Your Advice Is…?
By JIM NICHOLS
Once again I offer an initial alert for a story: (1) there is a little science here and (2) there is not a fully satisfactory resolution. Reader beware.
Some years ago, I received a phone call from the East Coast. The caller identified herself as a former student of mine, although I did not recall her. She explained that she needed some advice and began to tell me her reason for calling.
“After I graduated from college, I married and we moved here near the ocean. My husband and I deeply desired to have children, but our efforts for pregnancy continued to fail.”
Becoming pregnant is one of the great mysteries encountered by many people. On one hand, there are couples who engage in sexual relations a single time with no intent for pregnancy only to find that it has occurred. On the other hand, there are other couples who spend years trying unsuccessfully to become pregnant. For couples in this latter situation, frustration and stress accumulate and the medical techniques implemented become more expensive and problematic. The caller explained in detail the multiple steps she and her husband had taken over several years, but to no avail. Finally, they had chosen a technique in which she was caused to produce multiple eggs that were removed from her body and placed in an artificial situation. In that container, her husband’s sperm were microinjected directly into the eggs. The probability of fertilization following this approach is quite high.
When egg and sperm unite, there is a resulting single cell containing genetic material contributed by both parents. Very soon (within hours) after the fertilization event, the single cell divides into two cells and then into four cells; all these cells are stuck together and there is, at that point, a four-celled embryo. Under natural situations within the mother’s body, these four-celled embryos divide to eight cells, sixteen, and so forth. On the other hand, in a laboratory setting it is possible at that time to freeze these four-cell stages and “use” them in the future by implanting them into the mother’s body later. Keep in mind that all these embryos are smaller than a period on this page. I know it sounds like science fiction, but it is done frequently.
The caller continued her story.
“By using this sperm injection technique, ten fertilized eggs were achieved and allowed to grow to the four-cell stage. Nine were frozen, but one was implanted into me. Nothing happened. After a recuperation period, a second embryo was implanted into me. This embryo “took” and began growing, even to the point of having a heartbeat.” (A beating heart appears in a very early stage embryo, but it is still a significant event to prospective parents.) She continued, “Then, I miscarried.”
I was interested in her language. She described the initial failure at pregnancy casually, but with this second failure she added, “I grieved.”
“A third embryo was placed into me and that noise you hear in the background is my resulting two year old daughter playing here beside me.”
“The reason I am calling you is for advice on what to do now. My husband and I never had a good marriage and we are now divorced. My problem is what to do with the remaining seven frozen embryos. At least some of them were going to be our future children, but that will not happen now. What should I do with them?”
What would be your advice to her? Here are some possible considerations (and some reflection from me).
- This is all a big mistake. If you could not become pregnant naturally, that was an indication from God that He did not desire that for you. You are trying to replace natural events with unnatural. (How is this helpful? She is asking for advice, not critique.)
- There are lots of children needing adoption. Why did you not adopt? (Again, this is looking backward, not forward for her.)
- Leave those embryos frozen. Perhaps you will marry someone else and can use them then. (One wonders what the second husband will think of this.)
- Discard those remaining seven embryos. (To some, this would be equivalent to killing seven people.)
- All in vitro fertilization techniques are immoral. (She is looking for advice; this is not helpful.)
- There are some organizations that facilitate adoption of excess embryos. Perhaps you could investigate them.
This was a serious request from a serious person asking a question that is not uncommon. What would you advise her to do?
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain