The Expiry Date on Your Embryos


Two women meet for coffee. “What’s wrong”, asks one of them, noticing the gloomy look on her friend’s face. “Oh, it’s been a hard week”, she answers, teary-eyed. “I’ve been mourning the termination of my frozen embryos.”

This could be a scene out of a science fiction movie. Or it could be an imaginary dialogue that I have concocted for my next book. But it isn’t. It just so happens to be a real conversation I stumbled across this week.

It used to be that we mourned our unborn babies and our dead infants, lost to disease or war, at a time when many never reached their first birthday – even today, globally, 35 children out of 1000 still die in their first year. Now, it seems, some also mourn the expiry date of their frozen embryos. But what does that mean?

Thirty years ago, the first baby was born from in vitro fertilization (IVF). In the wake of this medical feat, embryos were soon produced en masse. And the surplus was frozen, for potential future use. In a world where women decide to bear children at a later age, and given the stresses and toxins imbibed in our daily lives – without even mentioning the impact of electromagnetic smog on fertility – it is hardly surprising that more and more couples have difficulty conceiving children and turn to IVF. In 2010, 48.5 million couples worldwide were unable to have a live birth. And in the US, an estimated 9% of men and 11% of women aged 15-44 have impaired fertility or fecundity, respectively.

All of this leads us to the production and freezing of millions of embryos – I found a study estimating there were 400,000 in 2002 in the US alone.

So, what happens, you may wonder, with all these frozen embryos? A very small number is used for research in those countries where legislation permits it. Others are implanted at a later date – which means a couple may have 2 children conceived on the same date, but born several years apart – and some are donated to other parents.

After 5 years however – in countries like Switzerland – it seems they have reached their expiry date and are no longer suitable for implantation, leaving their procreators with nothing left but to mourn the end of their reproductive window.

But there is more… there are the unlucky ones. These are the ones that are implanted and then later “reduced”. In other words, it is not rare that more than 3 embryos are implanted into the womb, to maximize chances of success. But if all of them “take on” in the first months of pregnancy, the parents may choose whether to have some of them “reduced”, in order not to give birth to triplets. And for those who think these are exceptions, you’re wrong. Midwives have been known to forsake working in the delivery ward to avoid having to implement such routine procedures from which they have become alienated.

I find it difficult to understand how one can be prepared to do anything – including some very painful medical procedures – to create a new life, and in the same stroke of hand, discard the lives deemed in excess. And it also strikes me how de-humanizing the jargon is around these procedures, just to make sure we think as little as possible about the ethical consequences of our actions.

And let me be absolutely clear, the point here is not about when life starts or any of the other issues debated at infinitum when one talks of reproductive rights. It is much more subtle. It is about the way each of us, man or woman chooses to value life, and the inconsistencies and disconnects in our individual actions.

How far are we willing to go in our desperate attempt to control life? How far are we willing to separate ourselves from the magic and mystery at the source of our sacred existence?


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