No, Judge Barrett, An Embryo Is Not A Person

by Marie Holmes
Originally Published: 
Julia Meslener for Scary Mommy and Science Photo Library/Anna Moneymaker/Getty

Allow me to speak, momentarily, on behalf of everyone who has ever endured the second half of an IVF cycle, tethered to some altered plane between joy and despair, and respond to the conservative claim, supported by Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, that an embryo is basically the same thing as a baby: if only that were fucking true.

I’ve been through four IVF cycles, for a total of twelve living embryos transferred into my eager pink uterus while I tried to take deep, calming breaths and think welcoming thoughts. I even invited an acupuncturist into the recovery room, in the hopes that his silver needles would function as the magic baby dust I seemed to lack.

I longed, desperately, for a baby. All of my hope hinged on those embryos. I wanted each of them to live.

But when someone asks me how many kids I have, the answer is two: the two small people responsible for the cookie crumbs ground into the sofa.

Over the rocky trajectory of those IVF cycles, my wife and I conceived dozens of times. Sperm entered egg in the Petri dish, and rapid cell division commenced: a baby in the making, finally! But no, not even close. There were so many more hurdles on the journey from no one to personhood. In our case, there wasn’t even a positive pregnancy test until we’d gone through eighteen embryos in all and had been entirely wrung out emotionally.

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No one better understands that an embryo isn’t yet a person than people undergoing fertility treatments and the medical professionals who care for them. The medical journal Fertility and Sterility has, for the first time in its 70-year history, issued a statement regarding a Supreme Court nominee in response to Barrett’s radical anti-choice position. In addition to presenting a grave danger to Roe v. Wade, Barrett’s record on human reproduction is so extreme that it also threatens access to contraception and IVF treatment. The journal editors cite as evidence Barrett’s signing in 2006 of a full-page newspaper letter in support of an organization that promotes the view that life begins at fertilization as evidence of her troublesome beliefs.

(When asked directly during senate hearings whether making IVF illegal would be constitutional, Barrett demurred, stating that she couldn’t answer “in the abstract.”)

In their statement, the Fertility and Sterility doctors note that most fertilized eggs in nature do not become live babies. Most. As in more than fifty percent.

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The authors explain that even among embryos that survive days of observed growth, “In the very best of circumstances, when a chromosomally normal embryo is transferred to a woman’s uterus, there is only a 65% likelihood of live birth.” Those odds plummet as the age of the eggs being used increases. This is a bitter pill to swallow when you are staring down a $17,000 bill for IVF treatment, and in my talks with women over the years I’ve gotten the sense that our doctors, more often than not, do their best to hide this grim reality from us while we are hopped up on hormones and drunk with hope.

But at this moment, we need to look at those numbers, and all the suffering we endured trying to become parents, and state, unequivocally, that an embryo is not a person, embryos discarded during IVF treatments do not constitute manslaughter, and we all deserve the right to say yes to parenthood only when we consent to it.

Senator Tammy Duckworth, a parent via IVF herself, wrote in an emotional letter to her Senate colleagues urging them to oppose Barrett’s confirmation: “Judge Barrett’s willingness to associate her name with such an organization is disqualifying, and, frankly, insulting to every parent, hopeful parent or would-be parent who has struggled to start a family.”

Count me among the insulted. But more than being offended, I’m scared. I have a daughter who is six. It’s unlikely that she will go through life without ever needing access to contraception, abortion care, or IVF. What kind of country does Judge Barrett envision for her?

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