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Life and Death and Life in Death

triploidembryoEmma and I have been going through a modified IVF process. On Friday the embryologist told us our cycle had failed. She emphasized (as many have throughout the process) that we had given ourselves poor odds of success by requesting that only 2 eggs be fertilised. We replied (as we've had to do many times) that we did not want to create life if there was any chance of having to discard it.

For us the bottom line is the incarnation. Jesus was, after all, conceived by the Holy Spirit - it's right there in the creed. The beginning of His life as man (and for man) was conception. Luke records it for us in chapter 1, verse 31 - and he ought to know, he was a doctor. Knowing this, we don't want to treat an embryo as anything less than "our little one." (In fact in this process we have tried not to say "embryo" or "zygote" or (shudder) "blastocyst" - blastocyst is an adjective, not a noun!)

So that has been our position. We only wanted 2 eggs fertilised because we would only be willing for Emma to carry two little lives. But as of Friday our cycle failed, or so the embryologist said. We put down the phone, devastated but also confused. These things always dawn on you later, but we couldn't help going over the embryologist's words. She mentioned that one of them had fertilised "abnormally" and was "unusable." But when we asked her whether it would survive in the womb she said: "We wouldn't transfer it." At the time we were reeling from the news, but it only took a minute to realise: she didn't exactly answer our question.

We went for one of the most aimless, rambling walks you could imagine and ended up on a park bench 100 yards from the clinic. A thought occurred: "Shall we go and ask for some clarification?"  We dragged ourselves over and asked a series of questions. We learnt that the child is triploidy - a fatal chromosome defect. If the child survives pregnancy it will most likely be still-born or survive only a few hours. We were told that no clinic in the world would transfer a triploid embryo. The more we learnt, the more fearful we were of pressing the issue. We almost didn't ask, but then we did: "Are you telling us that you won't transfer the embryo even if we ask you to?" At that point she relented, she'd make some calls.

When she got back to us later in the day she had phoned many people - the clinic's director, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, their legal team, the clinic's legal team. She was finally assured that transferring our sick child to its mother was "legal" - but only if we signed a lengthy disclaimer. (I am very grateful that our clinic strove to accommodate our strange views but I think both sides found the position of the other party a bit nuts.)

We agreed that we would allow our little one to grow to blastocyst stage and then - if all was well - transfer to Emma. This was a massive call for Emma especially - she would have to carry the child. Our thinking was, if the child was conceived in the womb, we wouldn't discard it now.

We thought briefly about the life-support argument too - i.e. when there's no hope and you're just prolonging the inevitable, sometimes you switch off life-support. That certainly has its place in certain circumstances but 1) every baby needs life support and 2) the artificial medical intervention is the test-tube, "letting nature take its course" is the womb! So yesterday morning we were staring down the barrel of a traumatic 12 months.

When the phone rang this morning, it could have been the invitation to come in for the transfer. Instead, our embryologist said that our little one had not made it. We had prayed that our Father would take the child home in His good time and we thank Him for His kindness.  That doesn't stop the grief.  Many times in the last two days we have wished that our baby was with us, even knowing the implications. But this is what the Lord has wanted, and we are starting to see His wisdom.

So here we are 5 days after the phone call on Friday and we're emotionally shattered. Was anything achieved by our awkward request? We still lost the child after all.

Here are seven things we've learnt or re-learnt over the past 5 days. Maybe this is part of what the Lord is teaching us...

1) The belief that life begins at conception ought to be a totally respectable position, even scientifically speaking.

The reason we had a sick child is because humans are meant to have a perfect complement of chromosomes from conception. The reason they were able to diagnose the problem from the day of conception is because our child did not have a perfect complement of chromosomes. The reason the clinic was so sure this spelt doom for the child is that, from the moment of conception, your genetic make-up does not change. In other words, the genome is set from day one. Even scientifically speaking you are on the strongest grounds if you insist that life begins at conception.

2) Jesus really does call us to the good life.

It would be easy to think that following Jesus backed us into a corner where we had to make the "tough decision." But it wasn't the decision that was tough, it was the situation. The situation has been: we have a terminally ill child. That's what is tough - horrendously so. But no decision of ours can alter the situation.

Many times over the last 5 days we have had to remind ourselves: "The tragedy has already struck." Nothing about our decisions can stop things being horrible. Once we embrace that reality then the only decision is to do the best by our sick child. At that point, the really tough decision would be to discard our baby!

Jesus does not call us to obedience for the sake of it. His way is the way because it's good - because He's good and He walks along it with us. Every other road is the hard road.

3) Needing Christ is where we're supposed to be.

When you are out of your depth, it puts you in touch with a spiritual reality we should feel all the time: we are weak, needy fools desperate for Jesus.

This sermon by Mike Milmine really helped us on Sunday night (download). To be human is to be empty - constantly requiring our sustenance from beyond ourselves. It's so easy to become self-sufficient, but when uncertainty and sorrow hit, we are forced to realise our true dependence on Christ. And He really is enough.

4) Church family is crucial.

There's no way we could have gone through this week without our brothers and sisters. Our friends have been more than friends - they have put themselves entirely at our disposal, prayed with us, comforted us and pledged ongoing help no matter what the road ahead. The body of Christ is an incredible reality. Without church, every way is empty and confusing and the way of Christ is impossible. With church, the way of Jesus draws us closer together and puts us in touch with real life.

5) Sometimes The Moral Stand is more of a mumbling query

When we first received the call on Friday we were pretty clueless. We basically went along with what they were saying. After the call, we went for a wander and, unbeknownst to us, the Lord was nudging us towards the clinic. We gradually encouraged each other to go in and ask questions. In a roundabout way, we eventually got to the point. We asked how they'd react if we insisted. And we went from there. This was not a bold unwavering line in the sand!

Friday morning was not our Luther-esque "Here I stand, I can do no other".  But then again - that's not how it worked for Luther either. When he was asked to recant, his first response was pretty uncertain too, only later did the resolve grow. Maybe that's how it happens though - a stammering small voice that God won't allow to fall silent. That's how it felt for me anyway.

6) "Our witness" looks crazy to the world.

We talk about being a witness in the world (it's kind of my job to encourage Christians to "be a witness"). It's easy to think of "our witness" in terms of being incredibly likeable and a Christian. But so often our witness comes by being incredibly odd.  To certain of our friends and family and to all of the staff at the fertility clinic we seem a bit crazy. And all of these people want our best. But because they want good things for us, they are bound to see our choices as stupid and wrong. But right there, the potential for true witness emerges. Only once we stand apart is it possible to see a different vision of reality. Only when our lives are inexplicable in worldly terms will our true motivations be seen. And we're beginning to see the positive fruit of that crazy-looking witness.

7) The Gospel is expressed in honouring the despised things.

1 Corinthians 1:27-29 sets out the gospel of the crucified Christ in all its counter-cultural oddness:

God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.

The whole way of the cross is the way of honouring the despised - lifting up the poor from the ash-heap and seating them with princes. Yesterday our Father did something very, very gospel-shaped (what a shock!). He lifted up a despised, disabled little life and took it to Himself. He exalted someone the world would say "is not" - not truly a life, not healthy, not fit for use - and He has brought them right to His heart, to be with Christ forever. He says to the rejected one: "You are choice in my eyes! Let the whole world take note and let the wise be ashamed, I am the God of weaklings!"

That gospel witness is part of how Jesus makes this path the good path. He hasn't just called us to a difficult ethical decision. He has called us to His own way of life - the Good Life - the life of witness to the good news, the life of suffering to bring blessing, the life of honouring the weak, the life of exalting the overlooked, the life of sacrifice for others, the life of sharing with God's family, the life of fellowship in suffering and the life of hoping in the resurrection. At the end of the day, it's not 'a tough decision'. It's the only life that is really life.

12 thoughts on “Life and Death and Life in Death

  1. Dominic

    Dear Glen & Emma,

    I pray that you'd both know the comfort of the God of all comfort at this time.

    Your approach to IVF and, particularly, the life of this little one, is truly heroic.

    With love, in Jesus,
    Dominic.

  2. Theo K

    Dear Glen,

    Thank you for your transparency, and for taking such a courageous stance.
    May the Lord strengthen you and Emma and comfort you through all this.
    And may He use your 'crazy-looking witness' as only He can do!

    Praying for you.

  3. Pingback: Praise God | Christ the Truth

  4. Georgia

    I truly don't know where to begin... other than to thank you for this post. You have put into words what my limited gift of expressing could not... and in such a learned {you very much know your Bible and are firm in your theology} way. Based upon the month or so that I have been reading your blog after I happened upon it, I can tell that our theology {or world view} is similar to what you teach and write about hear. So to read these words put so eloquently... I just can't tell you what comfort I found in them today. I actually clicked on the link for this post in my subscription e-mail a few days ago, but am just now getting around to reading it. Anyway, coming up on the eighth anniversary of the loss of our daughter—whose life outside my womb was only six hours long, but 9 months and six hours if you include when her life began inside my womb—I can't help but see this post as so timely for my husband and me. Our Anysia {which means whole or complete} also had a fatal chromosomal disorder. We were told 13 weeks into the pregnancy that she would not live... that she probably would not even make it full term. She at least defied the odds of the latter, and made it almost to her due date. I gave birth to a beautiful, living, most precious incomplete-in-the-eyes-of-many-but-so-complete-in-our-eyes-and-God's-especially-now baby girl. She was with us for six hours. To read each of your points about what you've learned through your loss meant so much to me, because they were things that we too learned, or are still learning/accepting... things we clung to when doctors gave us strange looks for our decision to carry her and did not treat her life with the respect they would have given to a chromosomal disorder-free baby. Your final closing statement is just so poignant. It's so true. And your post in its entirety is such a blessing to us in our loss and in what is sometimes almost more difficult than the loss... the navigating a culture that values these lives less and less. What a gift your post was to read today. I thank you for it. But more importantly than wanting to express gratitude, I want to express my sorrow for your loss. Yes... your child was alive... from the very moment of conception. And I consider it no less a loss than ours. I am so very sorry for your wife and you. Having gone through a loss similar, you would think I would have the right words. But I can only say that I recognize the pain in the situation, and I'm sorry you have to experience it. I trust that our good God is comforting you... as I can even "hear" that He is through your words. I'm so very grateful to have read this post, and I will definitely bookmarking it along with so many other things that have blessed me throughout the course of our pregnancy and loss. So glad I stumbled upon your blog. Thank you for all that you write and encourage your readers with.

  5. Georgia

    forgot to proofread. should be *here*, not hear... last word of the third sentence. some day I will learn to proofread before adding my comments online. =)

  6. Glen

    Hi Georgia,
    Thanks so much for commenting. You guys have been on a massive journey yourselves. So glad to hear your testimony to the goodness of Jesus. He can be trusted in *all* circumstances.

    Every blessing

  7. Trevor Stammers

    As a bioethicist who shares your outlook on life, especially its beginning and who is used to being told - "That's all very well in theory...", it is truly inspiring to read of a couple who have lived out what they believe. When it comes to the crunch most of us crumble. You did not.

  8. Glen Scrivener

    Thanks Mandy and Trevor. (Sorry just catching up with things after Christmas).

    Some good news since this post was written... our daughter, Ruby, was born on 2nd Jan 2015. The doctors said our odds were massively decreased because of our choices but on our 3rd IVF attempt we conceived (which is the national average). And she's a delight!

    God is indeed good!

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