The first thing I noticed about my daughter is that she has my nose. It’s a babyfied version, a tiny replica in its snubby asymmetry.
When I was born, my mother’s first thought was that I “looked familiar,” because I so strongly resembled her sister.
“She looks like us!” I crowed when I shared a photo of my newborn with my aunt, who was equally delighted to see our genes being passed down.
When I entered the world of in vitro fertilization, I wasn’t thinking about what my daughter would look like. I was only focused on getting pregnant, and I was willing to pour practically my whole self — physically, emotionally and financially — into making it happen.
The process of IVF is exactly that: a process. My fertility specialist, Tina Koopersmith, took me through each stage without a lot of explanation unless I asked questions. Pills, blood draws, shots, IVs, suppositories, rage-filled outbursts and bone-wracking tears, 27 eggs weighing down my ovaries … it was all part of “the process.”
The purpose, of course, was to fuse my genetic material with my husband’s and create embryos to be transferred into my uterus. Five viable embryos were frozen as blastocysts five days later.
For women undergoing IVF, each embryo represents a glimmer of hope. When one fails to implant, it’s like a twinkling star abruptly turning black. So, naturally, the more embryos the better. Five was an okay number, but I was also terrified I’d run out.
I got pregnant on the second transfer. Three embryos remain in deep freeze, their futures not quite determined.
Before my egg retrieval, the clinic gave us paperwork outlining how we could dispose of the frozen embryos in case of death, divorce or after a certain period of storage.
- Destroy them.
- Donate them to medical research.
- Donate them to an infertile woman.
- Keep them frozen.
Each option elicited a strong gut reaction: Destroying them would be wasteful; donating to another woman would mean someone else was raising my child. Donating the cells to medical research seemed like our only logical option. We signed the papers and soldiered on through the final steps.
Except that when I gave birth to my daughter, the three embryos that remained took on new meaning. As a pragmatic atheist, I still see the embryos as cellular masses, but the mother in me sees them as potential lives sitting in subzero-degree liquid nitrogen. Potential babies that might also have my nose.
I was surprised to learn that in 2002, Rand Corp. researchers found that nearly 400,000 embryos had been frozen and stored since the late 1970s. Today, that number could be much higher, and some embryos have been in storage for decades. I discovered that my fertility clinic has thousands of unclaimed embryos — meaning no one is paying for the storage and the clinic has yet to thaw and discard them.
When I signed the contract, I had zero information to help me make an informed decision. I didn’t even really know what “donating for research purposes” meant.
I spoke with Christopher Scott, now the associate director of health policy at the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine. I was intrigued by a study he published at Stanford University that informed donors whether their embryos would be used for fertility research or embryonic stem cell research. While they had expected infertile donors would choose fertility research out of a sense of camaraderie, he said most people had no preference where their embryos went, as long as it was to some type of scientific research.
That said, the embryonic stem cell field is new territory, dating only to 1998. The majority of the research relies on donated embryos from IVF patients like me.
“Embryos became the standard bearer of an entire field of science, and they’ve continued to propel it forward,” said Scott.
He also explained there are specific ethical guidelines in place — namely, the Warnock Rule that says an embryo cannot be used after it’s been grown for 14 days. Recently, he said, there has been discussion about extending that time frame. After all, if there’s no definition of when life begins, why shouldn’t testing continue as long as the cells are in an embryonic state?
Yet the belief that life begins at conception underscores the philosophy of an agency that has different goals. Nightlight Christian Adoptions is a nonprofit organization that coined the term “Snowflake adoption” in 1997, referring to frozen embryos that are donated to another person.
“We want to give the embryos the opportunity for the life they were created for,” said Kimberly Tyson, Nightlight’s marketing and program director.
While many fertility clinics also offer this option, it’s usually a closed process: Once you agree to donate your embryos to someone, you’re no longer involved. Nightlight, however, treats the donation like a traditional adoption, completing home studies and encouraging open relationships between the parties. To date, more than 1,100 families have donated frozen embryos through this program and more than 460 “snowflake babies” have been adopted.
“The term ‘adoption’ is very loaded,” though, I was told by Barbara Collura, president and chief executive of Resolve: The National Infertility Association. “The medical community refers to it as ‘embryo donation.’ ”
Unlike human adoption, embryo donation falls under property law, not adoption law. Once the papers are signed, donors can’t later reclaim their embryos; moreover, the woman who carries and gives birth to the child is considered the legal mother.
That said, there doesn’t have to be any third-party involvement or even legal contracts if you want to hand over your embryos. That was the case with Paige Moreau and Maia Ashazahur, who met through a Facebook support group. With 10 leftover embryos after her successful IVF transfer, Ashazahur, who lives in New York, gave them to Moreau, in Michigan. Moreau is now the mother of an infant daughter and the families have an open relationship.
When I asked whether there was any weirdness when she went to visit her then-6-week-old genetic daughter, Ashazahur said simply, “It felt like I was visiting a friend who had a cute baby.”
I couldn’t stop marveling over the empathy and open-mindedness that brought these strangers together. But it didn’t change my gut feeling that I couldn’t have my genetic child out there being raised by another family.
Finally, I spoke with Michael Feinman at my fertility clinic and asked where my embryos would go once my storage contract was up. He said they would likely be used for embryonic stem cell research at Stanford University or the University of California at Irvine. But, he said, “You have the option to direct them toward a particular research study. You could send them to the moon, if you want.”
Although I don’t have the resources to shuttle my embryos into outer space, I thought about my options. I considered and rejected the idea of a “compassionate transfer,” in which the embryos would be placed in my uterus at a time I couldn’t get pregnant. I considered finding a fertility study in the hopes that researchers can someday optimize the IVF process to create fewer embryos in the future.
I’ve decided I’m comfortable with the idea that my embryos will go toward stem cell research that might someday help people fighting cancer, Parkinson’s disease or heart disease. But it’s bittersweet, and I hadn’t expected this feeling of loss when I started my IVF journey.
“It’s a difficult topic to put into a trifold brochure,” said Collura, of Resolve, when I mentioned the lack of information provided during the already emotionally tumultuous IVF process. “What’s unique about human embryos is that it’s very personal and it’s a very deep issue. You can’t simplify it.”
So when I look at my daughter and wonder what the other three might have been, I take comfort that in some microscopic way, my genetic material will give back to science, which has already given me so much.
Sarika Chawla is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.
An earlier version of this story mistakenly said that Christopher Scott is the associate director of health policy at the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor University. Scott holds that position with Baylor College of Medicine. The story has been updated.
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