General Articles

Language Politics Promote Anti-Choice Agenda

A fertility procedure that has gained attention recently involves fertility patients giving their extra embryos, produced as a result of in vitro fertilization, to single women or couples who seek pregnancy. The procedure carries high costs and relatively low effectiveness, only half of the embryos survive the thawing process, and of those, only about 35 percent result in a live birth.1 Yet, in Fiscal Year 2005, $950,000 in federal money was allocated through the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to raise awareness about this procedure.2 This promotional campaign, which has been federally funded since 2002, has led to a heated debate over something that is seemingly straightforward-what to call the procedure. This debate over language reflects the larger debate around a woman’s right to choose.

The fertility industry, pro-choice advocates, and supporters of embryonic stem cell research suggest that this procedure should be referred to as embryo donation because it is the "donation of medical tissue, like sperm or an egg."3 Anti-choice advocates and other proponents of "fetal rights" refer to the procedure as embryo adoption. Many organizations representing this point of view receive grants from this federal funding stream and are expected to be funded in 2005.

President Bush himself referred to this procedure as "adoption" at a Capitol Hill press conference on May 24th, where he stressed that "every embryo is unique and genetically complete, like every other human being."4 The press conference was seen by many as a final effort to dissuade the House of Representatives from approving the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act (H.R. 810) which the President claims supports spending federal funds on "the destruction of living human embryos."5 The Act, which passed later that evening, reversed President Bush’s 2001 decision to severely limit embryonic stem cell research.6

Nightline Christian Adoptions Agency, an organization that runs an "embryo adoption" program, was an influential presence at the conference. In 1997, Nightlight established "snowflakes embryo adoption," named to reference "the uniqueness of each individual embryo." The program serves as a liaison between embryo donors and recipients, helping donors pick the family of their choice for their extra embryos and negotiating the terms and conditions of the exchange.78

In his opening address, Ron Stoddart, director of Nightlight, referenced both "embryo adoption" and "embryo orphanages." The press conference then featured testimony from parents who were able to use donated embryos to give birth as well as their children, wearing tee-shirts that read, "former embryo" and "this embryo was not discarded."8 Among many goals, Nightlight seeks to "recognize and advocate for the personhood of pre-born children."9 The organization received more than half of the HHS grant funds to promote embryo donation/adoption in 2002.10

Stoddart argues that the use of the term adoption is benign, while other pro-life advocates such as Bill Saunders, director of the Family Research Council’s Center for Human Life and Bioethics, herald the term and the snowflake children as a political opportunity to "illustrate the truth, which is that the embryo is just a child at an earlier stage."11

This anti-choice discourse of "adoption," "human," and "living embryo," puts pro-choice advocates in the difficult position of questioning the agenda of embryo adoption promoters while at the same time supporting the procedure as another reproductive choice for women and their partners. Sean Tipton, spokesperson for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine says, "we’re concerned that the people promoting the Snowflakes program have an explicit political agenda to actually take away choices from infertility patients." "There’s no such thing as embryo adoption," he continued, "you adopt a child."12

Pro-choice advocates point out that many of the same arguments over language were seen in 2004 during the debate over the Unborn Victims of Violence Act (H.R. 1997). Kate Michelman, former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, explains that these arguments are about much more than semantics, "this is one of their strategies-to ascribe legal rights to the fetus separate from the woman."13 The Unborn Victims of Violence Act created new and separate offenses for anyone who intentionally or unknowingly harms or causes the death of a fetus during the commission of a federal crime and spawned a wave of similar state laws.

In the context of this and similar legislation, pro-choice advocates feel that it is necessary to continue vigilant monitoring of attempts to establish the fetus or embryo as a human being with legal and moral standing.


  1. Pam Belluck, "From Stem Cell Opponents, an Embryo Crusade," New York Times, 2 June 2005, accessed 5 June 2005.
  2. "Department of Health and Human Services; Notice of Funding Opportunity," Federal Register, Vol. 70, No. 88, 9 May 2005, 24418.
  3. Lynn Harris, "Clump of cells or ‘microscopic American," Salon, 5 February 2005.
  4. The White House, "President Discusses Embryo Adoption and Ethical Stem Cell Research," Press Release published on 24 May 2005.
  5. Statement of Administration Policy H.R. 810-Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005, Executive Office of the President, Office of Management and Budget, 24 May 2005.
  6. Edward Epstein and Carl Hall, "House OKs bill to ease stem cell limitations," Rome- News Tribune, 25 May 2005, accessed 5 June 2005.
  7. Snowflake Parents Speak on Capitol Hill, Concerned Women for America (1 June 2005), accessed 5 June 2005.
  8. Ibid.
  9. About Us/Contact Us, Nightlight Christian Adoptions, accessed 7 June 2005.
  10. Harris.
  11. Pam Belluck.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Protecting Pregnant Women and Roe, (New York: SIECUS, June 2003), accessed 7 June 2005.