During my IVF cycle, I kept a small black notebook with me during phone calls and meetings with our doctor and embryologist. I recorded the number, quality, and stage of development of our embryos in my most careful handwriting, and I taped four-leaf clovers, found on my daily river walks, in the pages that followed. Up to that point, those embryos were my most costly and meaningful investment. They were precious to me, because they represented what my husband and I believed was our best chance of building our family. We were extremely lucky—from the initial group of embryos, our two daughters were born: Beatrice, in 2013; and Harriet, in 2018. They are the great joys of our life.
I think of the remaining five embryos often these days because we are at the “disposition” stage—our family is complete—and also because the question of embryonic personhood has made its way again into the courts. The “heartbeat” laws outlawing abortion after six weeks’ gestation in Ohio, Georgia, and other states were intended to provoke litigation. In a recent Supreme Court opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas evoked the eugenics movement and described the fetus as an “unborn child.” As others have noted, Thomas’s opinion signals receptivity to the ultimate test, and potential undoing, of Roe v. Wade, a ruling grounded in a woman’s right to privacy. If fetuses, or even embryos, are given the status of persons, her privacy won’t matter. All abortion and possibly some forms of birth control could then be deemed unconstitutional.
Most Americans agree that women should have at least some access to abortion; we also agree that a cryopreserved blastocyst is not the same as a child. These moral judgments are meaningful. As the anti-abortion movement poses the question of fetal personhood, deciding what to do with our embryos has been instructive to me in thinking it through. Leaving those vials in the freezer would be unthinkable if a 0.1-millimeter embryo, or a pea-size fetus, was truly a child. Instinctively, though, we know otherwise.
The choices my husband and I have are as follows: donate our embryos to another couple or individual, donate them to medical research, thaw them and discard them, or continue paying for their storage indefinitely.
Because we know, from years of trying, how hard overcoming infertility can be, donating them might make sense; surely this would give someone else the same joy that we experienced. If we donate them to research, perhaps we could contribute, in some small way, to the cure for a debilitating disease. Or we could ask the clinic to thaw the embryos and dispose of the remains (though we’d be wasting the opportunity for science to benefit from embryonic stem cells). For me, the only option that is completely off the table is what we are doing now—continuing to store them, at $45 a month.