A Custody Battle Over Embryos

A reader, Mimi Lee, introduces a new and rare experience to our ongoing series:

Ten days before my wedding, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. As a doctor, I naturally freaked out and quickly arranged my own lumpectomy within 48 hours of the diagnosis. I celebrated my new marriage surrounded by friends and family, wrapped in surgical dressings.

We returned from the honeymoon and embarked on a single round of artificial reproductive technology (ART) to preserve my fertility and our chances to build a future family. Meanwhile, I learned from a pathologist colleague that my cancer had not been completely removed, so after multiple consultations and opinions, I prepared for a mastectomy.

Amidst this whirlwind of uncertainty over the big C, I carefully emptied vials, mixed drugs, and prepared syringes for ART—only this time, it was not for any of the thousands of patients I had cared for as an anesthesiologist who specialized, ironically enough, in fertility. The prep was for me, inspired by the hopes and dreams of my own biological motherhood once I stomped cancer out of my life.

The ART went extremely well. At age 41, I had 18 eggs harvested. Twelve were fertilized and yielded five beautiful-looking embryos—my future babies. Two weeks after the embryos were frozen, I underwent my mastectomy.

A year later, after acknowledging that pregnancy was contraindicated for my type of breast cancer, my husband and I scanned gestational profiles at a surrogate agency. A year after that, he told me he wanted a divorce. After we separated, I underwent two more years of legal proceedings, which amounted to a full-time job, leading to a courtroom battle for the custody of the frozen embryos. My future babies’ lives hung in the balance.