The Fate of Frozen Embryos
What should you do with the extra eggs after in vitro fertilization? Consider these options, and meet couples who are making the same tough decision.
By the time she was in her 40s, Andrea Cinnamond was afraid she'd never be a mother. Then came the day in 2005 her daughter was born through in vitro fertilization, followed two years later by twin sons. Today, Kaitlin, Jack, and Aidan bounce around like Ping-Pong balls through their Boston home. Cinnamond, now 49, and her husband are grateful for their healthy children and the medical science that helped create them. Yet she's haunted by the three embryos that were left over.
Like many women struggling with infertility, Cinnamond was delighted when a laboratory took sperm and egg and provided five chances for a second child after Kaitlin's birth. In many ways, infertility is a numbers game -- more embryos created means more tries for success. She was asked in the beginning about the matter of surplus embryos, but how could she think about those she might not want when her thoughts were consumed by the children she longed for?
When the time came to decide about the extras, she says, "I thought I was going to be calm and casual." And she was, until the first bill arrived to keep the embryos frozen. "I was petrified," she says. "There was no practical reason to keep them. I just wasn't ready to make the decision not to keep them." She paid the $600, hoping that her thoughts would crystallize as time passed. This year, she's paying the bill again.
Michelle DeCrane of Austin, TX, has also been paying for embryo storage for two years. She has a 2-year-old daughter -- and six frozen embryos. "I would love to have another baby, if I were younger -- I'm 40 -- and if money was not an object." She finds herself trapped in a mental loop; while she doesn't have the same mind-blowing love for the embryos as she has for her daughter, neither does she consider them anonymous laboratory tissue. And there's another wrinkle: One of the six embryos is biologically hers and her husband's; the other five were created with donor eggs and his sperm. "What do people do?" she asks. "You have all of these embryos in all of these labs. Are people going to keep doing what I'm doing and pay the $40 a month ad infinitum?"
Some will. Experts estimate that hundreds of thousands of embryos have accumulated in fertility clinics throughout the country, some awaiting transfer but many literally frozen in time as parents ask themselves questions few among us ever consider with such immediacy: When does life begin? What does "life" mean, anyway? In a recent survey of 58 couples, researchers from the University of California in San Francisco found that 72 percent were undecided about the fate of their stored embryos. In another study last year of more than 1,000 fertility patients from nine clinics, 20 percent of couples who wanted no more children said they planned or expected to keep their embryos frozen indefinitely. Couples have held on to embryos for five years or more, waiting on an epiphany that never comes. Nadya Suleman, the now-famous mother of octuplets, told NBC News that she had all eight of her embryos implanted because she couldn't bear to dispose of any of them.
"When you're pouring your money, your heart, and your soul into creating an embryo and creating a life, the last thing you want to think about is how you're going to dispose of it," says Anne Drapkin Lyerly, M.D., a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Duke University Medical Center. Until the storage fee comes due. At that point, couples generally have to choose among four options: