When it comes to fertility and reproductive rights, consider mercy

Elizabeth N.H. Link shares her journey with IVF in light of the Alabama Supreme Court’s ruling on “extrauterine children.”

Genetic editing and gene research in vitro CRISPR genome engineering medical biotechnology health care concept with a fertilized human egg embryo and a group of dividing cells as a 3D illustration.

Photo by wildpixel

Editor’s note: This article discusses sensitive topics related to fertility struggles, infertility, and the process of in vitro fertilization (IVF). It may contain detailed descriptions of medical procedures, emotional challenges, and personal experiences that some readers may find distressing or triggering.

“So, when are you going to have another one?”

It’s a question no one should really ask, but it’s a question I hear fairly often. This one came on Wednesday while visiting an elderly member in rehab. The intention behind such a question came from a good place. My church members know I love children, and they enjoy watching our daughter grow. But, as my husband Chris says, why a person doesn’t have kids is nobody else’s business.

This used to be a question that threw me off balance. It was a sharp reminder of the pain and loss I’ve felt. I’m much better at answering it now, but the question on this day felt a little tricky. It was the same morning I’d read the news about the Alabama Supreme Court ruling that frozen embryos could be considered “extrauterine children” under state law, citing a state constitutional amendment approved in 2018 that granted fetuses full human rights, including the right to life.

My husband and I decided to dispose of two of our embryos less than two years ago. Under Alabama state law, would we be considered murderers?

My husband and I decided to dispose of two of our embryos less than two years ago. Under Alabama state law, would we be considered murderers?

It was a minor medical miracle we could conceive our daughter in 2017. A traumatic delivery in 2018 meant even more medical science was required for future pregnancies. I underwent multiple rounds of in vitro fertilization (IVF). None led to a healthy baby we would hold in our arms. My grief compounded with each loss. Finally, with the support of my wonderful spouse and a licensed therapist, I decided not to continue with IVF any further. We were done.

But we weren’t totally done. There was still the issue of two embryos in a lab freezer one state away. We had opted for genetic testing on all our embryos, and that’s when we discovered these two otherwise healthy-looking embryos had chromosomal abnormalities. At this stage in development, it’s impossible to know exactly what those abnormalities would be. But any pregnancy with these embryos would have a high risk for miscarriage. Our doctor informed us that these embryos were unlikely ever to become a viable pregnancy, let alone a healthy child.

We had decided early on what would happen to any remaining embryos should one of us die, should we divorce, or should any embryos prove to have chromosomal abnormalities. It’s required by state law. We talked it over with my doctor and nurse and agreed that in any of these instances, we would donate the embryos to science. Each patient or couple must make their own decisions, there’s no right answer for everyone. It is personal and it is private.

When I told my husband I was ready to end our IVF journey, we were both relieved. The final step was permitting medical workers to dispose of the last embryos. Even though we had signed paperwork to that effect at the start of our IVF journey, it wasn’t as simple as making the call. This last move required a notary public to make our decision legal. A church member and friend graciously agreed to come over on a Saturday and help us sign the paperwork.

Our fertility journey was one I kept largely private from my congregation, and having to explain it all to the notary brought my grief and other emotions to the surface. Through tears at our dining room table, we signed the necessary documents and legally permitted our embryos to be thawed and used for scientific research. Though I cried through this last and final step, I never doubted our decision. I wouldn’t mentally or emotionally put myself or my family through another miscarriage. I couldn’t bear the anxiety of another round of medications and uncertainty. The decision we’d made at the start was the decision we held at the end. When I mailed our notarized forms to release our embryos, I felt peace.

Situations like these happen every day to real women with real emotions.

Each chip away at fertility and reproductive rights makes me ache for my sisters in other states. My journey led to decisions, such as multiple dilation and curettage (D&C) procedures to remove tissue from my uterus, that were only possible because I live in a state where they are legal. My husband and I made the choices we did because we believed our embryos could do more good to help future families than they could for expanding our own.

Slowly, I’ve been able to share my story with women in my congregation. I have learned that many of them have had to make similar and even more difficult decisions when it comes to fertility and reproductive health. They often feel judged and alone. These issues are nuanced and often so painful. Situations like these happen every day to real women with real emotions.

Regardless of where you fall on the issue of “fetal personhood” or your opinion on women’s reproductive health and rights, I urge you to consider mercy over strict interpretation of the law. It can be hard for me to share all the details of our journey. But I want to be brave enough to speak of them in case they may help another woman feel seen or heard.

I urge you to consider mercy over strict interpretation of the law.

I remember the ways Jesus called the bleeding woman in Mark 5 and the bent-over woman in Luke 13 “daughter.” We don’t know exactly what led to their ailments, but we know they suffered alone for years. Jesus saw them, Jesus had mercy on them, and Jesus named them “daughters.” May we, too, see with such kindness, speak with such compassion, and act in mercy.

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