EXTRA EMBRYOS: ORPHANS, DONATIONS OR WASTE? - Tucson Local Media: Import

EXTRA EMBRYOS: ORPHANS, DONATIONS OR WASTE?

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Posted: Tuesday, July 31, 2001 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:46 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

A woman and her husband are quickly escorted inside the clinic as an angry mob waves signs and shouts in protest. The signs share a common thread of right to life whereas the shouts promise a common threat of loss of life.

The clinician and his staff wear worried expressions along with their bulletproof vests, wondering if the locked doors and security guards will be enough to guarantee their safety.

"Mrs. Jones, are you certain that you and your husband want to continue on with the procedure? It's not too late to change your mind if you are having any second thoughts."

The couple look into each other's eyes and shake their heads in agreement. "No…no second thoughts," said Mrs. Jones. "We've decided that we want to do this. It's what we've agreed is for the best, we want to have a child."

What sounds like a strange twist from an old Twilight Zone episode may in the future become a reality. A reality possibly dependent upon President Bush's decision on whether the federal government should support research on stem cells derived from extra embryos that would otherwise be discarded by fertility clinics.

Lately, like a specimen under a microscope, the media has focused on the issue of stem cell research. For the most part, there are two polarizing views that appear black and white with little gray between.

One side views stem cell research as our best and brightest hope from scientists for treatments and cures for illnesses like diabetes and Parkin-son's disease. The other side views stem cell research as a type of abortion because it is the ending of the life of a human embryo.

However, a gray area that no one is talking about is the business-as-usual destruction of unneeded extra embryos following in vitro fertilization. Are these embryos a biotechnological orphan with a right to a womb and a life? Or are they just another type of medical waste to be discarded in our disposable society?

Today, there are thousands of human embryos stored cryogenically in a frozen limbo -- neither damned for destruction nor blessed with life. These repositories of humanity are the result of technological advances in the field of human reproduction.

Whenever a couple has trouble introducing a sperm to an egg the old fashioned way, science has become a biotech matchmaker ensuring that the two get together and build a life for themselves in the womb. The problem with this is that not all fertilizations yield healthy embryos and success is low.

Only by hormonally stimulating a woman to super-ovulate multiple eggs for collection and fertilization in a petri dish, do the odds of procreation increase for the infertile couple.

Once several eggs are successfully fertilized and cultured, a few are selected for implantation into the uterus. Hence the dilemma -- many are called, but few are chosen. So what is to be done with the remaining embryos?

In general, extra embryos are left in frozen storage until the prospective parents tell the clinic what to do with them. The parents' usual choices are as follows: (Leave them frozen for an indeterminate amount of time; Thaw them out and pour them down the drain; Donate them for stem cell research. In any case the end result is the same, the eventual death of an embryo.

Only recently have couples that are uneasy about the fate of their extra embryos discovered additional options. Last February, the New York Times reported about a couple in Georgia who, through an adoption agency in California, donated their extra embryos to an infertile couple in Virginia.

Another rather unique solution is one called "Compassionate Embryo Transfer." In an interview with Ms. Lizzie West, the Director of Reproduction at Christ Hospital Fertility Clinic in Cincinnati, I learned that after a successful pregnancy the clinic offers patients the option of having their extra embryos transferred into the uterus at a randomly picked date of a woman's reproductive cycle. The feeling is that if nature or divinity is allowed to take its course, what will be, will be.

And so, with the options of nondestructive alternative solutions for unwanted extra embryos, what will our future be? In the past, anti-abortionists have remained quiet when it comes to the fate of extra embryos from an IVF clinic. Today, anti-abortionists are speaking out against the use of these extra embryos for medical research.

Tomorrow, if President Bush determines that using extra embryos for medical research is unethical and immoral, then the anti-abortionists will have the green light to redirect their protests toward the reproductive freedoms of infertile couples.

In the future, we may all have to be accountable for every egg and every sperm and what we choose to do with them.

Maybe, just maybe, Our Brave New World has already collided with George Orwell's "1984."

Tim Boyer is a free-lance writer and has a doctorate in biology

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