Embryo Protection

It’s good to learn about ourselves and the world, but we must take care to preserve human life in the process. Can we observe embryo development without causing harm? Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell explains.

As one of many who value life from conception, how can one observe the “time of fertilization” and the time thereafter noting such detail in situ?

I would think that such detail could come only from in vitro observation.

If so, then wouldn't that presume the life would at least be in jeopardy? Just exactly how would one safely observe?

I'm in favor of learning about ourselves and our world since we've received the dominion mandate. But we're not called to be careless and so I'm wondering just how biblical all of this learning has been.



I agree with you completely about the need to protect the human embryo. As your letter arrived about the time we posted our analysis of a recent BBC article about embryology, I am assuming that your question covers the gamut from blastocyst to fetus. Although the BBC article did not describe the actual sources of the images used to construct their video, our knowledge of the current capabilities in obstetrics provides a good clue.

Over the past few decades, our ability to not only diagnose but also treat problems in utero has grown tremendously. Just as the advent of ultrasounds made it possible to diagnose many fetal problems before birth, so the invention of fetoscopy (and later embryoscopy) made it possible to actually treat life-threatening conditions. For instance, complete urinary tract obstructions and congenital diaphragmatic hernias were once uniformly fatal. (I recall not only delivering such babies but also holding the hand of a friend who lost such a child.) Yet now, if such a diagnosis is suspected early enough in pregnancy, it is sometimes possible to successfully treat the condition in the womb.

Such procedures are necessarily invasive and pose some risk. Obstetricians are balancing the risk of almost certain death if they do nothing against the risk of causing death while trying to fix the problem. Fetoscopes and embryoscopes are introduced via a needle, and fiberoptics are used to guide the procedures. Those photographic records add to our body of knowledge about the developing baby. Many of us have watched technology march “backwards” to intervene at earlier and earlier gestations. Embryoscopy can now be utilized for diagnostic purposes as early as four weeks after conception.

While some patients undergo invasive procedures purely for diagnostic purposes with plans to abort if abnormalities are found, the more involved procedures are generally used to save life, not to take it.

As to the earliest images of human life, just after fertilization, there are several sources for information and photographs. In some instances, a photomicrograph of a known equivalent stage of an animal conceptus will suffice for mere teaching purposes. Actual data about the earliest humans is obtainable from in vitro fertilization (IVF) and from embryonic stem cell (ESC) research.

With IVF, there is some risk of embryonic loss, however unintentional, in an effort to achieve a pregnancy. But couples only opt for IVF if more “natural” ways are failing for them. Much knowledge about the early life of the blastocyst has come from efforts to discover the best ways to nurture the blastocyst in order to achieve successful IVF. Philosophically, some would compare this situation to the use of experimental medical treatments on adults. Others would say that the embryo’s life would not exist to lose had we not intentionally produced it. The moral issues surrounding IVF become more difficult when there are extra embryos. Nevertheless, the IVF embryo is produced with the intent it should survive, not die.

The moral implications of ESC research cross a line. The embryo must be killed in order to harvest its stem cells. The moral dilemma is magnified, however, by the fact that the source of these embryos is normally the “leftovers” from IVF efforts. IVF procedures, because of their cost and the invasiveness of the procedures required to obtain eggs, often produce extra embryos. Eggs cannot be kept for later fertilization,1 but embryos can be safely frozen for later implantation. The parents of the embryos are the ultimate decision-makers as to the fate of their unused embryos, within the scope of the law. Custodial battles have even been fought over them. Unused embryos can be donated to other couples, analogous to giving up the embryo for adoption. Typically, the decision is whether to donate to another couple, to keep the embryos frozen for later transfer attempts, to destroy them, or to donate them for research. Morally speaking, the last option appeals to some because they see the embryo’s life as less wasted. Nevertheless, in both the research and the disposal options, the embryo’s death is equally assured.

In 1995, the Dickey-Wicker Amendment banned federal funding for research on human embryos that leads to their deaths. President Obama and NIH director Dr. Francis Collins wish to allow embryos already marked for destruction to be used for ESC research with the government’s monetary blessing. On the one hand, echoing the wish of many couples undergoing IVF, they say that at least those embryos not to be implanted will not be wasted. From a practical philosophy perspective, however, such a policy opens Pandora’s box. Relegating those “doomed to die anyway” to research purposes, taken to its logical conclusion, could lead to unspeakable horror for the terminally ill and the elderly.

As to your original question, we have certainly learned much information presently available to us from in vitro situations, often those in which the blastocyst was being cared for in hopes of achieving a pregnancy. Other information has come to us from pathological examination of organs in which a pregnancy, often in the early stages and undetectable, was present. Where good animal analogies exist, they can be used as “stand-ins” for the real thing in photomicrographs. And finally, as described above, once a pregnancy has reached a certain stage, about four weeks with present technology, it is possible to “sneak a look” without disrupting the pregnancy.

Thank you again for reading the articles on the website and for passing on your concerns. I hope that this information will give you the answers you need.

Elizabeth Mitchell, M.D.


  1. Cryopreservation of eggs (as of this writing) has a low success rate, is extremely expensive, and is considered experimental.


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