By Kaitlyn Schaeffer
Many couples facing fertility problems turn to the assisted reproduction industry for help – the rise in the number of people seeking in vitro solutions has resulted in an increasingly large number of frozen embryos (as many as one million) being stored across the nation. These frozen embryos occupy an ill-defined space: they are not clearly human, nor clearly not human. Decisions regarding what to do with these embryos have raised important questions regarding our reproductive technologies, the definition of ‘family,’ and the definition of ‘life.’
In vitro fertilization began in the early 1980’s as a way of helping couples conceive. The process involves fertilizing healthy eggs with healthy sperm in a laboratory. The newly created embryos are then divided: those with the greatest chance of developing into a healthy baby are the first to be implanted, and the remaining ones are frozen. Couples are generally happy to store the leftover embryos, in case the implanted ones fail to develop. But when a woman does successfully become pregnant, any remaining embryos are often left in storage indefinitely.
“[I]f I ask what they’ll do with them, they often have a Scarlett O’Hara response: I’ll think about that tomorrow,” said Dr. Mark V. Sauer, of Columbia University’s Center for Women’s Reproductive Care. “Couples don’t always agree about the moral and legal status of the embryo, where life begins, and how religion enters into it, and a lot of them end up kicking the can down the road.”
Couples have several options when it comes to this matter: they can donate them to research, use them to have more children, donate them to other families, or thawing and disposing them. Sometimes couples continue to pay the annual fees to continue storing the embryos; sometimes they default on payments, leaving the clinics to use their discretion.
“People might start out thinking they would donate them to research, or give their extras to someone else with need,” Dr. Saur explained. “But once they have a baby, they change their minds, thinking it would be too weird…”
Sometimes, however, couples have trouble deciding what to do with frozen embryos because they disagree about who has the right to make these decisions. Actress Sofia Vergara and her ex-fiance Nick Loeb had a very public battle over embryos they created together. Other cases involving disagreeing couples have landed in court, where judges find themselves needing to issue decisions in the absence of precedent and clear-cut legal rules. This has resulted in inconsistent rulings across the nation.
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