WETZSTEIN: Extra embryos pose dilemma
About a year ago, a colleague and I wrote that only about 6,000 unwed mothers a year placed their newborns for adoption, while the number of “embryo adoptions” — in which people transfer their excess frozen embryos to new would-be parents — was rising.
I thought this was a remarkable turn of events: Women (or couples) wouldn’t part with a baby, but they would if it was an embryo.
I viewed this as a win-win situation. Who else but infertile couples can truly understand the desolate heartache of childlessness, and if they find themselves with “extra” embryos after completing their families, why not share? The federal government has seemed to agree with that view, as it has spent several million dollars to promote awareness of embryo adoption (also known as embryo donation).
So where is this issue today?
To begin, the advertising seems to be paying off.
“We are now seeing patients who heard about embryo adoption from an acquaintance or friend or family member rather than just through their own research or from a physician’s office,” says Dr. Jeffrey Keenan, medical director of the National Embryo Donation Center, which received some of the embryo-donation-promotion grants.
“What that indicates to me is that the word is getting out on the street,” he says.
Dr. Keenan also estimates that the number of babies born from embryo adoption is holding its own, if not growing. Between 2004 and 2007, he estimates, there were more than 1,000 live-birth deliveries, resulting in about 1,300 babies (because of twins and triplets).
Given the multitudes of frozen embryos (500,000 at last estimate), the number of babies born through embryo adoption could grow significantly if this process became more widely accepted.
But that’s a very big “if.”
Especially during the George W. Bush years, when federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research was limited, the quiet drumbeat was to steer any extra embryos to researchers. That was a noble, meaningful choice, parents were told — let your embryos help solve Parkinson’s disease or juvenile diabetes.
Not surprisingly, an authoritative 2007 study showed that out of 1,020 people with frozen embryos, 21 percent were “very likely” to donate any extras to research, compared with 7 percent who said it was “very likely” they would donate to another couple.
But now reports are coming out about how difficult it is to donate embryos to research.
In a January 2010 Newsweek article, Claudia Kalb reported that some institutions are no longer “recruiting” embryos. In some cases, she found, researchers already have hundreds of embryos in stock, and/or find it too expensive (about $1,000 an embryo) to take in new ones.
There’s also the question of exactly what noble research purpose one’s embryos will serve. According to Ms. Kalb’s interviews, some couples are OK with donating to research to help cure cancer, but not if their embryos are going to end up as “teaching aids” for lab students.
In fact, Ms. Kalb’s article is one of many that highlight the tremendous struggle many couples have when it comes to deciding the fate of their frozen embryos once their families are complete.
Many people cannot decide whether to thaw or donate, so they are choosing Door No. 3: Do nothing.
This, of course, is contributing to a massive inventory of “souls on ice,” as a 2006 Mother Jones article by Liza Mundy put it. (“I have embryos that have been here since 1992,” one Los Angeles fertility doctor lamented to Ms. Mundy.)
In my talk with Dr. Keenan, he raised an issue I had never heard before but will repeat here.
What, he wanted to know, will become of embryos that end up as part of their parents’ estate? “There’s an inheritance problem for children — cryopreserved siblings.”
I didn’t have an answer for him. The idea of frozen embryos outliving their parents was just, well, inconceivable.
• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at email@example.com.