Abandoned Embryos And The Complexities Of Reproductive Technology

What do you do with 2,000 abandoned embryos? Dr. Robert Anderson's answer to this question highlights how the simple combination of sperm and egg has become complicated in the age of reproductive technology.

The embryos in question came from Saddleback Memorial Hospital in Laguna Hills, where a fertility clinic was shut down in 1995 after revelations that it had repeatedly impregnated women with the wrong embryos. Anderson was the only one who stepped up to take the now-homeless embryos — he says, "I thought it was the right thing to do." That meant he was saddled with the task of tracking down the owners of each embryo, and giving them a choice: keep them frozen for a fee, donate them to medical research or to an infertile couple, or discard them.

More owners are choosing to donate to research now that stem cell issues are receiving more attention. Donating to another couple is the least popular option. Many embryos, however, remain entirely unclaimed — since Saddleback had many international clients, lots of embryo owners have been impossible to track down. Anderson says,

At some point, it just gets ridiculous. In a perfect world, when a couple is done with having all their children, they would make a decision. The farther and farther we get from that, the less likely they are to make a decision. I wish there was a way of making a disposition on a lot of these embryos that have been abandoned.

It is legal to destroy embryos abandoned for five years or more, but doing so would be "a public relations nightmare" according to bioethicist Lori Andrews. She says, "we have no agreement over the social or moral status of the embryo. We need to be more forward-looking in terms of the policies and regulation."

Dr. Anderson's quandary highlights the difficulty of knowing what to do with something that isn't a child, but that people feel deserves more consideration than a vial of blood or a clump of skin. It's fortunate that we have the technology today to create embryos like the ones Anderson is storing, but unfortunate that we haven't quite figured out how we should treat them. Also unfortunate: frozen embryos aren't the only issue to inhabit this still somewhat uncharted moral middle ground.

One of these issues is egg donation. Though women can make a fair amount of money donating their eggs to infertile couples, they couldn't be paid to give up their eggs for research — until now. New York State has decided to allow payment for research-destined eggs, opening the door for more study into cloning stem cells for individualized therapies. The move may help people with currently untreatable diseases someday get well, but due to many people's discomfort with cloning, at least one bioethicist is already predicting a backlash.

Then there's the issue of surrogacy, which is apparently becoming more popular among single men in India. The Times of India tells this story:

A 28-year old expat Gujarati, who stays in the US, met with a serious accident and was hospitalized for two years battling paraplegia. Left with a certain disability, the young man expressed his feeling that he did not want to marry as he was too conscious of his handicap but would love to become a father.

"His parents approached us and using his sperms a surrogate just delivered a boy. Fatherhood has given the young man a new purpose in life," said Dr Patel. Infertility specialist Dr Falguni Bavishi of Ahmedabad has also been approached by a single man from Canada to help him become a father. He had got his sperms frozen and will get a baby with the help of a surrogate.

The wording of the article is somewhat off-putting (the headline is, "Single men hire wombs in Gujarat to become fathers"), and it's sad that the young man's disability (it's possible that the paper is coyly referring to impotence) makes him feel he cannot marry. At the same time, it's good to be reminded that men, as well as women, sometimes want to have a child without a partner. And while surrogacy gives rise to a whole set of moral and economic questions (will it, for instance, create an underclass of poor women bearing rich people's children?), it's hard not to be happy for the man who can now realize his dream of being a father. All three stories reveal that we still have a lot to work out when it comes to reproductive technology. At the same time, one reason we have these problems is because people are able to have children who never would have before. And this, despite all the difficulties attendant on it, is exciting.

Life On Ice [Newsweek]
Single Men Hire Wombs In Gujarat To Beecome Fathers [Times of India]
New York Approves Controversial Egg Donor Payments [New Scientist]