life and its beginning

This post is uncomfortable and you may not want to read it if you are in a bad place. It’s about the morality of IVF, whether embryos are people, and a super awkward conversation with my mother.

I called my mother yesterday to let her know that the beta result was good, and she was thrilled. Then, strangely, she asked me, “Do you believe life begins at conception?”

I gave her the most honest answer I could, which was that it depends on how you’re defining “life.” Fertilized eggs and embryos are not the same as babies, but they’re also not nothing. They’re not people yet, but they are most certainly alive. (What I didn’t add, of course, was that it also depends on how you define “conception.”)

This was insufficient, and she pressed me: “OK, now answer my question. Do you believe life begins at conception?”

I didn’t know what to do with this, so I said, “If you’re asking me if I think I killed three babies last week when those embryos stopped growing, the answer is no.”

She responded: “Well, I guess I’m just old-fashioned. I believe life begins at conception.”

WTF? Like, seriously, WTF?

Where was she going with this? I can’t even imagine. She has never breathed a word about being uncomfortable with IVF, but if she was implying what I think she was implying, what I just did that resulted in this (take a deep breath and say it) pregnancy was tragic at best and monstrous at worst: I created five PEOPLE, knowing they would not all survive, and presided over the deaths of four of them.*

I don’t think my mother really thinks I have killed four** children. I know she’s happy about this pregnancy. Which is why I just don’t know what to make of this conversation. In the moment, I changed the subject and we went on talking for a while, but I have been chewing on it ever since and I just can’t figure out what she was trying to get me to say. Has she just not thought this through to see the implications of the cardboard talking point she was repeating? Why would she ask something like this in the middle of the very conversation in which I am telling her the IVF cycle actually worked?

I mean, yes, a life is beginning right now. It is a medical fucking miracle, is what it is, but it won’t be a baby for a good long while yet. I know that sounds callous and I sort of hate being in the position of having to articulate that the pregnancy I waited years for and moved heaven and earth to achieve is not actually the same, yet, as a born baby, but it’s the truth.

This is hard to put out there; I want to be all unicorns and rainbows because holy shit, I’m actually pregnant, but I was really taken aback by the whole life-at-conception thing yesterday. If anyone has gotten through this mess, I would like some honest feedback: did you think of your embryos as children? Did you face any problems from people who thought IVF was wrong? Am I totally off my rocker for thinking that I can love, and hope, and invest all my fucking maternal instinct (such as it is) in this embryo, and still not think it’s exactly the same as a baby yet?

* With a beta of 118, twins are unlikely.

** In case anyone is confused about the embryos: we had five. Two were transferred. A third never got beyond two cells. The remaining two stopped developing before they were mature enough to be frozen.


27 responses to “life and its beginning

  1. Oi. I come from a very Catholic family and much of my family is less than keen on our choice to do IVF. I think my mom was in the same place your mom is now back when we started this. To be honest, before I did IVF, I did thought life began at conception because it’s what I was taught I guess. Now that I’ve been through the whole thing, I feel similar to you. Embryos are an alive thing, but not people. They have people potential and deserve respect, but they are not people. My mom has been very involved in our journey, and I think dragging her through, letting her see how precarious it all is, has helped her have similar views. A potential person, but not a person. A living creature, but not a baby. And besides, does your mom understand that what happened two your three embryos happens inside women’s wombs all the time?

    I haven’t been at all pregnant yet, so I have no idea what I’d feel if I were in your shoes, but I certainly think that after all you’ve been through, a little disconnect is normal and probably expected.

    Yay for your good beta!

    • I grew up Catholic too. Not many people in my family still go to church, but lots of things we were taught seem to be lingering somewhere in my head — which is why this bothered me so much.

  2. I suspect your mom is thinking through IVF/ART and made the mistake of talking aloud while still thinking about it.

    I do not and never did think of embryos as babies. Potential babies, sure, but even after implantation (which at least 3, possibly 4, of your embryos didn’t achieve), they’re still potential babies, with another hurdle crossed.

    “Conception” is an interesting term. I think of it as distinct from fertilization, though I don’t spend a lot of time on these semantics. Your embryos fertilized, but no baby was conceived from them, not least in part because they didn’t get to implant.

    I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I don’t think she’s accusing you of killing them, assuming you were specific about the quotes from her. “Life begins at conception” means that she thinks life ended when the embryos died, not that you did anything to kill them. So I’m guessing your hypothesis about what she’s implying isn’t what she was thinking.

    If you’re up for it, you might ask her directly what she’s getting at. You may well agree on more than you think.


  3. First, congrats on that beta! Second–wow. What a conversation. To have with your mom. Over the phone. I don’t think she was accusing you of killing anyone. I think it’s a little odd that she would suddenly be against the science/technology that’s going to allow you to give her a grandchild. It’s all very twisty. I hope she was asking questions to try to wrap her brain around what all this means, and I think it’s a really good opportunity to educate regarding this issue. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to try to educate your family. Maybe you can revisit the topic with her again when you’ve had time to think about the most effective way to explain it to her.

    • Yeah, I think you’re probably right. She has a way of springing Big Questions on me in the middle of unrelated conversations: “Do you believe in God?” was a memorable one a while back. I don’t know if she thinks she is catching me off guard or if she is just saying whatever comes into her head.

  4. Embryos aren’t the same ad babies, babies can live outside of the womb. But when I saw the pictures of our 2 embryos I wanted them both and already loved them. I’m with you, they aren’t babies but they are something.

  5. I guess technically life begins at conception but 50% of all conceptions fail, the fact that a lot of these conceptions are not known because the person wasnt aware the conception happened in the first place is part of the problem because they keep bringing up IVF like it is the only environment where embryos die. A lot of embryos die in utero before they can be detected or known. You see fertile people are so rightous because they dont have to make the decisions we do. Maybe your mum should read Cohens book “coming to term” to discover all sorts of facts about how terrible we humans are at breeding and know its not a choice. The fate of those embryos was decided the first second fertilisation occured. I know my frozen embryos are technically alive but I think of them more as opportunites for children, and to me the actual conception part isnt official till its in your uterus and hanging on for dear life.
    I’m sorry your mum said such a thing at such a time, I cant fathom why that would need to come out of someones mouth but I can only assume that since she hasnt been here in your shoes she said it without malice and is just a little innocently ignorant of what you’ve been through.
    Congratulations on your result G&L, awesome stuff!!

    • Yeah, I definitely don’t think there was any malice. I may have overreacted just a little due to the still-active Catholic Guilt receptors in my brain. I am well aware that IVF is wrongity wrong wrong in the eyes of the Church, and even though I know they’re wrong about just about everything having to do with The Ladies and The Babies, it still smarts.

  6. I don’t think I’ve ever commented on your blog before but I follow religiously. Now, speaking of religion … I have none! I’m not religious at all – spiritual? Definitely. As far as the life beginning at conception arguement … this has always puzzled me. These embryos (if we can even call them that and, in particular, in your case where 3 of the 5 never fully developed to the blastocyst stage) wouldn’t have made it had they been created the good old fashioned way or the new age medical way – ie: the petrie dish. How is it different? IVF, for me, was a diagnostic tool that indicated that I was probably doomed to have (on average) a miscarriage 9 out of 10 times. 20 eggs retrieved and 1 live baby and 1 frozen embryo = shitty eggs. Would it be more appropriate to the nay-sayers that I put my body and emotional self through miscarrying that much in hopes of finally being able to achieve a healthy pregnancy? I’d like to know what they would say and do if they were in my position. It seems to me that the very people that are sparking these debates half the time are the people who have never had a single issue getting and staying pregnant. Take a walk in our shoes….

    Thankfully, since I’m not religious nor is anyone in my family, we weren’t faced with any of these issues directly when we decided to pursue fertility treatments. I’m really sorry your mom has put a damper on such an incredible time in your life. Try to enjoy it despite this conversation. This is a hard fought pregnancy and your baby is so lucky to have you as a mom already!

    • Take a walk in our shoes is right. What really frustrates me about these kinds of issues is that we are TRYING to bring babies into the world and yet we are painted as doing the opposite.

  7. wow, what a totally weird and uncomfortable thing to ask you at that moment. I mean, I can understand her needing to process and think through these things but you’d think she might take a second to think about what she was saying to you before she said it – especially in the first conversation you were having about the beta!
    I’m personally of the opinion that I will follow the lead of whatever friend/blog-friend I’m interacting with. I don’t believe that embryos are babies, I believe they are ‘something’ but I don’t know what that something is. They are filled with potential and possibility but they aren’t those things yet. When friends have miscarried early and described it to me as ‘losing a baby’ I respected them entirely. When other friends have wanted to think of embryos as being different from foetuses and different from babies I have also respected that.
    that being said, the embryo I hope that I’m growing (thanks for the link! I’m going to totally be checking that out as soon as I hear back from my clinic) is already super special to me, even though I don’t think it’s a baby.

    • I know, right? Like, would it be possible to have that conversation at ANY OTHER MOMENT than the one where I tell her I’m pregnant? Like you said, though, I totally get why people describe miscarriage as “losing a baby.” Even if you don’t think of the embryo as a baby, you’re still losing the chance for that baby, and you’ve already invested so much in loving that potential and imagining who s/he will be. I think I would do the same, and I think it’s ALWAYS up to the person in whose body said embryo is residing to determine how to refer to it.

  8. Interesting conversation with your mom. On a related note, I recently read an interesting article regarding a case in Brisbane, Australia, where a judge was asked to rule when “conception” occurs. In that case, the judge ruled that “conception” occurs at implantation. The article is here:

    I think her reasoning makes a lot of sense because, as other commenters have observed, many embryos do not even make it to that stage, and implantation is the first event that is truly indicative of what is likely to be an ongoing pregnancy. (Although, as we well know, that’s not always necessarily what happens.) Also, it is only after implantation that pregnancy can be confirmed.

    The idea that fertilization = conception has never made sense to me. If that were accurate, I guess I should be having a mini-funeral every month I have unprotected sex because I’d have no way of knowing if maybe an egg was fertilized and failed to implant.

    • Thank you for that reference! I think a lot of sources, even medicalish ones, can be wishy-washy about the use of the word “conception.” “Fertilization” and “implantation” are clear, but “conception,” which is the one with the cultural weight, is rarely specifically defined.

  9. I have very similar views as yours on this topic, and I would have bit my mother’s head completely off had she ever insinuated what yours was trying to say. Clearly, you are a saint and love your mother very much.

    Your post makes me think of how uncomfortable I am when bloggers call their embryos “embabies.” I cringe every time I read that (and I mean not to offend you or anyone who reads this). To me, an embryo is a long way from being a human being. It requires a healthy uterus, a healthy woman to grow into a human baby. IVF (or unprotected sex for the fertile crowd) does not create independent human life. It creates the potential for life.

    There is a member of parliement in Canada who keeps bringing this issue up and wants it to be ratified that life begins at conception. This would potentially mean that women who miscarry could be charged for…like obstructing life or some crazy shit. It would have huge implications for our abortion laws and laws surrounding assissted reproduction. It scares the shit out of me, but luckily, there are enough other members of parliement who think he’s a whack job.

    I don’t think there is a group of people more acutely aware that life indeed doesn’t begin at conception than infertiles. We have all created many embryos, and yet what do we have to show for it (I like Lisa’s comment on that). If we go with that logic, would we then fault men and women for using contraception, for thwarting the possibility of the beginning of life at conception? It’s a very slippery slope, indeed.

    As for your mom, I hope you have the chance to have some more conversations with her. People in general are very ill educated about ART, which makes sense because of how new it is, relative to other medical interventions. I feel like more education about the process would be help her welcome you in your journey. I’m sorry she wasn’t able to do that in your last phone call.

    • And your comment is exactly why I am now a single-issue voter. One of the current candidates for U.S. Vice President was a co-sponsor of one of those awful “personhood” bills, which would outlaw IVF and (presumably) miscarriage. And yes, they do want people to stop using contraception too. It’s why I feel so strongly that to be for “choice” has to mean being for both sides of the coin — those of us who are choosing to try to have babies, and those of us who are choosing not to. I’m sorry to hear you have these crackpots in Canada too — in my head, Canada is a northern paradise free of this particular brand of The Crazy.

  10. Huh. I think of everything in the first few stages (up to the end of the first trimester, when embryogenesis finally completes) as something having the potential/promise for life, but its not the same/tangible as a live baby yet. Legal definitions aside, I guess I think this way because I consider the gzillion billion embryos that that have flickered out before they cross this threshold. My mom is always going about about pre-destiny, about the souls that are supposed to come in, and how they possibly jump multiple embryos before they find the one they settle in and start to live the life they were destined for, if that makes any sense. Its really practical to pin stuff on destiny- you have got to do what you’ve got to do, the rest is up to a divine will I guess.

    But all of this is highly subjective and personalized, but where anybody crosses the line is when they try to impose or sell you their religious/ political/spiritual viewpoint. I’m sorry your mother said what she did–try to put it behind you and enjoy this pregnancy!

    • Thanks, and as I said above, I’m sure she didn’t really mean it in any kind of accusatory way. And you’re right that predestination is a very practical philosophy — you do the best you can, then just let destiny sort it out. I think that’s related to the embryos-are-people philosophy as well: you do the best you can (without ART, of course), and then let God sort out whether or not you get to be a parent.

  11. Pretty much what everyone else has said. I know I used to be hard core “life begins at birth” but I find that a few years of thinking endlessly about what happens between fertilization and implantation, implantation and all the other stuff has made me a little more confused or flexible or something. Now all I’m sure of is that it was totally inappropriate for your mother to ask that question at that time. It doesn’t sound like it made you feel too bad, but if it did, I’m very sorry.

  12. Yikes. What a conversation to have with your mom when you are giving her happy news. I’ve gotten so cynical that I don’t believe it’s a life until it comes home with you. OK, maybe not that extreme, but I’ve never been a believer in life begins at conception. Having this discussion as an IFer adds a layer of complexity. I have pictures of all the embryos we created; I mourned when those cycles failed. They seem like something special and tangible, yet definitely not babies. Life, yes, but in the same way that bacteria is “life.” I like to think of embryos as potential.

  13. My grandma said the same thing during our ultrasound video! In her case, she was trying to say that abortion is wrong (um, reaaaallly appropriate timing, right?). But in any case, I think we can be fairly certain that it is never appropriate to share with a pregnant woman your thoughts about when life begins. Especially when discussing embryos that crapped out of their own accord (YOU didn’t kill them– you would have given anything to keep them alive!). I think you are completely in the clear, morally, rationally, and (hopefully) emotionally. Your mom can go ahead and grieve her 4 lost “grandchildren” if she wants to, but she should keep it to herself!

    (and congrats on that awesome beta! woo hoo!).

  14. I agree with your distinction – they can be life/alive, and not yet people, definitely. I have not done IVF, but through four early miscarriages I always felt that I was losing potential children, not actual children. I never thought of them as babies, only as hope [crushed]/losses. People that can’t grasp this frustrate me to no end, because they sure as hell are also the LAST people to validate your grief in such a loss, too. Then it’s all “God’s will,” and yadayadayada bullshit that totally dismisses the real and valid grief that comes with the loss of what may have been.

    Sorry, that’s a bit of a tangent, but I can’t help but see the parallel. You are sitting firmly in your rocker, feet on the ground and hopes just as high as they should be!

  15. ahh, yes! The where does life begin conversation….I had to have this with my husband. Being Catholic, I was taught a certain way to believe. And now being an adult and able to think for myself, I still believe life begins at conception. And yes I believe my frozen embryos are babies waiting to be given the chance to grow. I also recognize the science behind all of this and know that 20-25% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage, and those are only pregnancies confirmed clinically, so not including very early miscarriages appearing as late heavy periods.

    When embryos are created, I do believe they are babies. However, should they fail to become viable, I do not believe anyone killed them. It is the natural course of things. Not every embryo created whether in a lab or in a fallopian tube yields a viable baby. I do however have a problem with the terminology regarding “discarding” embryos. I believe every embryo deserves a chance. I cannot in my right mind discard any embryo.

    This is only how I feel. My husband disagrees with me, recognizes the potential to become a baby, and doesn’t seem to have an issue with discarding unused embryos. I cannot make the decision for anyone else, except my husband because well, they are my babies. I mean making decisions outside of my marriage. Everyone has different views, and we have to respect them.

    I hope your mother can come to terms with how things have turned out. Wishing you the best of luck with this pregnancy and may it be happy, healthy and full term!

  16. Wow. I don’t know what your mom was thinking by asking such a thing RIGHT NOW. I mean, isn’t this a conversation you could have had (or she at least could have started) long before your positive pregnancy test?!?!

    Deciding when life begins is something that each person has to come to terms with, of course. Even if your mother does believe that life begins at “conception” that doesn’t mean that you did anything to “kill” those embryos. That was all nature! I struggle to decide when “life” begins, because what constitutes “life” anyway?

  17. I’ve posted on this a bunch lately because I’m Catholic and I was really really wigging out on the whole “The Church teaches that IVF is a mortal sin” stuff, and though I do NOT think that creating embryos which are chromosomally abnormal and therefore doomed to arrest is murder– some people in the Church do– and I was really struggling with this. Especially because I feared that if I continued “sinning” willfully, that God would curse my IVF attempts.

    But I found a cool priest who told me I wasn’t sinning… and though I’m not sure he’s entirely correct when compared with the Catechism, I feel like I’m entitled to rely on the priest in Confession and if he’s wrong, then I’m absolved of willfully sinning just because I relied on him.

    I have lots of Catholic relatives who probably are secretly thinking I’m sinning and going to hell on a variety of bases including that we’re doing IVF. But none have outright said so. Yet.

    Please do post a followup, if you feel comfortable doing so, if you continue that conversation with your mom. I am curious what she was meaning.

    IN THE MEANTIME– congrats Mama! You ROCK!!!

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