The White House has confirmed that President Obama will sign an executive order today (Monday, March 9, 2009), lifting the ban on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, according to CBS/AP News. Immediately, scientists will begin applying for research grants from the National Institutes of Health. The President has said that “all research on stem cells [will be] conducted ethically and with rigorous oversight” and that cells will be obtained via informed consent of the woman or parents involved.
I have never written publicly about the subject, though I have a strong objection to embryonic stem cell research. I have written for twenty-five diocesan newspapers and other Catholic venues, sharing aspects of my conversion story with over 800,000 readers. But I have only shared this part of my life with one person, my husband. I find that I can no longer keep my memories to myself.
It was a Monday about this time of year when my husband and I drove to Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis for the final stage of the in vitro (IVF) process. It had been a long journey of shots and hormones, and we had already decided that we wouldn’t try a second time if this round of IVF didn’t work.
It was 1998, and our mounting frustration with IVF had nothing to do with faith and morals. We weren’t Catholic at the time (I converted in 2005 and my husband in 2008). We were just two Evangelical Protestants who wanted a baby. Our faith tradition didn’t have a position on IVF, and we assumed it was morally and spiritually acceptable. And so, we believed we had two options. I could reverse the tubal ligation (which I had elected to have in 1987 when I was still in a troubled first marriage). Or, I could try IVF.
I chose IVF. If I could make the decision all over again, I would choose to have my body made whole again through the reversal. Even in 1998, as the process unfolded, my husband and I began to have doubts about our choice. I didn’t expect the hormonal roller coaster ride that goes along with IVF. And I wasn’t ready for the ethical questions that we would face before the lengthy process ended.
We arrived at the hospital that day, and I was prepped for embryo transfer. We had three fertilized embryos that had successfully developed. Two other embryos had stopped dividing and were no longer considered viable. Out of some thirty eggs, that was all we had. We weren’t given great odds. Most couples had “left overs” that they chose to freeze for another day. We had three embryos. Three little babies and this one day.
I put on a hospital gown, and my husband and I walked into the surgery room. Later that day, we would talk about how quiet the room was, and how the lights were strangely dim — for a surgical room. We talked with the doctor and technician for a minute, all in hushed voices, and then they asked if we would like to see the embryos in the microscope.
It wasn’t anything like college biology class. This microscope was quite different. I remember wanting to see the embryos that I already considered my babies. I already felt a great love for them, something I can only describe as maternal instinct. I walked over to the microscope and peered inside.
At first, I couldn’t make out anything. Then, I saw them. Three little embryos, all lined up vertically. It is a moment that defies description.
I remember the silence that fell in that room — even the doctors, how quiet they were. While the medical professionals would probably never admit it, my husband and I knew that we had just tread on very holy ground.
My husband and I talked about it later. We had come face to face with the earliest moments of our children’s lives. We had peered into something that only God should see. We didn’t deserve what blessing might come despite our serious sin.
And yet, God did bless us. Some might say that we got what we wanted. A precious child. Why turn around and criticize the hand that helped in making that happen?
All I know is that there were so many compromises that we had to make, so many decisions we never should have had to make — and I could have avoided all of it, if I had made rightly-ordered decisions in the first place.
Our daughter is a gift from God. Every child is a gift from God, no matter the circumstances of the baby’s conception. But every child deserves to be conceived by God’s holy design. And every child has the natural and moral right to a mother’s womb. Most IVF embryos are denied this most basic right. Most are frozen and forgotten. With today’s Presidential decision, embryos will be subjected to scientific manipulation and destruction, and your tax dollars will fund the “research.”
President Obama once joked that defining when life begins was “above his pay grade.” Evidently, he has decided that he does in fact know when life begins, that it isn’t above his pay grade at all, because he continues to make decisions that one would only make if he knew precisely when life begins and when the soul enters the body — and that he has come to the conclusion that this great event doesn’t occur at any point in human gestation.
God help us as we try to reclaim a Culture of Life, one little life at a time.