What if you had twenty blastocysts/early-stage embryos? Of the twenty, eighteen sit frozen in a fertility clinic. Two grew into babies who are walking and talking now. They have brown eyes, light brown hair, fair skin. They’re both tall. One is husky. One is thin. What if you could still see them clearly in their earliest form up there on the monitor? A garden of blastocysts like tiny cauliflower blossoms dividing and multiplying in the fight for survival. Each with its own code, eyes, hair, skin, height, body type, blood type, already determined. On the screen a needle moves through the garden. In its wake the blossoms sway. Who are they, you might wonder. The needle stops. It hones in. Up goes one blastocyst. Up slides the other. They disappear from the monitor. Our babies-to-be have just been chosen by an embryologist. She walks from the laboratory to the procedure room where I’m lying on a table, holding my husband’s hand, listening to Here Comes The Sun on my iPod. I wonder who they are, the two traveling the catheter to my uterus. I wonder who they are, the eighteen left behind.
Each year an invoice arrives in the mail. Hundreds of dollars are due. At first, I was convinced we’d birth another baby, so paying the embryo storage fee seemed justified. I’d been curious to know what a singleton pregnancy was like plus five (kids, that is) felt like a good strong number. But two open birth adoptions, one twin pregnancy, and four kids later there’s no denying my exhaustion. I’m an over-scheduled mom, part-time music teacher, and very frustrated writer – none of which provide enough money for us to live on. Having been laid-off last spring TC is still taking contract work here and there. We do OK, but not without effort. To our credit we have a knack for hashing things out based on our value system and not money. When seeking answers, our policy has always been to search our hearts and do what feels right regardless of finances, somehow we’ll find a way. But this is a broader subject. It deals with agreeing on delicate terminology, raking over a new set of ethics and making choices with weighty consequences. What to do with the embryos?
Stem cell research had always been our top choice. Researchers typically allow blastocysts/early-stage embryos to grow to a 150-cell cluster before removing the valuable inner mass. Obviously, development then stops and the embryo dies. Most left-over IVF (in-vitro fertilization) embryos go unused. Of the ones that are used, only about half survive the thawing process. Few will ever become fetuses. A human embryo becomes a fetus eight weeks after conception. Sure, it may look like an alien peanut, but all major human structures are in place. This is not about whether I think it’s wrong to use left-over IVF embryos. I’m a big supporter of stem cell research. It’s about the image on the monitor that day and the babies I hold in my arms today.
Sometimes when I stare at my children I can hardly believe we actually found each other. The pain of longing for each one of them comes back in a flash. I think of how our oldest daughter came straight to us after only ten days in the birth pool. I held her birthmother’s hand as she was born and sobbed with her the day the papers were signed. I think of how many situations were rejected before our younger daughter’s birthmother came along and made everything right again. We spent that Christmas night in the hospital waiting for Z to be born and when she came, it was the greatest gift of all. My mind snaps back to that summer afternoon at our fertility clinic. The embryologist was giddy. “They’re just breathing-taking!” she said of the blastocysts. I asked how she’d decide which ones to transfer. “Ordinarily,” she explained, “it’s about finding the ones with the greatest potential. But in this case, it’s literally eeny meeny miny moe.”
Who was next to T and D in the petri dish that day? How many girls? How many boys? Given the opportunity to grow who might they become? When I consider donating our embryos to a worthy recipient, I find myself coveting the baby-to-be. I’d feel attached to him or her. Considering the openness of our blended family I can’t fathom not fostering a relationship with the child. All this, despite the fact that our embryos were created with donor egg and sperm, and the previous offspring of both donors will never assume sibling roles in our family. The donors helped create children expressly for us. They’re loving and proud, but not involved the way our birthmothers are. We examined the terms of embryo-ownership for this very reason – what to do with the frozen embryos would become our sole responsibility. They are full genetic links to two of our four children. And now, as predicted by our counselor, I have grown attached (however illogical) to those frozen little buggers.
Some people opt to take their frozen bits home and transfer their thawed embryos on their own. (The outdated term “implant” was replaced by “transfer” a while back, because embryos actually implant themselves.) Self-transferred embryos might live for a short time before being absorbed into the woman’s body like any other dead cells. I’ve never heard of one sticking in this instance, but I suspect some people hope against hope that one will. I would. Presumably the person is then able to grieve and move on. My husband thinks this is a selfish option for us. But I understand what motivates a woman to do this. I also understand why a woman might choose abortion instead of going to term with an unplanned pregnancy and then choosing open adoption (88% of all abortions are performed within the first twelve weeks of pregnancy and as of several years ago less than 5% of all U.S. adoptions were open). None of this data comes with a map or instruction manual. Do I really want to have another baby? I don’t know. Do I really want to help cure disease through stem cell research? Yes. With embryos that might turn out to have the same eyes as T or the same smile as D? I don’t know. Do I really want to give these embryos a chance to become babies and give someone like me the chance to love a child as much as I do? Yes. No. Maybe. I don’t know. How does anyone decide what to do in this case? Where do the answers lie? I honestly can’t say. All I know is that it’s impossible for me to separate logic from emotion when it comes to the eighteen who were left behind. And so, we pay the fee and give the eighteen another year in cryogen-limbo.