The New York Times, to its credit really, has given front-page treatment to an issue that should not actually trouble hard-line pro-choice types -- the question of what to do with abandoned embryos.
It seems that around the nation, tens of thousands of human embryos, leftovers of in vitro fertilization procedures, are sitting in liquid nitrogen with nowhere to go. And couples often devote less attention to what becomes of them than they would to a stray dog.
When attempting in vitro fertilization, clinics typically give women a drug that causes multiple ovulations in each cycle. The eggs are then surgically "retrieved" and combined with the husband's sperm in a petri dish. A day or two later, several embryos are placed in the woman's uterus in hopes that one or two (twins are far more common among in vitro patients than in the population at large) will implant and proceed to term. Quite often, no embryo implants in the uterine lining and the woman does not become pregnant. Sometimes, all of them do, causing some people to choose "pregnancy reduction" or selective abortion to reduce, say, a quintuplet pregnancy to a twin pregnancy in order to increase the chances of a successful outcome.
But quite often a couple will produce large numbers of embryos and only use a fraction to produce their family. The Times offers the example of Robert and Suzanne Gray, who gave birth to four children using in vitro fertilization but who still had 23 embryos in storage at the end.
For some couples, the mixing of human eggs and sperm is merely the manufacture of a highly desirable commodity -- their own biological offspring. But once they have achieved their goal, the remaining embryos are seen not as potential children but simply as extra property. And like so many women who say that they would sooner abort than place a child for adoption, many couples with embryos on ice think equally selfishly.
One woman, who has two sons by in vitro, told the Times that she plans to donate her frozen embryos for stem-cell research. "If I give these embryos to another couple, then my children will have a full sibling out there, a blood sibling. My embryos may not be somebody's child, but maybe my embryos could help somebody's child walk."
It is hard to imagine a more blatant case of self-justification. It makes her uncomfortable to contemplate her offspring "out there," so she decides to destroy them and call it the noble attempt to "help somebody's child walk."
It obviously never occurred to that woman to place her embryos with a couple in another part of the country where her kids would be unlikely to run into them. Nor did it probably trouble her, when she was having infertility treatment, that she might have leftover embryos. More morally sensitive people have resolved before they begin the process that they will either implant every embryo they can produce -- and people do have some control over how many are produced -- or donate the extra embryos to other infertile couples.
While clinics can sell human eggs and sperm, they cannot sell embryos without risking prosecution under laws forbidding baby-selling -- evidence that the clinics (or their lawyers) may be more sensitive to the human potential in their freezers than the couples who produced the embryos. Many clinics have been reduced to running ads in newspapers begging parents to make a decision about embryos that have been in cold storage for as many as 15 years.
Adoption placement would seem a viable alternative for thousands. Today, infertile couples frequently must wait years for an adoptable baby to become available. Certainly some fraction of the estimated 2 million couples who wait to adopt are capable of carrying an embryo to term even if their own eggs or sperm are defective. And the cost, usually about $3,000 is much lower than traditional adoption.
Snowflakes Embryo Adoption program run by Nightlight Christian Adoptions in Fullerton, Calif., places embryos with couples around the nation. But for this option to take hold more fully, parents of embryos must recognize that the cells they left in limbo at the clinic are not disposable.