The way Randy and Julie McClure saw it, Asa was being held captive in a tank of liquid nitrogen as surely as if he'd been a plantation slave...
The way Randy and Julie McClure saw it, Asa was being held captive in a tank of liquid nitrogen as surely as if he’d been a plantation slave or a prisoner in a concentration camp.
The McClures were in their 40s, with three children and no plans for more. But when the devoutly Christian Bellevue couple heard a radio show about “embryo adoption,” they realized they had the power — and the womb — to free Asa from his frozen limbo.
Today, after 10 years in a Texas fertility-clinic tank, Asa is a happy, babbling 10-month-old, one of 81 formerly frozen embryos being raised by families that worked with Snowflakes, a program run by a Christian adoption agency in California.
Stored at fertility clinics around the country, an estimated 400,000 frozen embryos, clumps of four to six cells smaller than a typewritten period, are the object of increasingly emotional rhetoric.
On one side, researchers covet embryos as the source of stem cells they hope might lead to cures for diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
On the other side, political conservatives and evangelical Christians decry such research as the destruction of human life and hail embryo adoption — matching infertile couples with embryos in storage — as the “life-affirming alternative.” Last month, President Bush invited Snowflakes babies wearing “former embryo” T-shirts to the White House.
Nightlight Christian Adoptions (with link to its Snowflakes program): www.nightlight.org
American Society for Reproductive Medicine: www.asrm.org
Fertility experts, however, warn that this issue is much more complicated than it seems.
Technology limits giving birth from long-frozen embryos, they say. And at the same time, it’s important to respect fertility patients’ wishes regarding the fate of their embryos.
“It’s really easy to form an opinion, but to become informed, to be educated, takes time,” said Gretchen Sewall, a fertility-
patient counselor at Seattle Reproductive Medicine. “The real experts are the people who are going through it.”
Couples who undergo fertility treatments are urged from the beginning to think about what they’ll do with extra embryos, the days-old fertilized eggs that have undergone a few rounds of cell division.
The process begins with retrieval of eggs, either from a donor or the patient herself. The eggs are mixed with sperm in a lab. Because retrieving eggs involves hormones and a medical procedure, doctors retrieve as many as they can. Up to now, freezing eggs alone hasn’t been possible, so all the eggs are mixed with sperm at one time.
Years ago, embryos were less likely to survive, so doctors tended to transfer many of them to a woman’s uterus at once. Better technology, however, has increased the odds for multiple births, which can be risky.
Today, most U.S. fertility clinicians transfer only two or three embryos, freezing the rest for future use by the couple. Often, a couple achieve their family-planning goal, but end up with extra embryos in the freezer.
“At first, many people say, ‘Oh, I’ll donate them to another couple,’ ” says Sewall.
Different emotions surface later. Couples put pictures of their embryo on their refrigerator, or send them out to friends as holiday cards, Sewall said. And after a child is born, they realize the other embryos they could give away are the biological siblings of the baby now in their arms.
Such was the case for Angela, 45, who spent more than five years trying to get pregnant. Finally, she and her husband had twins — and two leftover embryos stored at Virginia Mason Medical Center.
“We knew we would not have wanted someone else to use them,” said Angela, who now lives in Florida with her husband and their 5-year-olds, and asked that their last name not be used because of the politics surrounding the issue.
She was already struggling to keep the experience as natural as possible, she said, and giving her embryos to another couple would have been another step into the realm of “science fiction.”
In the end, she and her husband sent the embryos to researchers.
Many couples feel guilty about leftover embryos, said Lori Maze, executive director of Snowflakes. But they ask: “If we donate, what happens if this child is born and 20 years later comes back and says, ‘Why didn’t you keep me?’ “
At the same time, they have huge empathy with other infertile couples. They know that many can’t afford the process without donated embryos. Because creating embryos is the most expensive part, having one donated can cut the cost from $15,000 to $1,500.
Lori, a Virginia Mason patient, had twin boys nearly two years ago with the help of an egg donor. She donated her extra embryos through the clinic’s anonymous-donation program (which asked that Lori’s last name not be used).
“It meant the absolute world to me to be a mother, and if I could give that to someone else I wanted to do that,” said Lori, who now lives in Texas.
Most who donate embryos to others received donated eggs or sperm themselves, said Dr. Lorna Marshall of Virginia Mason.
“Making embryo donation a more acceptable option is such a wonderful thing,” she said. “It helps a lot of couples.”
Fertility specialists, however, caution that older embryos may be less viable.
Many were created with older technology, they say. And embryos may deteriorate after many years of freezing.
Marshall said Virginia Mason won’t use embryos that have been frozen more than seven years. Frozen embryos are — almost by definition — second best, from the point of view of technicians assessing their likelihood to implant in the wombs of the women for whom they were created. “We’ve given them the best,” said Dr. Angela Thayer at Seattle Reproductive Medicine.
Dr. Lee Hickok, medical director of Swedish Medical Center’s in vitro fertilization lab, said most patients there choose to dispose of extra embryos. “Most people are realistic,” he said. “When you’re looking at a five- or six-cell organism, you can hardly equate that with a human being.”
At a fertility program at Northwestern University in Illinois, more than 70 percent of couples changed their minds; 80 percent who at first favored donation to another couple later chose another option.
A 2002 Rand Institute survey of stored embryos in the U.S. found 88 percent earmarked for “future family building.” Fertility experts say many of those couples are just continuing to pay storage fees, putting off the difficult decision.
Guided by faith
So in many ways, the McClures’ role in the drama over frozen embryos was the easiest.
They endured intrusive financial and personal screenings, home study, a flood of hormones and dashed hopes when embryo after embryo didn’t survive thawing. Yet they said they never wavered.
“I felt like God wanted us to do that,” Julie McClure said. “If he wanted us to save another one of these — a baby — then we weren’t to question that that was just the way our family would be, then.”
At first, Randy McLure said, he was uncomfortable with doing business with a fertility clinic, the creator of “spare” embryos. But a fellow church member reassured him: “If you want to free a slave, sometimes you have to deal with the slave trader.”
The McClures contacted a Christian agency to begin an adoption, although legally the process is a property transfer.
Overlake Reproductive Health accepted the 10-year-old embryos from Snowflakes. Of 13 thawed, four survived. Julie lost the first. Of the last three, only Asa survived the transfer to the womb, and the pregnancy was touch-and-go at first.
“He’s older-technology,” Julie said, glancing fondly at the gurgling, smiling redhead.
Technology created the problem, but it may also solve it, fertility experts say.
Experimental techniques to freeze unfertilized eggs, if they prove out, would end the need to create spare embryos, Hickok said.
For now, fertility clinics want lawmakers to respect their clients’ diversity of beliefs and let the patients remain in control.
“I believe so strongly it’s their right — and their obligation,” said Sewall, the Seattle fertility counselor. “They never feel completed until those embryos are somewhere.”
Carol M. Ostrom: 206-464-2249 or firstname.lastname@example.org