Saturday, December 6, 2008

What To Do With the Kids in the Freezer?



Adam Fuss

Reproductive news is certainly all the rage these days. Following the story about surrogacy we've been discussing in the previous post, Thursday's (12/04/08) New York Times has a story about parents with frozen embryos who have all the children they want but don't know quite what to do with the leftovers. Feed them to science? Keep them frozen until they are no longer viable? Simply stop paying the annual $200 fee and let happen what will? Ask for them and hold a burial? Have them implanted at a time when the woman knows she can not conceive? Let them be adopted by strangers?

Here in the U.S. where we have some of the most absurd and unregulated reproductive legislation, doctors can make as many embryos as they and their clients please, and the trend seems to be make as many as possible...since you never know. In Italy, however, more common sense has taken hold: Fertility clinics can make only as many embryos as can be implanted at one time, and so there are no excess embryos lying about in vats of frozen nitrogen. Sixty-six percent of the people surveyed said they would likely donate their extra embryos to science, but amazingly, that option was available only at four of the nine clinics surveyed. Disgustingly irresponsible? Yes. Illegal? No.

One woman said a freezer full of embryos was "like an orphanage." I suppose she has a point--but that would be an orphanage that has 400,000 potential people, according to the study, give or take a hundred thousand or more since not all are going to be viable when, uh, defrosted.

The Times was reporting on a new study in the Journal of Fertility and Sterility which found that 53 percent of the couples whose embryos are frozen did not want to donate them to other couples, mostly because they did not want someone else bringing up their children. That leaves a whopping 47 percent who do not object to passing out their DNA to strangers. And that I find distressing.

One woman quoted--with nine frozen embryos--said that she had a queasy feeling about donating them to science, but was against adoption because she would worry too much about "what kind of parents they were with, what kind of life they had." At least She is aware what stranger adoption actually means. That someone else--genetic strangers--are raising your children. However her teenage daughter is for adoption, a reflection of our pro-adoption culture, especially among the younger generation.

But progress has been made on the adoption issue: If you want to donate your embryos to another couple, you must be screened for infectious diseases, sometimes at your own expense. And clinics no longer suggest that people give their embryos to other couples anymore, something that was common a decade ago. I can imagine the marketing: "Well, you can chose between a possible blue-eyed blond baby or a green-eyed redhead, or are you more in the market for someone with more Semitic features? There we can talk about possible IQ points. Looking for ability in mathematics? We have several Asian choices, Japanese, Korean, Chinese...take your pick." Talk about "chosen baby."

Yes, I'm being flip but all this is yukky and frightening.

Of course, I never had to face infertility. After I had Jane and surrendered her I never wanted another child, for several reasons, one being the sense that it was so unfair to have a child and give her away, and then keep another. It's called secondary infertility; studies show that birth mothers fall into this statistical category more than most, and as I recall, the numbers of women who surrender children and have no more vary from a low of 17 percent to a high of 34 percent . (For more information, see the Donaldson survey of birth mothers, p.46) I never tried to have another child. I recognize that my rationale could simply be that, a rationale, for I did want to have a career rather than be a mother with all the responsibility that entails, and without more money than I have ever had--nannies did not seem to be in my future--I did not see how that would be possible.

I felt that way before I became pregnant; but once I was, everything changed, and every microcosm of my being screamed for me to keep my baby. I did not and I have been paying the interest on that decision since. --lorraine




7 comments :

  1. I found this article fascinating; comments all across the board. And yet another moral issue we're faced with, and most likely will be addressing for years, even decades to come.

    I found it interesting that most husbands would simply destroy the embryos, while wives were willing to pay $200 a year to keep them in storage; yet more proof of the differences between Venus and Mars.

    This comment that Lorraine discusses really intrigues me:

    Ms. Best said her nine embryos “have the potential to become beautiful people.” The thought of giving them up for research “conjures all sorts of horrors, from Frankenstein to the Holocaust,” she said, adding that destroying them would be preferable.

    Her teenage daughter favors letting another couple adopt the embryos, but, Ms. Best said, she would worry too much about “what kind of parents they were with, what kind of life they had.”

    Hmm, she thinks her nine embryos have the potential to become beautiful people, yet she'd worry about the sort of parents they'd have, so let's not bring nine potentially beautiful people into the world. I actually smiled when I read that. It's the polar opposite of so many women for whom adoption is not an option because "you never know what you're gonna get" on the baby roulette wheel--crack addiction, fetal alcohol syndrome, a future Jeffrey Dahmer.

    Our mothers, our grandmothers, our great-grandmothers, etc. only knew they would get a boy or a girl, or perhaps twins or triplets. And they were simply happy to have a baby, healthy or otherwise! Such a brave new world we're living in, or is it really so brave?

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  2. My perspective is different than yours because I am a mother through Embryo Adoption. I agree with you that I wish there were laws here to prevent the creation of excess embryos in the first place, and I'd support legislation to put a stop to it. However, the fact remains that there are 400,000 in storage NOW and genetic parents who AREN'T going to parent them, so something must be done. I guess I don't understand the logic that killing them is better than letting someone else raise them. I don't for a second presume to understand the pain of a genetic parent letting them go, but I can't see how killing them is less painful or better for the child (or potential child as may be your belief).

    Interesting discussion!

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  3. My concern with these embryos being "adopted"...(the adoption doesn't happen until there is a birth)...is that these children must face developmental tasks that their parents know nothing whatever about...and most likely don't even imagine. The isolation they will face is unique. The pressure to conform enormous. The fact of having spent years on ice...to have an utterly unique birth narrative in history...this is unprecedented.

    Providing access to birth for these embryos without any concern for the lives and development of the human being...yes, no concern for the human being...should make everyone stop short. Birth is not right for these people. They become slaves to their origins: and they more than anyone have an argument to reject all history.

    It isn't saving them to bring these embryos to term...it is enslaving them.

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  4. Thanks for this interesting article, Lorraine. I think it's a really important issue.

    One of the (many) thoughts that runs through my mind when I read about embryo "adoption" is, will these "snowflake" children ever learn how they were brought into the world. Even with guidelines, how could this be mandated? For those parents who want to keep the secret and pretend that the child is genetically theirs, it would seem to be pretty easy for them to do so.

    And why is the motivation for someone "adopt" in this way, when there are already children who genuinely do need homes and families?

    The "adoption" concept is so opposite to the stem cell research side of things.

    The waste saddens me, yet, unlike the previous poster, I don't think "adoption" of spare embryos is necessarily the better option. But then, while I think ART is undermining of respect for human dignity I don't accept that embryos are persons. Of course believing that personhood begins at conception would complicate matters (not to mention the concept of the 'soul').

    The fact that there are only four clinics that offer the possibility of using spare embryos for research surprises me. If the medical people at these clinics are willing to assist in the creation of these embryos, why would they be not stipulate as a condition at the outset that spare embryos might be used for research (if that's the reason why there are so few clinics offering this option, that is)? Perhaps there is some legal reason, to do with property - which is a chilling thought in itself.

    I'm rather sorry for some of the confused people who were lured into this, though I'm surprised they didn't consider more on their own initiative. Unforeseeable consequences indeed.

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  5. One of the (many) thoughts that runs through my mind when I read about embryo "adoption" is, will these "snowflake" children ever learn how they were brought into the world. Even with guidelines, how could this be mandated? For those parents who want to keep the secret and pretend that the child is genetically theirs, it would seem to be pretty easy for them to do so.


    Of course you can't enforce a mandate that parents do the right thing by telling their children about their origins but neither also can you force parents in a traditional adoption relationship to be forthcoming with their children about their origins either, and yet that's hardly a reason to do away with the entire system. The agency that pioneered EA DOES require honesty with the children and gives parents tools (age appropriate language and ideas, and a parental support system, etc) to help share that information.

    And why is the motivation for someone "adopt" in this way, when there are already children who genuinely do need homes and families?
    In the paradigm/world view that these embryos are human beings (which is our world view) then there is no difference These embryos (children) are genuinely in need of homes and families as much as are their born counter parts, and in fact there are fewer people willing to stand up and provide that for them.

    Providing access to birth for these embryos without any concern for the lives and development of the human being...yes, no concern for the human being...should make everyone stop short.

    It takes a lot of audacity to categorically deny a parent's commitment to their children and their lives and development and to allege that the parent has "no concern."

    As I said before, I think excess frozen embryos is a huge, unfettered problem in this country. But that doesn't mean I love my children any less, or that I'm not committed to giving them the best in spite of what may have been a rocky start, over which I had no control. I don't think a lifetime of difficulty is a foregone conclusion, especially with loving parents. And any way you slice it, I just can't buy in to your argument that dead is a better alternative.

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  6. Excellent comment...it does take "considerable audacity" to make that general statement about parents...but it stems not as a criticism of the parents' good intentions...but to the fact that there is no discussion about what those human beings must encounter as they mature...just as the realities of the maturing of adoptees is too often dismissed. Adoptees critical of the system are still called "disgruntled."

    There is no systemic articulation of the meaning and importance of history and origins in the establishment of a human life. This sort of thing used to be common sense. Grandmothers would tell stories...and generations knew each other.

    I'm not saying this is an easy thing to do! But it is something that we all somehow need to do...or we will create further confusion for another generation of human beings out of fuzzy feelings of doing good.

    Those embryo children grow up...as do adoptees...and parents die...and they then will feel things and wonder things, see the past differently. The stories they were told and not told...the imagination must be truly fed. This is what must be considered when thinking of birthing these embryos.

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  7. Thanks for your response, Snowflakemommy.
    I'm curious to learn if you yourself know the identities of your child's biological parents?
    And, if so, are they willing for that information to be made known to your child when he or she reaches adulthood?

    Of course it will never be possible to mandate 100% openness in these matters, but one way of making it much more difficult for parents to lie about their children's origins would be to create a new type of birth certificate that would allow for ALL parents names, bio and social, to be included, and to make this accessible *only* to the person whose birth certificate it is.
    A shorter version could be used for everyday purposes.
    I think this is how things should be done in traditional adoption.
    It would also provide protection for children born as a result of donated embryo implantation.

    "These embryos (children) are genuinely in need of homes and families as much as are their born counter parts"
    I think that's *very* moot.
    But there you go.

    Just to add, I think Mark's point about the importance of history, origins and story is a crucial one.

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