Overview:

When eggs are frozen for IVF, what happens to the souls that are supposedly magicked into existence when they are fertilized?

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Most Christians who call themselves pro-lifers believe that “ensoulment” happens when an egg is fertilized. But quite a lot can happen when and after an egg is fertilized.

I have argued before that God loves (natural) abortion, as evidenced by the fact that somewhere up to 75% of all fertilized eggs fail to reach birth naturally. These are situations that God could not only control such that they don’t happen (but do) but it is also important to note that God designed the entire scenario such that this happens.

Do these souls get frozen, or do they hang around in The Soul Bar in another dimension drinking together and regaling each other with tales of potential lives?

Or, God is not only responsible for not doing anything about it, he even designed it to happen.

First, let’s talk about IVF

When couples struggle to conceive, the wonders of modern science have allowed conception through IVF, a process that can be used or achieved in several different ways.

Depending on where you get the procedure, you are implanted with either a single fertilized egg or several. The important aspect related to this piece is that the IVF team will fertilize many eggs and choose the most viable one(s) to implant. They either discard the weaker ones or freeze immediately unneeded eggs for future potential use in subsequent procedures. (Couples can pay to have eggs stored for different time periods).

The pro-life believer believes that fertilized eggs are ensouled. That means, at the point of fertilization, when sperm joins with ovum, a human being (with accompanying soul), which has some kind of equivalence with a fully grown adult human being, comes into existence.

What IVF clinics are doing, then, amounts to mass murder, according to such people. In creating lives, they are also discarding untold numbers of both viable and less viable fertilized eggs qua human beings. So they must believe. Though abortion clinics receive almost all of the attention from placard-wielding harassers, IVF clinics will arguably be responsible for far more “murders” and “human being deaths.” This 2017 piece estimates there are about a million frozen embryos in the US, and who knows how many are disposed of.

Now, of course, conception does not produce a human being.

But for pro-lifers (generally), it does. Human life, a human being, starts at conception. This is much of what underwrites the Catholic Church’s opposition to IVF. This opposition has caused a gray moral area, as The Irish Times has reported previously:

“IVF has been available in Ireland since 1986. So why didn’t the bishops tell us this before?” asks Helen, spokeswoman for NISIG. “I think this is going to put many couples into a dilemma.” The Catholic Church’s stance is that IVF is wrong under any circumstances, even when embryos are implanted within the woman’s body.

All conception must take place naturally within a woman’s body, says Father Doran. But if a child is conceived in vitro, that child will still be welcomed by God. There is no question of children being rejected for Christening and First Holy Communion because they were conceived through IVF, he stresses.

The decision on whether or not to avail of IVF, sperm donation, egg donation or other interventions is a personal “crisis of conscience” for Catholics, Father Doran explains. Should they decide to go ahead with such procedures, they would not be excommunicated. Nor would they be acting within the church’s teaching. In other words, they would be in a grey zone which is not a sin, but a “crisis”.

Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D., is unequivocal: ‘The heart of the IVF process itself, the practice of joining sperm and egg together in the fertility clinic, remains an intrinsic evil, flowing from the decision to allow our offspring to be “manufactured.”’ This position has much to do with natural law theory and the way in which such babies are created as opposed to any issues with ensoulment.

Frozen embryos make this a whole lot more complicated

These eggs, in their Petri dishes, suddenly have souls mysteriously attached to them. Somehow. Forgetting this piece of asserted magic, let’s think about how this works when the egg is frozen.

What happens to souls with a frozen embryo?

The Catholic Church, if that is any guide worth taking seriously, is purposefully vague on the matter. The Declaration on Procured Abortion from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1974 phrases the matter by hedging its bets:

This declaration expressly leaves aside the question of the moment when the spiritual soul is infused. There is not a unanimous tradition on this point and authors are as yet in disagreement. For some it dates from the first instant; for others it could not at least precede nidation [implantation in the uterus]. It is not within the competence of science to decide between these views, because the existence of an immortal soul is not a question in its field. It is a philosophical problem from which our moral affirmation remains independent…

In “Do Embryos Have Souls?” by Father Tad Pacholczyk, Director of Education at The National Catholic Bioethics Center, he states:

[T]he moral teaching of the Church is that the human embryo must be unconditionally protected and treated as if it were already ensouled, even if it might not yet be so. It must be treated as if it were a person from the moment of conception, even if there exists the theoretical possibility that it might not yet be so. Why this rather subtle, nuanced position, instead of simply declaring outright that embryos are ensouled, and therefore are persons? First, because there has never been a unanimous tradition on this point; and second, because the precise timing of ensoulment/personhood of the human embryo is irrelevant to the question of whether we may ever destroy such embryos for research or other purposes.

Of course, no one knows. Because, really, they’re just making stuff up.

What happens, then?

So, let’s have a go at presenting some scenarios. Do these souls themselves get “frozen?” Is there a warehouse in some corner of heaven where God stores souls frozen in stasis, in preparation for the point where their material counterparts might end up thawing and continuing their life journey? Or do they hang around in The Soul Bar in another dimension drinking together and regaling each other with tales of potential lives?

And if those human couples don’t have a subsequent need for their frozen eggs because one/two/three little ones are enough, do the souls just disappear from that warehouse or bar?

Poof! Like magic.

Or perhaps they get a shortcut straight into heaven proper.

The souls of dead babies or people with dementia are similarly problematic. Are they heavenly representations of their physical bodies?

Or, Does Mother Theresa try to spark up a conversation with a blastocyst? Are there countless blastocyst souls whizzing around heaven getting in “people’s” ways?

If this soul scenario means the soul is somehow unconnected to its earthly counterpart, then how can the soul be connected enough to the body that it deserves to be punished in hell or rewarded in heaven for what the earthly human decided to do in their life? The afterlife (or beforelife) soul has to have enough degree of aboutness or connectedness to the human material entity for punishment or reward of the soul (and not the human material entity) to be coherent and warranted.

On the one hand, the soul appears completely unconnected (say, if the soul of a blastocyst in heaven is generated as a potential—what the clump of cells might have become) to the material realm. On the other hand, it has to be connected, in order for the soul to have praiseworthiness or blameworthiness.

With all this in mind, according to pro-lifers, IVF most either be outright murder or soul-itary confinement.

Souls are a hugely problematic idea. And it’s beyond me how we can make sense of the claim that there is a transcendent iteration of use worthy of eternal blame or eternal reward. But, when we add in the theologically troublesome process of IVF, the problems become ever more Frozen embryos: A chance for souls to hang out in The Soul Bar.

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...