The Uncomfortable Truth Behind the Desire for Embryo Jewelry

“Playing with life ... is a sin against the Creator, against God the creator, who created things this way.” —Pope Francis

Can we please talk about the embryo jewelry here for just a moment? I know it is sooooooo last month, but this thing really deserves a second look.

According to a May article in Kidspot Magazine, the Australian company Baby Bee Hummingbirds has thus far made roughly 50 pieces of keepsake jewelry that contain the ashes of previously-frozen, IVF embryos. If that sounds crazy to you, well, it really kind of is.

A quick primer on modern reproductive technology, for those who don’t know: when a woman chooses to have a baby via in vitro fertilization, eggs and sperm are combined in a laboratory. And yes, I do mean more than one egg — usually between eight and fifteen. The resulting embryos (read: tiny human beings) are then evaluated, and the ones that appear most “viable” are transferred into the woman’s uterus. Just one or two if the woman has a good prognosis, but as many as five or more if she has had prior trouble with IVF.

If you’re doing the math, you’ve rightly noted that there are several tiny humans left over.

And those unlucky embryos are either frozen (this is called cryopreservation, which comes with a storage fee and allows a woman to undergo another cycle of IVF in the future if she so chooses), donated to either another woman or for scientific research, or they are simply thawed and disposed of.

Which is where the aforementioned embryo jewelry comes in.   

What immediately struck me as noteworthy about this story was less the jewelry with ashes inside, and more the idea that these precious children, even in their embryonic and not-legally-protected state, matter to their mothers. These women sense, even as they are participating in a create-and-destroy (or at the very least, suspend in time) process, that these are their children and deserve to be memorialized. The mother interviewed for last month’s article said that “My embryos were my babies — frozen in time. When we completed our family, it wasn’t in my heart to destroy them. Now they are forever with me in a beautiful keepsake.”

In spite of the collective gasp heard ‘round the interwebz, perhaps Baby Bee Hummingbird’s lockets and rings are not the real controversy here.

Most of us probably know someone who’s conceived a precious child (well, most likely eight to fifteen) through IVF. Infertility is a difficult cross to bear, and what mother can deny that pregnancy and childbirth are nothing short of miraculous, incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experiences? There is nothing like it in all the world.

So to openly call into question the ethics of IVF is to tread on dangerous — and hallowed — ground. No one wants to offend, accuse, or come across as insensitive. Not to mention that to spurn any sort of medical “progress” is tantamount to claiming the earth is flat. I get it. But ever since the controversial embryo jewelry made the news, I’ve suspected that we’re all merely dancing around the real source of discomfort.

Which is, simply, that for a mother to memorialize a cremated embryo is to acknowledge that, somehow, there is something meaningful and terribly human about the thing, worth taking home from the clinic and remembering in a personal way. And having acknowledged that, we are now faced with all kinds of other troubling questions about the commoditization of human beings, the throw-away nature of our culture, and the separation of sex from procreation.

Back in 2014, Pope Francis garnered some negative media attention when he said, “The dominant thinking sometimes suggests a false compassion, that which believes it is helpful to women to promote abortion; an act of dignity to provide euthanasia; a scientific breakthrough to produce a child and consider it to be a right, rather than a gift to welcome; or to use human lives as guinea pigs, presumably to save others.”

He then went on to say that “we are living in a time of experimentation with life. But a bad experiment. Making children rather than accepting them as a gift, as I said. Playing with life. Be careful, because this is a sin against the Creator: against God the creator, who created things this way.”

Though many bristled at his words, I do find myself wondering if, on some level, these things are somehow more intuitive than people are willing to admit. Perhaps they ring true, and a little too close to home, and demand further examination. What if they point to the terrifying reality that in “making children rather than accepting them as a gift”, we are also destroying life? And sinning against God the creator, who intends for children to be the natural fruit of married love?

Maybe that is the real reason why so many are uncomfortable with deceased embryos being made into jewelry.