Review: Conceiving Christian America: Embryo Adoption and Reproductive Politics

Biopolitical Times
book cover Conceiving Christian America

Risa Cromer’s Conceiving Christian America: Embryo Adoption and Reproductive Politics richly contextualizes embryo adoption programs within the growth and evolution of the conservative Christian Right. Drawing on 27 months of fieldwork, primarily conducted at embryo adoption programs and secondarily at fertility clinics, Cromer argues that embryo adoption is a strategy that a subset of White evangelicals employs to advance the project of white saviorism and to literally reproduce a Christian nation.

Cromer illustrates how the development of cryopreservation techniques, along with fertility clinics’ tendency to create more embryos than clients will ever use, have together contributed to the surplus of frozen embryos in clinic and embryo storage facilities throughout the United States – at least 600,000, by many estimates. Buoyed by the pro-life conviction that embryos have equivalent moral status to human persons, White evangelicals were motivated to establish embryo adoption programs that, in their eyes, would “rescue” frozen embryos from their chilly, suspended fate. Embryo adoption functions narrowly as a means to advance anti-abortion politics by marking fertilization as the point at which personhood begins, but it also contributes more broadly to the Christian right’s goal of building up a Christian nation through the proliferation of heterosexual, White, Christian nuclear families.

The destiny envisioned by these embryo adoption programs, Cromer argues, is in keeping with the larger political project of the Christian right. She situates efforts to “save” frozen embryos as a contemporary iteration of earlier “Christian child-saving movements” that deployed white saviorism to frame some parents (often poor, nonwhite) as threats to their innocent children, who were thus in need of saving by altruistic white Christians. She details the horrific history of Christian-run Indigenous boarding schools along with more recent and fraught racialized practices in international adoption and in the U.S. foster care system.

Embryo adoption programs continue the logic of the Christian right by suggesting that the ideal home for the cryopreserved embryo is the White, heterosexual Christian family. In some cases, this ideal is made overt: Cromer explains how some embryo adoption programs explicitly require or prefer adoptive parents that identify as Christian and are heterosexually married. The organizing logic of embryo adoption relies on a contrast between the inhospitable cryopreservation tank––which is understood to preserve embryos but deny them a future––and the nurturing, warm, and faith-filled environment of the Christian evangelical uterus and family home.

As Cromer explains, this framing may organize the efforts of embryo adoption clinics and motivate embryo-adoptive parents, but it does not capture the experiences reported by many embryo donors. Couples and individuals donating embryos do not see themselves as having abandoned their embryos to an unjust fate; in fact, many view themselves as struggling to discern what it means to be “good parents” to their excess embryos. As Cromer explains, this is a problem largely created by unregulated fertility clinics that encourage the creation of a surplus of embryos, fueled by financial incentives and cultural ideals that encourage selection of the “best” embryo. Those with excess embryos view embryo donation as a possible way forward, in that it provides a future for excess embryos and a “gift” to families contending with infertility or who are struggling with conventional adoption processes.

While “embryo saviorism” casts all embryos as worthy of saving, the marketing of embryos available for adoption implicitly employs cultural hierarchies related to race, ethnicity, and disability. It sets certain embryos apart as special: one program’s website dedicated separate web pages to embryos that are “multi-ethnic” or “non-Caucasian” and embryos with “special needs,” which included embryos from donors with known health condition and embryos that received poor grades from embryologists. The racialization of embryos in embryo adoption programs reflects broader tendencies in the fertility industry to read social categories of race into biological material (see Renée Almeling’s analysis of a similar phenomenon in gamete donation), reproducing racial hierarchies that implicitly privilege whiteness and racial purity.

Similarly, fertility clinics’ existing negative framings of genetic conditions and embryo grading practices carry over into embryo adoption to reproduce ableist assumptions that assume genetic differences are negative and less desirable. As Cromer points out, however, the conviction that all embryos ought to be saved, even if they are seen as less desirable, provides a contrast to the logics of fertility clinics, which typically show no signs of moral qualms about discarding “lower quality” embryos. In embryo adoption programs, a White-savior flavor of Christian charity functions to encourage adoption of these embryos cast as less desirable. Despite the differing outcome, the hierarchy remains intact, as those who adopt less desirable embryos are seen as all the more altruistic for taking on embryos that are seen to have additional burdens or are cast as racially “impure.”

Cromer’s book skillfully situates embryo adoption programs within broader White Christian evangelical political trends. She points out how these political goals motivate programs run primarily by women who envision their roles as matching needy embryos with altruistic intended parents. Extensive fieldwork provides ample evidence to support Cromer’s nuanced conclusions and to illustrate the varied perspectives of donors, program staff, and adoptive families.

Cromer focuses primarily on evangelical perspectives on personhood, Christian nationalism, and embryo adoption. Occasionally, her analysis addresses the role of the Catholic Church in supporting pro-life rhetoric, policies, and projects, but these few mentions focus primarily on official statements from Rome. Her rendition of Catholicism largely misses the variation in views among lay Catholics in the U.S. regarding fetal personhood and Christian nationalism. A majority of U.S. Catholics support the legalization of abortion, and yet a small contingent of Catholics on the right helped overturn Roe v. Wade, in part by creating institutional pipelines that allow their particular version of Catholic Christian nationalism to shape the American legal and political system. In other words, Cromer gives the Catholic tradition both too much and too little credit for its role in advancing the aims of the Christian right.

Ultimately, Cromer’s book underscores that embryo adoption is one of many proxies for the Christian right’s aim of “saving the nation.” Advocates of embryo adoption are not only fighting for “the sanctity of embryonic life” and “the values of white Christian womanhood,” but are also working to advance a religio-racial project that explicitly embraces Christianity and implicitly embraces whiteness. While Cromer has to work to surface the implicit racial hierarchies operating in embryo adoption, many on the far right have made the eugenic logic underlying this project explicit––see, for instance, Donald Trump’s recent speeches echoing Hitler, or the embrace of racist pseudoscience among conservative activists.

Cromer emphasizes her encounters with many individuals who support embryo adoption yet reject these associations––and in fact draw on their faith tradition to oppose these distorted values. Her final reflections, however, invite us to a more sobering conclusion: the entrenched patterns of white innocence and white saviorism operating in embryo adoption fuel the larger project of the far right, which has greater ambitions and threatens devastating consequences.