours to give, and yours to crush. You might mean well – you want your friend to be happy, so why not hand over these interesting things that came from your body and its union with your husband? Their value is a function of their utility to you and your friends. Not a function of the things themselves. Not an inherent quality imparted at the instant of creation. Why? Why think about it any other way? Why would what is right be meaningfully different from what is easy?