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Embryo Destruction


Intro to Embryos

At the moment of sperm-egg fusion, i.e., fertilization or conception, a new, genetically distinct, and whole living organism is produced. Because the product of reproduction between two members of a species is always a differentiated member of that same species, the product of human reproduction is always a unique and fully human organism. In its early stages of development, this human organism is called an “embryo.”


Embryos, like all other human beings, deserve to live free from aggressive violence. Unfortunately, however, society and law often assess human embryos as disposable: genetic material to be used for research purposes, or else mere tools for achieving pregnancy.


Photo of a human embryo

7–8 weeks after fertilization

"Embryo 7 - 8 Weeks" by lunar caustic is licensed under CC BY 2.0


Assisted Reproduction and the Discarding of Human Embryos


In-vitro fertilization (IVF) is the most common form of assisted reproductive technology. IVF requires the collection of mature eggs, which are fertilized in a lab and then transferred to a uterus. Once they have been transferred to the uterus, they will ideally implant in the uterine lining and begin to develop.


During IVF, fertility doctors and specialists often inject several embryos into the uterus to increase the chances of at least one successful implantation. In the event that more than one embryo implants, fertility doctors and specialists often recommend “selective pregnancy reduction,” which entails the abortion of one or more of the embryos. 


Although IVF does not always and necessarily end a human life through selective pregnancy reduction, the discarding of embryos is a regular part of the method. In order to ensure multiple attempts at pregnancy, fertility doctors and specialists will often use IVF to form multiple embryos; in some cases, as many as several dozen embryos are formed from the eggs of a single patient. The result of this practice is that there are often excess embryos once the procedure is complete. These embryos must either be frozen for later implantation, donated for medical research, or destroyed.

The selection of embryos for storage, donation, or destruction is not random. Embryos are tested for genetic abnormalities, and those that are deemed abnormal are either discarded or preserved in order to “model genetically inherited diseases” for the purpose of drug research and development. The use such selection criteria has further enabled ableism, racism, and sexism, as embryos can be rejected on the basis of their possible disabilities, ethnic features, or sex.  

Meanwhile, unused embryos that are considered normal are subjected to indefinite storage in cryogenic freezers. Today, more than 400,000 embryos are frozen across the United States: unable to truly live and grow, but also unable to die.


In law, embryos are often described with language that reduces them to the status of physical property. Widely used terms such as “material,” “products of conception,” and “donation” imply that embryos are objects that can be owned by another human being, rather than individual human beings with their own rights, value, and inherent dignity. Custody disputes during divorce proceedings substantiate this fact; in the case of one couple who had stored their embryos for nine years before deciding to separate, the court ruled that the embryos were “material property” rather than human beings.

Human beings should never be considered property.

If assisted reproductive technologies are not operated in a manner that protects life, they inevitably objectify prenatal human beings. Embryonic human lives are evaluated only through the lens of their potential. Some are permitted to develop, while others are destroyed.

Image by Jeremy Bezanger

Human beings should never be considered property.

Image by Jaron Nix

Embryos and Stem Cell Research

Stem cells are a basic building block of the human body. They possess two remarkable abilities: they can develop into specialized cells such as cardiomuscular, brain, or blood cells, and they can divide indefinitely. These features make them an indispensable ingredient in human cell repair and development.


Stem cells are often used for regenerative medicine. For example, they can produce new cells in order to replace diseased cells in people with spinal cord injuries, Alzheimer’s, or Parkinson’s. In some instances, stem cells can even be used to grow new tissue for use in transplants. Stem cells have also become an important part of medical research. They can be programmed to behave like the diseased cells that will be targeted by a specific drug, and then that drug can be tested on the stem cells. More generally, stem cells are useful in studying the development of cells, diseases, and, in the case of human embryonic stem cells, people.


Usable embryonic stem cells are acquired when the inner cell mass (ICM) is removed from an embryo after that embryo has developed to the blastocyst stage. The removal of the ICM allows for experimentation on the human embryonic stem cells, but it also kills the embryo.


The science of embryology indicates that the human embryo is, in fact, a genetically distinct and whole living organism, and not simply a “clump of cells.” Because embryonic stem cell research necessitates the intentional deaths of embryonic human beings, it cannot be conducted without aggressive violence.


Dr. James Thomson, the first scientist to extract stem cells from human embryos, has asserted that “if human embryonic stem cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough.” Dr. Thomson, who was himself uncomfortable with the ethics of embryonic stem cell research, worked to develop an ethical alternative. He hoped that the use of human embryos would become “a funny historical footnote” instead of a conventional research tool. At first, many scientists viewed the use of adult stem cells as an unrealistic option, both because the quantity of adult stem cells is limited and because adult stem cells lack the potential to develop as many types of specialized cells as embryonic stem cells have. But in 2006, Dr. Thomson’s team discovered a way to induce adult stem cells into pluripotency, which is the ability to develop the same types of cells as embryonic stem cells. The use of induced pluripotent stem cells (iSPCs) is functionally similar to the use of embryonic stem cells, but it lacks the ethical problems associated with embryonic stem cell research.


“Isn’t it great to start a field and then end it?” Dr. Thomson remarked in a 2007 interview with the New York Times. Although he considers the field “ended,” many people across the globe still see embryonic stem cells as ethically viable research subjects. And so embryonic human lives continue to be destroyed for the sake of medical research.


Nonviolent Alternatives:

Adult and Placental Stem Cells

Adult stem cells have proven incredibly effective in research. In fact, they are appraised by some researchers as the “gold standard in regenerative medicine.” Research into the use of iSPCs is increasing at a much faster rate than research with embryonic stem cells, and some researchers expect this trend to continue. This is largely because iSPCs are easier to derive than embryonic stem cells. Collecting adult skin cells only requires a simple biopsy “about as painful as a blood draw,” and a large number of adult stem cells can be obtained from a comparatively small amount of tissue. As Dr. David Prentice writes, iSPCs “have distinct advantages compared with embryonic stem cells because they can be made from virtually any person or tissue, healthy or diseased, more cheaply and efficiently than embryonic stem cells.” Scientists can also generate iSPCs from the skin cells of the patient who needs them, increasing the likelihood that the iSPCs will be accepted by a patient’s immune system.

In addition, stem cells that are collected postnatally from the umbilical cord and placenta have shown great promise. Both are “low-cost” and “pain-free.” In fact, parents can choose to donate umbilical cord blood to a blood bank, and this blood is useful in transplants and in curing serious diseases. 


Adult stem cells have helped treat neurological conditions like Multiple Sclerosis. Researchers have used iSPCs to study the Zika virus and lissencephaly. And stem cells procured from umbilical cord blood have exhibited the potential to promote cardiac regeneration and repair. No human life is lost or endangered in these processes. Even the purely utilitarian justifications for embryonic stem cell research have become few and far between.

Image by National Cancer Institute

Addressing Common Arguments

In this section, we address some common arguments about the ethics of embryo destruction.

“An embryo may be alive, but a human embryo is not a person.”

Some argue that “personhood” is what entitles a human life to protection from aggressive violence. Under certain definitions of personhood, embryos are not persons because they lack a certain level of development, sentience, or rationality.


At Rehumanize International, we advocate for human rights for all human beings. If a category of “living human beings who are not persons” could even exist, it would render personhood a meaningless concept and a useless attribute. At worst, the concept of personhood would become lethally discriminatory. Human rights are properly afforded to human beings who are at diverse stages of development, who vary in degree of sentience, and who experience many different conditions related to their mental faculties. Mental and physical independence are not regarded as appropriate standards for extending or refusing to extend human rights to human beings. Embryos ought not to be an exception to this rule. Embryonic and fetal human beings deserve the same rights as newborns, toddlers, adolescents, and adult human beings.

Wanted vs. unwanted embryos

Others argue that it is permissible to destroy human embryos in the event that they are unwanted. Proponents of this argument might agree that human embryo destruction in service of stem cell research or IVF can be immoral, but only if and when the embryos are wanted by an individual or group with a rightful “claim” to the embryos in question. This view confers upon others the power and capacity to own human beings. It is only the supposed owner of human embryos and the preferences of that owner that can determine whether human embryo destruction is moral or immoral. If a human embryo is unwanted, its destruction for the sake of medical research becomes not only acceptable, but even noble in its prevention of wastefulness.


This argument completely collapses in any other context. The right of an adult human being to live free of aggressive violence is not reliant on whether or not that adult human being is wanted or valued by another. Why would this line of reasoning apply to human embryos? Human rights are not premised upon wantedness; unwantedness cannot excuse aggressive violence against another human being. 

“Embryonic lives are not grievable.”

Some people point to the high rate of miscarriages to argue that embryonic human lives cannot be very valuable. After all, if these human lives matter and so many are lost every day, why do we not observe more grief over them?


This argument entirely ignores the lived experiences of the people who do grieve the loss of human embryos. Disregarding these experiences reinforces the stigma that already surrounds grief related to miscarriage. Grief over human embryo loss affects those who conceive naturally and those who use assisted reproduction technologies and, contrary to popular belief, the length of the pregnancy does not appear to be connected to the intensity or duration of the grief. Those who decide to destroy embryos that they no longer want or cannot afford to store are often surprised by the mourning that follows such a decision. Moreover, in cases wherein the malfunction of laboratory freezers has resulted in the loss of thousands of embryos, people have testified to the devastation and families have come together in grief to hold services and construct memorials for the lives that were lost.

“The thousands of lives saved through new treatments developed via embryonic stem cell research are worth the destruction of embryos.”

Some argue that the potentially lifesaving cures discovered through embryonic stem cell research outweigh the moral implications of embryonic stem cell research, in some cases going as far as to contend that refusing to conduct embryonic stem cell research is the moral equivalent of killing the people who stand to benefit from such medical research.


These claims are based on a flawed utilitarian calculus that does not recognize the inherent value and dignity of each and every human life. It is imperative that medical ethics reject this utilitarianism: an ethical framework that treats individual human lives as disposable in the wider pursuit of collective societal aims (such as scientific advancement), and which has yielded the deplorable human experimentation that we have witnessed throughout history. Those who maintain that sparing embryonic life is a manifestation of violence against others demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of what, exactly, constitutes aggressive violence. Respecting and protecting the value and dignity of vulnerable human beings and refusing to view them only as a means to an end is, in fact, the antithesis of aggressive violence.


Additionally, embryonic stem cell research has not offered the groundbreaking advantages that were previously expected. When embryonic stem cell research began, it seemed at first like a research technique with limitless potential. Scientists and journalists gushed over the possibilities for curing disease; ethical objections were carelessly dismissed as vexing obstacles to medical progress. 

But stem cell therapy has progressed much more slowly than initially predicted, and early excitement engendered exaggerated estimations in public discourse about the rate at which embryonic stem cell research has advanced. For example, Dr. Charles Mirray, co-director of the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine at the University of Washington, insisted that “the only problem is the evil physicians and government, who want to separate people from lifesaving therapies.” This statement and numerous statements like it have created assumptions and expectations that embryonic stem cell research will lead to unprecedented cures. After fifteen years of evidence to the contrary, it is past time to stop destroying human lives for the sake of scientific research and medical experimentation.  

  • Citations
    Note: the terms "zygote," "embryo," and "fetus" are all references to stages of development — just like the words "infant," "adolescent," and "adult." Calling someone an adult doesn't negate the fact that they are a human being. Similarly, referring to children in the womb by their stage in development doesn't negate their humanity, either. "Human development begins at fertilization when a sperm fuses with an oocyte to form a single cell, the zygote. This highly specialized, totipotent cell marks the beginning of each of us as a unique individual." [Moore, Persaud, Torchia. The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 10th edition. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier, 2016, p. 11.] "Almost all higher animals start their lives from a single cell, the fertilized ovum (zygote)... The time of fertilization represents the starting point in the life history, or ontogeny, of the individual." [Carlson, Bruce M. Patten's Foundations of Embryology. 6th edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996, p. 3] "Development of the embryo begins at Stage 1 when a sperm fertilizes an oocyte and together they form a zygote." [England, Marjorie A. Life Before Birth. 2nd ed. England: Mosby-Wolfe, 1996, p.31] "Human development begins after the union of male and female gametes or germ cells during a process known as fertilization (conception). "Fertilization is a sequence of events that begins with the contact of a sperm (spermatozoon) with a secondary oocyte (ovum) and ends with the fusion of their pronuclei (the haploid nuclei of the sperm and ovum) and the mingling of their chromosomes to form a new cell. This fertilized ovum, known as a zygote, is a large diploid cell that is the beginning, or primordium, of a human being." [Moore, Keith L. Essentials of Human Embryology. Toronto: B.C. Decker Inc, 1988, p.2] "Embryo: the developing organism from the time of fertilization until significant differentiation has occurred, when the organism becomes known as a fetus." [Cloning Human Beings. Report and Recommendations of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission. Rockville, MD: GPO, 1997, Appendix-2.] "Embryo: An organism in the earliest stage of development; in a man, from the time of conception to the end of the second month in the uterus." [Dox, Ida G. et al. The Harper Collins Illustrated Medical Dictionary. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993, p. 146] "Embryo: The early developing fertilized egg that is growing into another individual of the species. In man the term 'embryo' is usually restricted to the period of development from fertilization until the end of the eighth week of pregnancy." [Walters, William and Singer, Peter (eds.). Test-Tube Babies. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1982, p. 160] "The development of a human being begins with fertilization, a process by which two highly specialized cells, the spermatozoon from the male and the oocyte from the female, unite to give rise to a new organism, the zygote." [Langman, Jan. Medical Embryology. 3rd edition. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins, 1975, p. 3] "Embryo: The developing individual between the union of the germ cells and the completion of the organs which characterize its body when it becomes a separate organism.... At the moment the sperm cell of the human male meets the ovum of the female and the union results in a fertilized ovum (zygote), a new life has begun.... The term embryo covers the several stages of early development from conception to the ninth or tenth week of life." [Considine, Douglas (ed.). Van Nostrand's Scientific Encyclopedia. 5th edition. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1976, p. 943] "I would say that among most scientists, the word 'embryo' includes the time from after fertilization..." [Dr. John Eppig, Senior Staff Scientist, Jackson Laboratory (Bar Harbor, Maine) and Member of the NIH Human Embryo Research Panel -- Panel Transcript, February 2, 1994, p. 31] "The development of a human begins with fertilization, a process by which the spermatozoon from the male and the oocyte from the female unite to give rise to a new organism, the zygote." [Sadler, T.W. Langman's Medical Embryology. 7th edition. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins 1995, p. 3] "The question came up of what is an embryo, when does an embryo exist, when does it occur. I think, as you know, that in development, life is a continuum.... But I think one of the useful definitions that has come out, especially from Germany, has been the stage at which these two nuclei [from sperm and egg] come together and the membranes between the two break down." [Jonathan Van Blerkom of University of Colorado, expert witness on human embryology before the NIH Human Embryo Research Panel -- Panel Transcript, February 2, 1994, p. 63] "Zygote. This cell, formed by the union of an ovum and a sperm (Gr. zyg tos, yoked together), represents the beginning of a human being. The common expression 'fertilized ovum' refers to the zygote." [Moore, Keith L. and Persaud, T.V.N. Before We Are Born: Essentials of Embryology and Birth Defects. 4th edition. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company, 1993, p. 1] "The chromosomes of the oocyte and sperm are...respectively enclosed within female and male pronuclei. These pronuclei fuse with each other to produce the single, diploid, 2N nucleus of the fertilized zygote. This moment of zygote formation may be taken as the beginning or zero time point of embryonic development." [Larsen, William J. Human Embryology. 2nd edition. New York: Churchill Livingstone, 1997, p. 17] "Although life is a continuous process, fertilization is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new, genetically distinct human organism is thereby formed.... The combination of 23 chromosomes present in each pronucleus results in 46 chromosomes in the zygote. Thus the diploid number is restored and the embryonic genome is formed. The embryo now exists as a genetic unity." [O'Rahilly, Ronan and Müller, Fabiola. Human Embryology & Teratology. 2nd edition. New York: Wiley-Liss, 1996, pp. 8, 29. This textbook lists "pre-embryo" among "discarded and replaced terms" in modern embryology, describing it as "ill-defined and inaccurate" (p. 12}]
  • Post-Abortive Resources
    National Helpline for Abortion Recovery: 1-866-482-5433
  • What about pregnancies resulting from rape?
    It is first and foremost imperative that we work to entirely eliminate rape and sexual assault by, among other things, holding perpetrators accountable and supporting those who survive such acts of aggressive violence. The trauma of sexual assault is often profound and long-lasting; survivors deserve the utmost care and compassion. When a child is conceived as a result of rape, it is important to remember that children cannot control the circumstances of their conception. We must take all measures to protect the pregnant person from further trauma without resorting to violently ending the life of this new, innocent human being. A just society does not simply respond to sexual violence with more aggressive violence, but rather, shelters vulnerable people against all such forms of violence. The stories of survivors ought to be at the forefront of the conversation surrounding pregnancies caused by rape. It is not simply a question of whether or not elective abortion should be permissible in such circumstances, but also a question of how we can help pregnant people who have been raped regardless of the accessibility of elective abortion. People with personal experience in these situations can best answer that question. There are numerous such stories available online, but one in particular is that of Rehumanize International founder Aimee Murphy. Aimee was pro-choice prior to her traumatic experience with sexual assault but her perspective was altered by what she went through. After her assault, Aimee was threatened by her attacker to abort or be killed. She explains: "In that moment, I knew something else, too: if I was indeed with child, that preborn human life within me would be worthy of the same protections as me. If I were to be killed, we would both be the victims of the same violence. So what right did I have to inflict the same harm that was being threatened against me upon an innocent human being? How much better would I be than the guy if I chose the path of violence to reach my goals in life?" It is easy for some pro-choice advocates to dismiss stories like Aimee’s by emphasizing the fact that she had the right to make a personal decision — but the reality is that elective abortion kills human beings. It is vital that we find solutions to such tragic events, but we cannot rationalize and excuse aggressive violence against human beings. You can listen to Aimee tell her full story here. An additional survivor story we would like to highlight is that of Serena Dyksen, who underwent an abortion after being sexually assaulted at 13. Her experience led her to create a ministry for other women who have had abortions. You can hear Serena tell her story on our podcast here. We also suggest reading the stories of women who have experienced pregnancy after sexual violence that can be found at
  • What about life-threatening pregnancies?
    Cases in which the life of the pregnant person is at risk (such as ectopic pregnancy) do not fall under the category of elective abortion. In such cases, the child may need to be removed from the womb or the fallopian tube in order to save the life of the pregnant person, and their chance of survival is low to nonexistent as a result. In a crisis, every possible and realistic effort should be made to save the lives of both the pregnant person and the child. These tragedies are not generally and should never be the subjects of abortion laws, which should only restrict elective abortions: abortions performed explicitly to kill the child.
  • What about miscarriages?
    Although the medical term for miscarriage is “spontaneous abortion,” these tragic deaths should not be confused with elective abortions, which are colloquially referred to as “abortion.” In both instances, a child dies and is expelled from the womb; however, miscarriages are natural and outside the control of the pregnant person, while elective abortions are deliberate. The reality of natural death cannot justify aggressive violence. Some children die by chance; none should die by choice.



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