Masha Kisel

My embryos were not human beings

New US laws curbing reproductive choice are robbing mothers of personhood and religious freedom
Masha Kisel pregnant with twins

“You’re a Jewish mother. You understand,” I said to a mosaic of the Virgin Mary in the University of Dayton courtyard. I sought the mothering spirit wherever I looked, mentally conversing with trees, flowers, with images of mothers on cereal boxes, bus ads, and billboards. Most of all, I was having conversations with babushka, my grandmother Rolana, who was no longer among the living.

My own not-quite-immaculate conception took place a few days earlier in the sterile room of the Institute for Reproductive Health in Cincinnati. “We shouldn’t put in more than two,” our fertility doctor said. “You’ll probably only be able to do this once, but two is enough.”

In the three years it took from deciding that we would have a child to being diagnosed with Stage IV endometriosis (an autoimmune condition in which endometrial tissue invades nearby organs and can impair fertility) to getting surgery on both ovaries, to being told that I may not have any viable eggs, to starting in vitro fertilization, I had grown so eager that had the doctor suggested implanting four embryos, I would have said yes.

Now came the two-week waiting period. My desire animated the not-yet-beings I imagined as already my own, as my chosen ones. My thoughts walked a razor’s edge between jubilation and despair as I felt myself at the mercy of something bigger. The feeling was both painful and beautiful, as though I were a plucked string, vibrating at the frequency of the universe’s will.

In those two weeks, I obsessively read infertility internet forums, staring into the computer screen as if it were a crystal ball that could tell me my future. The virtual walls were filled with emoji iconography of smiley angel faces chronicling failed IVF cycles, pregnancies lost.

Online infertility groups are dominated by a Christian worldview with a dash of Disney. The forum participants wished each other “baby dust” — the macabre double-meaning lost under an image of Tinkerbell sprinkling pixie dust on future mothers. They talked about the last BD with their DH (baby dance with dear husband), how many frosties (frozen embryos) they had, and whether they got a BFN (big fat negative) or a BFP (big fat positive) on a pregnancy test.

I shared a lot with these women, in our all-consuming desire for a child, in the medical procedures we had undergone, and in our past disappointments. But I was keenly aware of our differences, too; they gave names in utero and believed that a 200-celled blastocyst would go to heaven. I, too, felt boundless love for the collection of cells that might one day become my children and would feel terrible sadness if they did not come to be.

I also understood that they were not human and the unknowability of where their spirit resided was my sacred truth. The year was 2012 and I could comfortably observe our distinctions without judgment, maintaining the integrity of my own beliefs. Today, in 2019, as anti-choice legislation spreads across America, it desecrates the mother-hopeful’s communion with the mystery of existence by imposing an unscientific, quasi-Christian answer to the question of when human life begins.

Jewish law states that a fetus is part of the mother until it emerges into the world and only then becomes a separate, “ensouled” person. Judaism values the potential personhood of the fetus, but the mother’s health remains a priority. The Ohio “heartbeat bill,” now law, bulldozes this tenet of Judaism, granting a fetus personhood at six weeks of gestation and ripping away the mother’s rights to her own body.

Finding out that I was pregnant after restrictive “anti-inflammatory” dieting, acupuncture, visits to a Chinese medicine specialist named Dr. Quack (yes, really), multiple surgeries, daily injections, painful egg retrieval, and a painful embryo transfer was the happiest moment of my life. It wasn’t an easy process but it was joyful because it was fueled by my individual will and by conscious choices we made as a couple. Even after I was pregnant, I had several miscarriage scares and weeks of stalled growth. Ultimately, I was very lucky, but many women face impossible decisions they could not have imagined when they finally attained a much-desired pregnancy.

I met a woman in the doctor’s waiting room whose fetus was missing part of its brain. It would take a team of 12 to deliver it and it wouldn’t survive more than 24 hours. This woman, a devout Christian, made the choice to carry to term. I marveled at her emotional strength in following her deepest convictions.

But I could not help but think that this being couldn’t have a say in how much pain it endured before its inevitable passing. It was bound to its mother’s choices and beliefs, just like all unborn. We enter a dystopian future when a horrific choice like this one will be made for the mother by the state. Rather than giving a voice to the voiceless, it will rob the mother of her personhood and of her religious freedom.

This post originally appeared in the Dayton Jewish Observer.

About the Author
Masha Kisel was born in Kiev and immigrated to Chicago in 1989. She holds a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures and currently teaches English at the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio.
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