A BBC news article caught my attention this week. The link stated ‘Frozen Babies’ and it was entitled “The Americans who ‘adopt’ other people’s embryos”. The article focused on the issue of ‘embryo adoption’, or embryo donation as it is more commonly referred to in England. This is the process whereby frozen embryos are donated from one couple to another. Often, the surplus embryos are a result of extra embryos being created during an IVF cycle. The couple may only have one or two embryos transferred into the woman’s uterus, and choose to freeze any embryos that were created during that cycle, but not needed for transfer.
The embryos are usually frozen between 3 to 5 days after fertilisation of the egg has occurred, and kept frozen until they are needed. If the cycle is unsuccessful, or if they want to have another child following a successful cycle, they can ask to use one of the frozen embryos rather than undergoing a full IVF cycle with the physical, emotional and financial risks this entails.
If, however, the couple do not want any further fertility treatment using these embryos, they are given three options.
- Discard the embryos
- Allow the embryos to be used for medical research
- Donate the embryos to another couple.
These are all options that prompt a number of ethical and emotional questions.
As a couple, we had fertility treatment in 2013. Our first IVF cycle resulted in 5 embryos which all developed to Day 5 after fertilisation. One embryo was transferred on Day 5, and we chose to have the remaining embryos frozen in case this did not result in a pregnancy, or in case it was successful and we wanted to have another child in the future.
This first cycle of IVF was successful and led to the birth of our first daughter. We later decided that we wanted to add to our family, and started a programmed cycle for frozen embryo transfer. On the day of the transfer, we got the disappointing news that the first embryo hadn’t survived the thawing process. The embryologist recommended thawing another one, but this didn’t thaw as well as they had hoped. A third embryo was thawed, and also showed a poor response to thawing. It was recommended that the second and third embryos were both transferred, and we were told that they may do better once in utero. We were devastated when, two weeks later, we found that the cycle was unsuccessful.
We picked ourselves up and started looking to the future. A few weeks later we had some decisions to make about what to do with the remaining embryo. We had already decided that we did not want to start a new frozen embryo fertility cycle, as we worried that this embryo would also perish during the thawing or after transfer. The financial risk of this option was too great, never mind the emotional turmoil the cycle would bring.
Donating the embryo wasn’t an option for us as only couples with three or more embryos are able to donate. Even if this had been a possibility, I am not sure it would have been the right option for us. We used a local fertility clinic, and so potentially the recipients would have lived locally. When we had considered embryo donation previously, I’d felt worried about the possibility of seeing another child who looked similar to our daughter, and wondering if they were genetically related. I wondered if I would find myself looking out for a child who could potentially have been an embryo we donated. We also needed to think of our daughter who, when she was older, would wonder if she had a sibling somewhere in Bristol.
Although I am a believer in genetics not being that important in relation to who you become as a person, I would always have been wondering if there was another child out there who was genetically related to us. I would wonder if they were well looked after, loved and raised in a similar way to the way I would raise them. I am aware that this is a very contradictory view, given that we have relied upon the generosity of sperm donors to help us have our family. It is a view that I have wrestled with, and we have talked about the possibility of one of us donating eggs to try to help someone else in the same way that we were helped on our journey to become a family. When we have talked about it, it has been with a very romantic view of ‘giving something back’, but we are both aware that the procedure is invasive and not without risk.
Regardless of our feelings about it, being left with only one embryo meant that donation was not an option for us. The other options we had left were discarding the embryo, or allowing it to be used for medical research. We both have scientific degrees, and so we found we were leaning towards donating the embryos for medical research. Discarding them felt like a waste, when they could be used to aid new medical developments. Neither of us held a belief that we were terminating a potential life, as we had seen for ourselves that three of our embryos had failed to develop even under optimum conditions. We decided to tick the box labelled ‘Donate for medical research’. Even if this embryo also perished, at least we had given scientists a chance to use it for research. Once we had posted the form back to the fertility clinic, that was the last we heard about it.
The BBC article is very emotive and has focused on a Christian clinic, where only heterosexual, married couples will be considered for “adoption”. Believing that a baby is a life from conception, they talk about making sure that these potential lives are cared for. This view about being a person from conception was not one that we shared. Of course we could see that the embryo had the potential to develop into a baby, but it also had the potential to perish during a treatment cycle. I like to think that instead, the embryo contributed in some way to scientific progress and discovery. I am still unsure whether we would have felt able to donate embryos if we had been eligible, but perhaps one of us will consider egg donation to help another couple in the future.
Read the full article here.