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Embryo Dilemma

This week I have been trying—with poor results to show for it so far—to catch up on my magazine reading. Every month a new opportunity comes (thankfully, we gave up weeklies): I pick up the new Harper’s, the new Atlantic; I caress each adoringly. But thirty days later, and there I find them lying forlornly on the coffee table. Love is strong, but it alone guarantees no implantation in the mind. That requires diligence, determination, patience.

Still I try, and this month, just in time to celebrate President Bush’s firstborn veto, I am fortunate to have read the cover stories of the July/August Mother Jones. Snowflake babies are falling again and blowing in drifts on the steps of the nation. Elizabeth Weil’s and especially Liza Mundy’s reporting on the legal and social ambiguities of fertility treatments and on the philosophical and ethical dilemmas represented by the nearly half-million frozen embryos in America today, respectively, give valuable perspective to stories like Monday’s Wall Street Journal expose about twenty-year-old girls taking Clomid, and Tuesday’s trucking out by Sam Brownback (photo, right, from Think Progress) and others of that ragtag band of white, middle-class embryo adoptions for a photo shoot at the Capitol. Among other things, I learned that these kids were, once upon a time according to Deroy Murdock, Microscopic-Americans. (Take note: the hyphen is important when referring to Microscopic-Americans. One cannot appropriate the language of racial and ethnic inclusion if one refers to them as merely—God forbid using the first term as a simple adjective, as Mundy did in her article—microscopic Americans.) So were we all, I suppose, though our first few years were surely much warmer than theirs. How cold a soul must be that, like one in San Francisco birthed this year, spends its first 13 years in liquid nitrogen—an entire childhood spent waiting to have a childhood at all!

500,000 embryos waiting on ice—for what? for the U.S. Senate to pass a bill to allow some of them to be used as research, and only if the fertility patients allow it? Though the first passed yesterday, the second is a far more daunting task: Mundy reports that most of the time, patients don’t make that decision. In fact, they rarely make any decision at all—not to “give them up for adoption,” not to committ their embryos to research, not to do anything, even those who are strongly pro-choice. Patients who have been through assisted reproductive technology (ART) treatments such as IVF, remain in a continuous metaphysical crisis about them—until they eventually just abandon the cells to their frozen fates. As Mundy reports,

The impact of the embryo is also taking place on a more subtle and personal level. The [embryo] glut’s very existence illuminates how the newest reproductive technologies are complicating questions about life; issues that many people thought they had resolved are being revived and reconsidered, in a different emotional context…. IVF allows many patients to form an emotional attachment to a form of human life that is very early, it’s true, but still life, and still human. People bond with photos of three-day-old, eight-cell embryos. They ardently wish for them to grow into children…. The presence of embryos for whom (for which?) they feel a certain undefined moral responsibility presents tens of thousands of Americans with a dilemma for which nothing—nothing—has prepared them.

The ambiguity is so strong that some patients have taken the step—and paying richly for for it since ART is not supported by insurance—of having their excess embryos implanted during or just after menstruation—an artificial way to dispose of them naturally. Most, however, being less creative or less wealthy or simply unable to make up their minds, after a few years just disappear and leave their Microscopic-American progeny, like so much frozen dust, in the care of anyone but them.

Last week I gave blood, and I got into a conversation about this very thing with my phlebotomist, who illustrated to me how fraught—and misunderstood—fertility treatments are. First, she was under the impression that treatments are more regulated than they are—“U.S. law only allows two embryos to be implanted at once,” she said, which isn’t true at all. She said this by way of explaining how both her sister and her sister-in-law have gone through IVF. Both had extras after it was over. One couple (I forget which) right away donated the extras to research; the other couldn’t decide. They’re still out there somewhere in the university hospital, not waiting for anything.



file this under useless, prurient gossip, i know a person who wanted, though i hope she was convinced otherwise, to go off the pill and straight to FT to hopefully have twins and get it all overwith at once.


first the bamboo, now this. I am going to have to stop reading HR! if my blood pressure is to stay normal…how can people be so stoopid??
please someone, make a posting about someone who is not a complete idiot!

From what I understand, the Senate didn’t vote to “allow some of them to be used in research,” but rather to provide expanded federal funding for research using embryonic stem cells. To my knowledge, such research is otherwise unregulated.

You may be right, MW. I didn’t have time to research the Senate bill at length. Although a Bush veto threat is usually something to laugh at, I understood it was for once sincere. Therefore, since it didn’t particularly matter what passed, I didn’t research it. But I took that line from an interview I heard in which a Senator (Harkin, maybe?) said the bill could open up new stem cell lines to federal funds if the embryos were freely donated by their current owners/donators/whatever. I admit I might have misheard.

Still, all bills at this point could really only be about whether and what kind of stem cell research the federal government will fund. For one, the stem cell lines that are funded by the fed are dying out (too many generations over five years corrupts). For another, most basic research needs (or takes) federal funding to survive because it’s hella expensive, and private groups don’t as a rule have the sheer amount of resources to devote to research that, while promising, is nevertheless grandly speculative.

the problem I have with Pierce’s screed is that the only blastocysts that are anthropomorphized are those of doggies, cats, ponies, sheep and such… should people want them to be treated with the same care that we treat human blastocysts. whether or not IVF and related technologies (including the highly artificial and legalistic way of getting rid of them, ART) are moral, amoral, immoral… blastocysts are potential embryos, embryos are potential humans… this is much more fraught than he seems to make it.

it is fraught, but i think Pierce has been hearing this debate the way i have, which is that the opponents of stem cell research talk about these blastocysts as if they were fully formed, tiny, itty-bitty little babies just waiting to be either saved or torn apart by the mad scientists. to cart these “snowflake baby” children (and their artwork, apparently) around for senate debates and veto signings both oversimplifies and confuses the issue. these are not children we’re talking about, they’re potential children, and evidently the stem-cell opponents don’t have much trouble with the idea of their being “discarded” in the event that they are not either “adopted” or used in research. if this situation is really so repugnant to people, then why aren’t we talking about the ethics involved in producing all of these excess blastocysts, embryos, whatever, in the first place?

dat be tru…

some of our closest friends from college are going through IVF… they said that it was even more wierd to them to give their viable fertilized eggs up for adoption… since that is creating life and sending it out to unknown parents.

the question of what to do with these embryos if you’re the couple who’s produced them is an interesting and fairly creepy one (and one i hope not to encounter myself)...maybe as a society we’ll become kinder if we know some of the strangers around us could be our biological progeny. at least it’s a little more concrete than the buddhist idea that you should be nice to the rabbit that’s been eating your tulips because it could have been your mother in another lifetime…

i like what kathy says.

it is interesting to think how the world would be a different place if embryos were randomly swapped among all would-be parents.

on the other hand, maybe it is just interesting to think it that it would be interesting to think how the world would be a different place if embryos were randomly swapped among all would-be parents.

(just in case it came across as such, i was not trying to be sarcastic when i said above that i liked what kathy said.)

(and i am not trying to be sarcastic in this comment.)

(for real.)


(crap. this is out of control.)

somebody took his paranoia pills this morning! :)

personally, i think i’d be driven to distraction in such a biologically chaotic world—honey, do you think that pizza delivery boy has my nose? i swear he has your father’s hairline!

It’s more than just the pizza boy. Think how weird nation-states would become. US citizenship is conferred upon those with US blood as well as those born within the borders: ship embryos all over the world, and bam! Everyone’s a bonafide voter. (Once they out of Microscopic stage, of course.)

(K brings this to my attention.) The Dalai Lama points out there might be a karmic penalty to be paid for being a refrigerated conceptus. He writes that although there is some debate in Buddhist texts at what point a human consciousness becomes instilled in a physical being (the debate is whether there need be passion in sex), he notes that in vitro fertilization suggests consciousness must instill itself at the mixing of sperm and egg. Then he continues,

This complex subject becomes more complicated in modern times. Consider an instance when an embryo is refrigerated. Once the connection has been made from the past life to the new life through fertilization, would that being whose embryonic body is refrigerated undergo the suffering of cold? The very beginning of the body has already been established, and so, according to our explanatons, the organ of bodily feeling has already primitively formed (even though the organs of vision and so forth have not). Is there physical sensation from the next moment after fertilization? I have not come to a decision on these points; they are topics for much discussion.

In addition, there might be other consequences conferred upon the refrigerator:

If we assume that the being in the embryo does suffer cold, this raises the question of whether the person who puts the embryo in the refrigerator accumulates bad karma from that action. This would depend on the person’s motivation. We cannot say that just because another being undergoes suffering due to something that is somehow involved with you, you would accumulate bad karma…. A person’s motivation is the key to determine what type of karma accumulates.

I find this intriguing. At the very least the DL picks up the question that K raised earlier, that is, the question of what’s ethical about making, and then freezing, 500K embryos in the first place. Karma or no, the patients with spares in the freezer in Mundy’s article above suffer greatly for their indecision. They toss their conceptus’s in a metaphysical soup: sometimes when they stir it they smell great whiffs of cells; other times strong scents of prehuman. Their problem is that they can’t stop stirring, stirring, stirring… what is their motivation for freezing those things, in the first and last place, indeed?

to insure conception… to hedge one’s bet… something similar to all those corn farmers over fertilizing the land to insure a good crop (only this leads to a surfeit of the grain which leads to and this... but i digress something awful)

however, techniques of harvesting and implementation, i think, have gotten better: fewer eggs are taken, fewer eggs implanted. but, you also take them at once because it’s a rather uncomfortable procedure.

this still doesn’t answer the ethics of this promethean procedure…

at times it it seems to me to be one of those few cases of a real slippery slope, as opposed to the imaginary one that people love to truck out and warn people that they are one. so that, why is embryonic stem cell research any less morally questionable than IVF, so if you’re comfortable with one why not the other… at others they seem utterly different.

Weil’s article from MoJo is partly about the technology and legal requirements to ensure implantation. She emphasizes that because American fertility treatments are not covered by most insurance policies, hence everyone pays for them out of pocket, doctors are reticent to enforce limitations on implantation. My phlebotomist said that her sister/in-law weren’t allowed to implant more than two, and she attributed that to US law. But she was wrong—any limitations were hospital policy. Many fertility clinics will say, “How many do you want?” and if the patients say “5!”, then they stick five in.

I think I agree on the real slippery slopeness. Weil suggests that it turns on a question whether there is an inalienable human right to conceive? If so, answers to that question are in truly embryonic stages of being answered by ethics/law.