The fate of the frozen embryo

Today's New York Times yields yet another infertility article, this one on the difficulty former IVF patients face in deciding what to do with leftover frozen embryos.

According to the article, more and more couples are struggling to decide what to do with remaining frozen embryos when they want no more children. They are choosing to do everything from freezing the embryos indefinitely (at a not insignificant cost) to donating them to other couples (rarely) to donating them to research to saying prayers over the petri dish when the embryos are thawed and destroyed.

It's difficult to know what one would do in this situation. Given our struggle to produce a single offspring, I find it almost impossible to imagine that our problem could some day become the potential for too many children. And we have learned very well, through hard won and bitter experience, that an embryo (even several embryos) does NOT equal a baby. Not even when you actually get pregnant with said embryo.

At the same time, we do not see these embryos as just a piece of cultured tissue. They represent the potential for human life. And in that way, they are (the words are loaded but I don't know better ones) somewhat sacred.

Will and I personally entered the frozen embryo debate when we met with the RE to tell him we wanted to do another fresh cycle this time (while having six embryos frozen at the 2PN stage from our last attempt).

I believe the RE's exact words were: "What do you want, a library of embryos?"


I suddenly felt like the RE thought we were aiming to collect vast quantities of our genetic material to keep in jars in various rooms in our apartment. Just to gaze at.

His words surprised us, and definitely gave us pause. After reflecting, we explained our reasoning (to ourselves and to him) thusly: that we want multiple children if possible - gosh, a whole family of them if we could. That we worry I am headed into premature menopause because of my chemotherapy treatment almost a decade ago for lymphoma. That we can actually afford another IVF cycle right now because I have - just for this year - a very generous insurance policy that has a special arrangement with my IVF center. We reminded him that we are Irish Catholics (lapsed and mortally sinning Irish Catholics because we're doing IVF, but still.) That for us, a family with several children would not be a bad thing. We'll be grateful for one, mind you, but a whole passel of kids would be fine too.

But reading the Times story today made me realize for the first time another major factor underlying our decision to do a 3rd fresh IVF cycle: keeping six embryos on ice gives us a sense of continued hope. These embryos dull the full keening urgency we feel about starting a family. Their existence gives us a sense (falsely perhaps) that as long as we have them, we still have the potential to be biological parents.

This article also made it clear that it will be much more complicated than we ever imagined should we someday encounter circumstances that compel us to not use these embryos and instead have to decide their fate. What would we do then?

It's a decision I hope we never have to make.



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