On a freezing February morning, I pulled my rental car into the small parking lot behind a sprawling Minnesota church. I had flown halfway across the country to take part in a Catholic burial of lab-grown frozen embryos. The event was organized by a midwestern Christian organization, the Holy Trinity Guardians, a group that had been burying embryos in this cemetery for several years. Some of the embryos were sent from local fertility clinics; others were shipped from labs around the United States. As I walked through the snow-covered burial grounds looking for signs of other attendees, I spotted an elderly man standing solemnly by a large stone monument. He waved and introduced himself as Fred. He was also looking for directions to the embryo remains burial. Fred had taken a detour to this spot, which marked the buried remains of miscarried fetuses and stillborn infants. Together, we made our way along the icy wooded path toward the larger cemetery where people had begun to gather. As we walked, Fred recounted how, decades earlier, his wife had suffered a late-term miscarriage. This very church had buried the remains. Fred never forgot that baby, he told me, and he had come today to honor what he saw as other unborn lives who would never have the chance to grow up.
Up ahead, a small crowd gathered on a spot of bare earth. Someone had cleared the snow away. Thirty onlookers, mostly white, senior parishioners, stood in small groups wearing long down coats, heavy boots, and gloves. Some brought lawn chairs and sat with blankets on their laps. In the center of the clearing, a nun knelt on the frozen lawn, her eyes down, praying quietly. I could just see her red cheeks and nose beneath her black robes, hat, and red cloak. She clasped her hands on a wooden structure that stood over a small hole in the ground. On it, someone had placed a white box adorned with a gold cross. That box held the plastic devices containing frozen embryos—now ‘remains to be buried.’ I recognized the woman in charge, Sarah, as she thanked those of us gathered for our presence, and announced, “Today, we are providing Christian burial for 71 deceased embryonic children. Since our first burial in 2018, we have now provided burial for 1,013 embryonic children who passed away in IVF laboratories.”
She gestured to the priest, who began to recite funeral rites: “As we commend these children to God and commit their bodies to the Earth, let us express through prayer our common faith in the resurrection.” The elderly women beside me murmured in call-and-response: “Receive their souls and present them to God, the most high.” In between cues, they rubbed their hands together and stamped their feet for warmth. Once the priest had delivered his final ‘Amen,’ Sarah stepped forward and began praying the rosary aloud. She called on participants to pray “for all of the embryonic children living in IVF labs and frozen in storage.” She prayed for the couples suffering from infertility, “that their wombs be blessed.” Once she finished leading the rosary, Sarah opened the white cross-adorned box and removed the several dozen plastic straws inside. “Now, we will place the deceased embryos into the burial container,” she announced. The crowd watched silently as Sarah transferred the plastic devices—which in the IVF lab would have contained embryos and been stored in liquid nitrogen—into a simpler white plastic container. A woman in the crowd asked, in a whisper, what they looked like. Sarah explained that embryos are microscopic, and that we would have needed a microscope to see them (which she was in the process of buying for that purpose). She didn’t add, however, that only intact embryos would be visible through a microscope’s eyepiece. I knew from my time spent in IVF labs that embryos slated for disposal (or burial) and removed from liquid nitrogen would begin to degrade almost immediately. By now, the straws contained just tiny fragments of cells. I stayed silent. The ritual ended, and chatter filled the cemetery as onlookers made their way slowly back to their cars.
I stayed behind, and when I was among the last left standing at the burial site, I introduced myself to Sarah. She was much younger than most of the attendees had been, with a pale complexion and shoulder-length dark brown hair tucked beneath a red beanie. She smiled and thanked me for coming. She had been nervous to talk in front of everyone, she admitted, and her fingers were still cold from holding her rosary beads for so long in the biting midwestern wind. As we chatted, she began explaining how she had come to hold this event. Sarah founded the Holy Trinity Guardians after working for an insurance company that covered IVF care. Reviewing the numbers of embryos ‘created’ and of babies born, she had realized a discrepancy—and that her company was facilitating embryo disposal. As a devout Catholic, she saw this work as the destruction of unborn life. She told me:
I ultimately left that job. But I felt like maybe there was something I could do… I thought about these—they’re people, they’re little human beings that pass away—we know they die. We know they’re thrown out as waste. And you know, no human being should be thrown out as waste. So, I thought this could be something that could be done… to honor them.
She told me she saw her mission as pushing back against IVF labs’ “reluctance to acknowledge the humanity of the embryos.” Although she offered her burial services directly to IVF clinics, they were often reluctant to suggest Christian embryo burial to their patients. Families typically found her through word of mouth, she reported: “It’s usually families that are done with the IVF process. They’ve been done for years, and they have eight or nine or ten embryos and they have no idea what to do. And they are really distraught.”
It is critical to recognize the affective relationships that IVF patients form with their embryos (Cromer 2020; Czarnecki 2022; Roberts 2012) while also critiquing how discourses of embryonic personhood is presently weaponized in American politics (Cromer 2019; Letterie and Fox 2023; Morgan 2006). In my dissertation, and in a paper now in revision, I follow reproductive scientists who grow human embryos in IVF labs. I theorize embryos as ontologically multiple (Mol 2003) and slippery (Helmreich 2014) entities, tracing the sociomaterial practices through which embryos emerge and shift: from inert cells, into potential life, unborn children, frozen commodities, and medical waste. Tracking embryos’ numerous ontological becomings, I reveal them as many things simultaneously. For this reason, I was particularly struck by Sarah’s assertion of IVF labs as reluctant to acknowledge the embryos’ humanity. In my dissertation, I argue that embryologists and physicians sometimes reproduce normative understandings of personhood through their daily practices and interactions with embryos. While embedded in a clinic I’ve named the North End Fertility Center, I witnessed embryologists form deep affective relationships with the embryos in their care. As trained scientists, the experts with whom I worked disavowed the embryo personhood laws that spread across the country following the Supreme Court’s repeal of Roe v. Wade in June 2022. The embryologists told me firmly: embryos are not people. Yet, they also saw them as alive in the cellular sense, life-giving and brimming with potential. In the lab, removing straws from liquid nitrogen for disposal was mundane, routine work. And yet the embryologists struggled to reckon with embryo degeneration and death. When confronted with untimely embryo loss, these scientists often responded in direct contradiction to Sarah’s allegation—turning toward, not away from, embryonic humanity.
One morning during my early months of fieldwork in the North End lab, an embryologist named Sasha was tasked with a particularly tricky embryo thaw. A new patient had sent a batch of embryos from a lab whose freezing and thawing protocol differed significantly from North End’s protocol. In this other lab, frozen embryos were placed inside narrow plastic straws that were cauterized shut; North End’s straws were closed with tightly fitting caps instead. This difference made the team nervous. Sasha, however, had seen this before. She would handle the thaw, cutting open the device to release the embryos inside. Sasha assembled the materials she would need: a large dish, scalpel, stripper, pipette, straw, stopwatch, and tissue. She mimed through the motions with the lab director Emir, practicing the timing and movements with her hands. When she felt ready, she began the procedure. First, she placed the straw in a water bath, and swirled it vigorously for exactly three seconds. She used the tissue to dry the tip, then cut the bottom of the straw with the scalpel while Emir cut the other end. She then placed her lips around the top of the straw and began to blow gently to push out the embryo using her breath. Expecting the embryo to have been released, she began searching the fluid-filled dish to find it. Seconds passed, what began as a calm search turned frantic. Something was wrong. She couldn’t find the embryo. Sasha blew and blew again on the end of the straw, trying to extricate the embryo she assumed was stuck inside. Where was it? When she still couldn’t find the embryo, her supervisor took over, followed by the other embryologists. The team gathered around, as Sasha stood and stared at the monitor. It was no use. The embryo, assuming it had indeed been there in the first place, was gone.
When Sasha and I were the last two remaining in the lab, she murmured, “Just imagine being burned and then frozen. What a very awful death.” She expressed remorse for the patient whose embryo was now lost: “I’m so sorry for this girl.” She seemed genuinely anguished over this loss, searching the straw again and again in vain. “It’s the hardest part of our job,” she told me, when things go awry. “I’m miserable.” Here was an example of what Natasha Myers describes as a scientist who had become “affectively entangled in the life and death” of her material (Myers 2015:68). Following scholar Juno Salazar Parreñas’ work on human-nonhuman relationships of care (Parreñas 2016; 2018), I characterize this relationship between an embryologist and the embryos in her charge as a form of ‘intimacy.’ Parreñas writes, “intimacy is experienced through the materiality of bodies” (Parreñas 2016:121). Here, we see how humans and cellular entities “get entangled—kinesthetically and affectively” (Myers 2015:1). Examining embryologists’ intimate and embodied encounters with embryos—especially in moments of great affective upheaval, like in the failed embryo thaw—illuminates their inter-bodily, material intimacies. It also complicates Sarah’s assertion at the lack of ‘humanity’ inside the lab. I wondered whether Sasha felt empathy for both her patient, and for the embryo itself. It’s important to remember that she was working within a landscape in which legislation that defines personhood from the moment of fertilization—and claims that seek to affirm embryos’ ‘humanity’—was drawing nearer. Within this context, questions of embryonic ‘humanity’ signal fraught ontological and epistemological positionings that will continue to reverberate inside and beyond the embryology lab.
I attended another burial this year in the height of the Midwestern summer. Rather than snow and ice, I found lush green grass. I saw familiar faces in the crowd. We stood in the shade as the priest recited the same sermon, a nun knelt beside him. Sarah told us that this time, 104 embryos had been sent for burial from labs all over the country (and even beyond, she added). Some of them had been given names. With a smile, she said, “We will see them all again someday, and I hope they recognize us!” After we prayed the rosary, a few of us stayed to watch the embryos interred. We looked on in silence as a young man driving an excavator carefully covered the canister of straws with dark soil. The groundskeeper replaced the patch of grass over the hole. Sarah handed me a yellow rose, and I quietly placed it onto the mound.
The following week, I drove to the North End IVF lab. Sasha inspected a patient’s eggs. As I observed her work, she informed me that she would only be fertilizing three of them, at her religious patient’s request—to avoid creating and later destroying excess embryos that the patient regarded as her unborn children. Another embryologist printed out a photo of an embryo she thawed just that morning, which she will hand to the patient in the moments before the procedure. “Look, it’s already escaping the zona!” she told me excitedly, showing me the tiny cells peeking out from the embryo’s outer shell. Miles from the cemetery, the politics of embryo life and ‘humanity’ continued to seep through the laboratory doors. Not long ago, it seemed that those doors separated two worlds apart—the science lab and the Catholic cemetery. Yet, surprising discursive and material connections complicated that dominant narrative. Rather, I found that the two sides of the laboratory walls were already entangled in surprising ways.
Cromer, Risa. 2019. “Racial Politics of Frozen Embryo Personhood in the US Antiabortion Movement.” Transforming Anthropology 27 (1): 22–36.
———. 2020. “‘Our Family Picture Is a Little Hint of Heaven’: Race, Religion and Selective Reproduction in US ‘Embryo Adoption.’” Reproductive Biomedicine & Society Online, Reprotech in France and the United States: differences and similarities, 11 (November): 9–17.
Czarnecki, Danielle. 2022. “‘I’m Trying to Create, Not Destroy’: Gendered Moralities and the Fate of IVF Embryos in Evangelical Women’s Narratives.” Qualitative Sociology 45 (1): 89–121.Helmreich, Stefan. 2014. “Waves: An Anthropology of Scientific Things.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4 (3): 265–84.
Letterie, Gerard, and Dov Fox. 2023. “Legal Personhood and Frozen Embryos: Implications for Fertility Patients and Providers in Post-Roe America.” Journal of Law and the Biosciences 10 (1): lsad006.
Mol, Annemarie. 2003. The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice. Durham: Duke University Press.
Morgan, Lynn M. 2006. “‘Life Begins When They Steal Your Bicycle’: Cross-Cultural Practices of Personhood at the Beginnings and Ends of Life.” The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics 34 (1): 8–15.
Parreñas, Juno Salazar. 2016. “The Materiality of Intimacy in Wildlife Rehabilitation: Rethinking Ethical Capitalism through Embodied Encounters with Animals in Southeast Asia.” Positions: Asia Critique 24 (1): 97–127.
———. 2018. Decolonizing Extinction: The Work of Care in Orangutan Rehabilitation. Durham: Duke University Press Books.
Roberts, Elizabeth F. S. 2012. God’s Laboratory Assisted Reproduction in the Andes. Berkeley: University of California Press.