2005 Heather Campbell Essay Contest Winner

When Life Begins

By Kerry Spencer

It is looking at a British Gravestone, of all things, that makes me think the question.

The gravestone is old and covered with some sort of green fungus. There are many people listed on the stone, though their carved names have been degraded by elemental wrath. They have been dead so long that my question seems completely incongruous, though I know it isn’t.

At what point does life begin?

It’s something I’ve thought about since the day that we found out in vitro fertilization was the only way to have a baby, since the day we flew to London for the cheaper procedure, and since the day they implanted two blastocysts into my uterus. IVF requires the creation of multiple embryos. But not all of them survive. This isn’t due to any sort of deliberate weeding out—if there is any way on earth you can get an embryo to turn into a baby, you do it. If you have to freeze it and use it later, you do it. But between the day of fertilization and implantation, some of your embryos die. It’s almost a biological imperative.

We’ve lost fourteen embryos so far in the process.

I scan the names on the stone to see if any of them are my ancestors, whom we’re here looking for, but the ancestors remain elusive. Beneath lies only an unrelated someone who was once an embryo.

When does life become life and when can you call the loss of it death?

I push my way through grass that hasn’t been mowed in months. I think I can feel insects creeping across my arms and legs as I push through. The sun glares to my left and I am squinting against a massive headache. It is the hottest summer anyone in London can remember, and we are combing the cemetery plot by plot.

I wrote a paper in freshman biology arguing that life began at the moment of conception. I spent a week in research, but no time in actual thought. It was easy to argue what I already believed, easy to leave unasked the difficult questions.

But the truth is, as I scan the names on gravestone after gravestone, I don’t want to have been right. I don’t want life to begin at the moment of conception. Because that means that life is just too full of death. There would be just too much to mourn. Janet Shibley Hyde and John D. DeLamater argue that as many as forty percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage.[1] About half of them occur before the mother even knows she’s pregnant. A perfectly fertile couple can try to have a baby for an entire year unsuccessfully, and who knows how many embryos are lost in the process? I don’t want to stand above the toilet every month and wonder if this is the month I should be mourning the loss of human life. I just don’t.

In God’s way, statistically speaking, it takes several embryos to create one human life. All IVF does is make you aware of what is being lost.

A man with a lawn mower fastidiously mows and re-mows the newer plots at the edge of the cemetery. I want to call him over, tell him that very dead people deserve mowed grass as much as newly dead people. But he moves off, the hum of the mower slowly fading to an insect-like background hum.

I remember what I don’t want to think about: that there are two embryos floating somewhere in my gut. Two blastocysts. A fifty percent chance of conception, they tell me.

2 blastocysts = 0.5 human beings.

But it took sixteen embryos to create those two blastocyts.

16 embryos = 0.5 human beings.

I know that my math is simplistic. Statistics tell you nothing about the particular. They only tell you what is more likely. A single embryo can become two or three human beings. Two embryos can fuse into a single fetus with a double genotype. And fourteen embryos can die and no human beings ever result in the meshing of their cells.

“Hey, I think I found something,” Steve calls out from a few gravestones away. He has taken out the camera and is taking pictures of the inscriptions on the small, rose-colored tomb of an ancestor—James Felix Jones, a sea captain who died toward the end of the nineteenth century.

My sister, Kate, and I make our way over to the grave. I squint, trying to read the dirty inscription on the tomb. I make out only what I already knew: his name, his occupation, the date of his death.

The embryos in my gut have a fifty percent chance of death. Or life.

Of all of the possible odds, I think 50/50 is the worst. There is no comforting yourself—no saying, “it’s more likely this way or that way.” It is equally likely yes. And equally likely no.

Steve is meticulously snapping shot after shot of the grave. And I am baffled by him. We were sent here on this ancestor mission by my Aunt Maurine, the family genealogist. “Why do you care so much about my ancestors?” I grumble at him. I am irritated. Irritated at life, death, my ancestors, the world. My legs are itchy from too-tall grass but because the grass is so wet, scratching only makes my legs sting more. I blame the leftover hormones that still fly around in my blood stream for the bulk of my irritation, but I am probably mostly irritated by the odds: 50/50.

I don’t remember what Steve says back to me. I want it to have been something about life—that life matters. As short as it is and as hard as it is, it matters. I want to believe that more than anything else. But my irritation keeps getting in the way.

It is when we get home to our one-room, overheated, London flat that we get the messages.

The fertility clinic has been trying to call us over and over.

“It’s urgent,” they say. “Please call back.”

We are confused. We were done with the clinic. They told us they wouldn’t be contacting us anymore. We didn’t even bother to keep our phones with us.

“Your embryos,” they say when we finally get ahold of them. “We thought two of them were dead, but they weren’t. They started dividing again. But now it’s too late.”

Too late?

“Too late. They’re too big to be frozen now; they won’t survive.”

Two blastocysts in my gut.

Two blastocysts dying in the lab.

4 blastocysts = 1 human being.

But now it’s too late.

I am crying before I am off the phone with the clinic. The nurse is upset too. “Why didn’t you take your phone with you?” she is asking. “Why didn’t you?”

I was doing genealogy. I was doing the right thing.

I curse the ghosts of my ancestors.

Steve is crying now, too. He holds me and we cry on the bed. I cry and cry and I can’t stop crying.

Kate starts to get frantic. “You’re killing the babies inside you!” she is saying. She is holding a chocolate muffin and smears of chocolate encrust the bottoms of her fingernails. Maybe they even encrust her mind, because she is hysterical.

“STOP! STOP CRYING!” she says.

And I can’t stop.

Steve takes me into our tiny blue bathroom, away from Kate. I sit on the toilet and he sits on the edge of the shower. It is so hot that we turn the shower on cold and let the spray bounce off of the floor and hit us. Steve looks at me, holds my swollen face in one of his hands. We can say nothing to each other. We can just stare. Mourning the fifty percent chance of life now dying in the laboratory. Mourning the fifty percent chance of a family.

Neither of us knows when life begins.

All we know is that something has been lost.

[1] Janet Shibley Hyde and John D. DeLamater, Understanding Human Sexuality, 7th ed. (United States: McGraw Hill Co.), 173.

Kerry teaches writing at Brigham Young University. She grew up in California and now lives in Utah with her husband and two babies.