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Akron Univ. School of Law

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Extra Frozen Embryos

William Saleton in Slate.com writes about the ethical issues surrounding extra frozen embryos and states,

President Bush, God bless him, wants to find homes for them. He wants the parents who made them to let others gestate, deliver, and raise them. It's a beautiful thought. But a survey published last week in Fertility and Sterility says it's not going to happen. The survey sampled more than 1,000 people who had embryos on ice. Only 7 percent said they were very likely to give their embryos to other parents. Twice as many were willing to consider donating embryos for research as for reproduction.

Why? Because we don't want other people raising our kids. In the survey, the authors found that "concern about or responsibility for the health or welfare of the embryo or the child it could become … was negatively associated with reproductive donation and positively associated with options not resulting in a child." For these people, the "sense of responsibility precludes their allowing their embryos to become children in any family except their own."  . . .

Imploring these people to embrace a baby-making "culture of life" is noble, but it isn't realistic. Nor is putting ads in church newsletters for 500,000 adoptive wombs. The realistic answer is to stop making and freezing so many extra embryos in the first place. That, too, requires moral strength. If you can't stand to become a parent to a batch of frozen embryos, why are you creating them? Sort out your ethics before you cross that line.

This, according to the survey, is exactly what's not being done. The authors find that "fertility patients are likely to face an unanticipated conundrum when they have completed treatment: a choice among unappealing disposition options." Unanticipated? Come on. IVF isn't a night of passion. It's an elaborate plan. How can you go into it without thinking through the eventualities?

The answer, the authors explain, is that "when embryos are initially cryopreserved, patients are focused on having a child and may not be prepared to consider fully their views about embryo destruction or donation." Furthermore, they report, "Our review of consent documents indicates that patients are often not asked their preference regarding disposition of excess embryos at the time of freezing. … Discussion of disposition options is not mandated by professional guidelines."

In other words, nobody focuses on the extra embryos. The patients and doctors are preoccupied with making a baby. If you get one, congratulations. Anything extra is an afterthought. We treat the leftovers as raw material, available to be used or thrown away. But they aren't raw material. Eggs and sperm are raw material. Embryos are what we make with that material. They're us.

So the leftovers sit in freezers, like souls in limbo. In this survey, nearly half the people with embryos on ice said they didn't want to have more kids. Yet among this group, the authors report that 40 percent "have yet to select a preferred disposition option, and nearly a fifth indicate they are likely to freeze their embryos indefinitely." . . .

I'm a pro-choice moralist. I don't want the government telling people what to do with their pregnancies or their spare embryos. But that freedom doesn't eliminate moral obligation; it intensifies it. Each of us has to decide how to respect life in all its complexity. To me, embryos aren't people, but they're the beginnings of people. They aren't to be created, killed, or frozen lightly.

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