From 2012 to 2014, Vergara was in a relationship with business scion Nick Loeb. The two were engaged and even went as far as undergoing the beginning stages of in vitro fertilization to start their future family. This resulted in the creation of two embryos, known as Emma and Isabella. But when Vergara and Loeb’s relationship dissolved, their respective feelings about the embryos resulted in a lawsuit being filed against Vergara.
Vergara wasn’t interested in the future of the embryos, arguing that she wanted them to remain frozen, but her ex-fiancé didn’t agree. He published an op-ed in The New York Times, writing that their “frozen embryos had a right to live.” As recently as 2021, Vergara was granted an injunction against Loeb regarding any future use of the embryos.
Though this case is the most high-profile of its kind, it proposes a thought-provoking (and simultaneously disturbing) interrogation of the priorities of our culture. IVF is becoming increasingly popular, but with it comes a difficult decision every couple who undergoes IVF will have to face – what will you do with your leftover embryos?
How IVF Works
Like much of the technology that governs how we live today, IVF is a relatively new development. The first IVF baby was born in 1978, and since then, its use has entered the mainstream. For women under the age of 35 who face difficulty conceiving, IVF is relatively successful – accounting for 51% of live births. As a woman ages, though, its success rate decreases, and women over the age of 42 using IVF only produce 4.1% of single births.
IVF usually enables couples with male or female infertility to conceive, but is especially determined by the couple’s age, percentage of viable eggs, and healthy sperm. Similar to how the female reproductive system functions naturally, the process begins with injecting follicle-stimulating hormone to trigger an excess development of eggs in a female patient. The eggs are retrieved, and depending on the male fertility, his sperm or donor sperm is inserted into the egg to fertilize it and create a zygote. An embryo is formed from that zygote, and days later, the embryo is ready to be inserted back into the female patient or a gestational surrogate.
Science has obviously come a long way since 1978, and now, couples undergoing IFV can use the process of lab fertilization to manipulate the embryos in certain ways. Embryos can have their chromosomes oriented to either male or female children, or be coded in such a way to delete genetic abnormalities belonging to the donor parents. If that sounds slightly disconcerting, there are other ethical concerns to examine that huge proponents of the process don’t seem to be discussing.
The Options for Leftover Embryos Should Raise Concerns
Much of the IVF process depends on the couple, specifically the mother’s age, the health and quality of the eggs and sperm, the ability of the uterus to sustain implantation and gestation, and how many children the couple want or plan to have. In fact, as you age, the number of recommended embryos that are used during an embryo transfer increases. If you’re under the age of 35, it’s recommended that one embryo per transfer be used. But if you’re over age 38 and up, that number increases to three embryos per transfer. It’s for these reasons that any couple undergoing the process may have multiple embryos belonging to them.
Having too many embryos on hand rather than too few might be seen as good practice by some. If an embryo transfer fails, you always have more on hand to use. But what happens once your family is complete? Say the average couple using IVF has 12 embryos. After their four children are conceived and born, they feel that their family is complete. Everyone is healthy and happy, and the couple has the family they always dreamed of. But what about their other eight embryos? What about them?
There are a few options for couples in positions such as this one. Reserve embryos can continue to be kept in frozen storage by a fertility clinic (for up to 10 years in many cases), given to scientific research, donated to another couple who may be struggling to conceive through IVF, used in a “compassionate transfer,” or destroyed.
These kinds of decisions are extremely serious ones, and couples who undergo IVF often report feeling wrought with guilt, and are dismayed and indecisive about which direction to take. Some form emotional attachments to their embryos, even if their families are done growing. Others acknowledge that these leftover embryos are the siblings of their born children, which can be a hurdle to donating them to other couples.
With each decision comes some kind of more serious implication. If you donate your embryos to someone else, there may be multiple genetic identicals of your own children walking around someday. If you give the embryos to science, once you get the legal paperwork out of the way, you have no say in what kind of research those embryos are used for. If you store them, you might be paying hundreds of dollars per year that you can’t afford. If you destroy them, you’re not only destroying unique genetic material, but human life and the siblings of your children.
An embryo isn’t bacteria, a parasite, or just any organism, though we’re often told otherwise by the pro-abortion movement. Biologists and embryologists unrelated to the anti-abortion stance agree that upon fertilization, a genetically distinct human organism (the product of two other humans) has been created, whether that fertilization happens within the female body or a lab. It’s for this reason that those exploring IVF or undergoing it may find themselves confronting an ethical dilemma they were unprepared for. When it comes to embryos, which are children in their earliest possible stage of development, these questions and decisions become even more consequential.
The Rise of IVF
All of this knowledge is so necessary due to the sheer popularity of IVF today. IVF, like many culturally-established enterprises, is basically untouchable. Because of its perceived benefits to society – helping those who are unable to grow their families without this kind of intervention – any genuine criticism pertaining to religious, ethical, or financial concerns is noticeably absent.
Twelve million people alive today were born via IVF, and one newborn in every 175 births is conceived via IVF worldwide. As couples experiencing infertility or same-sex couples grow the demand, it has become an indomitable industry (because it is indeed a business, and not a purely altruistic venture) that is struggling to keep up with supply.
Even as this demand increases, our society continues to advance technologically. But that hasn’t improved the weight that parents feel when confronted with what to do with their leftover embryos. The hard numbers on the choices that are made regarding reserve embryos are even more indicative that in the future, quantity will be prioritized over quality, meaning that more embryos will be sacrificed.
In 2019, out of the over 330,000 assisted reproductive technology procedures that were conducted, only close to 84,000 resulted in live births. Research published in Reproductive Biomedicine Online reveals that the average number of embryos created during one IVF cycle is seven. If only one is used, statistics show the other 80% will be destroyed, frozen for the foreseeable future, or fail to implant during the transfer. In fact, embryo destruction “happens on a day-by-day basis with casual indifference. This sheer destruction of human embryos – most people would not know that it took place on such a scale,” says one opponent from the UK. One fertility clinic in Florida reported that 21% of their reserve embryos had been “abandoned” by their parents altogether. Several years ago, one storage site that charged clients $500 per year to store their frozen embryos had a malfunction that killed the embryos.
Embryos are seen as entirely expendable by many. When they’re used for medical research or in an IVF transfer, if an embryo fails to thrive, there’s sure to be extra to use and try again. But the embryo with its own specific genetic identity and purpose is being used as intentional collateral damage, and it’s hard to grapple with that. Discarding human organisms as if they have no right to dignity or respect is the most disturbing aspect of the process. As IVF continues to prosper as a business and grow in popularity, it’s likely that this will only continue, resulting in few live births but millions of unused embryos stored in perpetuity.
Embryos are different in almost every possible way from other organisms or test subjects. As human beings in the first beginning stages of development, they deserve respect and consideration. But it appears that more often than we’d like to think, they’re abandoned or intentionally destroyed, or else left to be frozen for decades on end.
It’s understandable that a parent would have a difficult time deciding what to do with their reserve embryos. It’s even more upsetting that this kind of decision isn’t adequately talked about. If this practice is only going to grow in demand, difficult conversations need to be had. For our potential children who may or may not be conceived, who didn’t ask to be created but nevertheless exist, this kind of information is absolutely vital.
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