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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

What do you call the embryos conceived through IVF, then destroyed?


Above: Then-President Bush cradles a snowflake baby

You've probably seen the story that went ridiculously viral last week. You know—the one about embryos conceived in vitro, then killed, and their tiny bodies preserved and incorporated into jewelry for their parents to wear.

That was a mouthful. But what else can we call these young victims?

The original article called them "extra IVF embryos." LifeNews described them as "human embryos left over from IVF." On the other end of the political spectrum, Slate also went with "extra," but added that women in online forums sometimes call them "snowbabies" or "frosties." I also saw the phrase "unused embryos" in some media outlets.

None of these descriptors are adequate.

What does it mean to be an "extra" person? I think of China, where being "extra" carries a terrible weight. I also think of Bill Nye, who last month was rightly criticized for suggesting that parents should be penalized for having "extra" children. Calling someone "extra" defines the person negatively, in contrast to people who are just enough, whatever the hell that means. It's dehumanizing.

LifeNews' phrasing comes closer to giving these embryos some measure of dignity, but "left over" has some of the same connotations as "extra," and has the added problem of making me think of food in my fridge.

"Snowbabies" and "frosties" reminds me of "snowflake children"—the term pro-lifers and others have used to describe babies born alive after IVF, cryogenic storage, and embryo donation. I have no real problem with this language from a moral standpoint, but as a practical matter, most people will not know what you are talking about when you say that jewelry is being made from snowbabies. In this day and age, they might think you're talking about overly sensitive college students!

And then there is the word "unused," which certainly captures the commodification of the embryos in question. As with "extra," I worry that the language we employ might support the very dehumanization we are denouncing. I also object that the descriptor "unused" is not accurate; the embryos were, tragically, used in the end.

I mean no disrespect to LifeNews or any of the many other journalists who covered this disturbing story. My point is that we don't have humanizing, concise, familiar language to describe the victims of this practice. And that's a problem. How can we humanize someone, when we don't even have the words to call them to light?

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