Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Extra Embryos?

The thesis I wrote for my M.A. in Theology was entitled, The Moral Quandary of Embryo Adoption. It dealt with the hotly debated issue of what to do with the cryopreserved embryos that are left after the completion of the IVF process -- some embryos in excess of the desired number of children are simply abandoned by their parents. What should be done with the "extras"? -- now, doesn't the idea of objectifying an embryo in that manner just turn your stomach? They are not extras, they are human beings. While moral theologians and scholars deliberate over what can be licitly pursued with regard to these babies that are held in suspended animation, the Church watches carefully as the topic is "fleshed out" -- excuse the use of that term.

I recently read a rather alarming article in the Washington Times by Cheryl Wetzstein, Extra embryos pose dilemma. (Immediately, I cringed at the title of the piece.) She begins with the assertion that during the Bush Administration, there was a quiet trend to pressure couples into donating their "extras" to researchers Now, it seems, these same researchers are no longer willing to pay the cost to keep the embryos cryopreserved for their research purposes even though "authoritative" statistics show that three times the couples who have frozen embryos would rather donate their babies to research than to other couples. That statistic is disturbing -- also cited without a source -- and, I wonder if the sales pitch by fertility clinics about helping to cure diseases by donating their "extras" to research -- that being the noble thing to do -- influenced the couples in their response to the survey.

Ms. Wetzstein goes on to quote an article by Claudia Kalb in the January 2010 Newsweek:
...that some institutions are no longer "recruiting" embryos. In some cases, she found, researchers already have hundreds of embryos in stock, and/or find it too expensive (about $1,000 an embryo) to take in new ones.
What exactly are we supposed to do with that statement? Recognizing that Newsweek is not the most pro-life media outlet, I thought perhaps the story was trying to gain sympathy for the poor researchers who can't handle the expense of caring for their frozen specimens. Let's face it, researchers view these embryos as nothing more than a mass of cells. But, weren't they clamoring for the ability to do stem cell research and the need to develop many more lines from which to conduct their research? Why don't they want them now?

But, there's more. Wetzstein goes on to suggest that these decisions about what to do with their frozen offspring constitute a true struggle for the couples. She says this in reference to the Kalb article:
In fact, Ms. Kalb's article is one of many that highlight the tremendous struggle many couples have when it comes to deciding the fate of their frozen embryos once their families are complete.
What? Isn't this information with regard to "deciding the fate of their frozen embryos" disclosed to these couples before they enter into the process, sign all their forms and lay down their first installment? Shouldn't they be prepared to make this decision?

There's another layer to this quote that may not be readily apparent. Note that secular humanism is the main player in this decision process. The couples are deciding when their "family is complete" and "the fate" of those children they do not wish to bring to birth. This is such a horrible position to be in as a parent -- you get what you want, but then you realize that there is a cost -- what shoud you do with the other embryos. It's simply horrendous. I can't imagine the strain of that decision based on the erroneous notion that we are means and the ends to our existence. Although, if we weren't taught as a society that we can have whatever we want, at whatever cost without consideration for the consequence of that decision, then I guess we wouldn't have this problem in the first place.

Dignitas Personae, issued in 2008 by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, deals with this specific issue stating:
It is often objected that the loss of embryos is, in the majority of cases, unintentional or that it happens truly against the will of the parents and physicians. They say that it is a question of risks which are not all that different from those in natural procreation; to seek to generate new life without running any risks would in practice mean doing nothing to transmit it. It is true that not all the losses of embryos in the process of in vitro fertilization have the same relationship to the will of those involved in the procedure. But it is also true that in many cases the abandonment, destruction and loss of embryos are foreseen and willed.

Embryos produced in vitro which have defects are directly discarded. Cases are becoming ever more prevalent in which couples who have no fertility problems are using artificial means of procreation in order to engage in genetic selection of their offspring. In many countries, it is now common to stimulate ovulation so as to obtain a large number of oocytes which are then fertilized. Of these, some are transferred into the woman’s uterus, while the others are frozen for future use. The reason for multiple transfer is to increase the probability that at least one embryo will implant in the uterus. In this technique, therefore, the number of embryos transferred is greater than the single child desired, in the expectation that some embryos will be lost and multiple pregnancy may not occur. In this way, the practice of multiple embryo transfer implies a purely utilitarian treatment of embryos. One is struck by the fact that, in any other area of medicine, ordinary professional ethics and the healthcare authorities themselves would never allow a medical procedure which involved such a high number of failures and fatalities. In fact, techniques of in vitro fertilization are accepted based on the presupposition that the individual embryo is not deserving of full respect in the presence of the competing desire for offspring which must be satisfied.

This sad reality, which often goes unmentioned, is truly deplorable: the “various techniques of artificial reproduction, which would seem to be at the service of life and which are frequently used with this intention, actually open the door to new threats against life”. (DP, 15)

It seems pretty clear from this passage that the Church expects better of healthcare. This is seemingly the only arena in the medical profession that allows for such high losses of life in relation to a specific procedure. Unfortunately, it would require that one takes into consideration the morality of the human action to even pay attention to the wisdom of Dignitas Personae.

Wetzstein next draws from an article written by Liza Mundy for Mother Jones Bi-Monthly Magazine that quotes a doctor lamenting the fact that he has cryopreserved embryos from 1992 in his deep freeze. Imagine, he -- the doctor -- wants to know what will become of those embryos when they are part of their parent's estate? For goodness sakes, is he not contributing to this potential problem? Shouldn't he be counseling these poor families? Instead, he convinces them to produce multiple embryos and then pities their futures. Perhaps they should be willed to him permanently for continued cryopreservation so the families will have one less worry? And, with the exception of those that are abandoned, aren't the families who belong to those embryos paying for their cryopreservation? In answer to his lament, perhaps he should just stop the practice of IVF. Wouldn't that end the problem altogether for the future? And, it might also ease his aching conscience.

Is there really anything new with regard to the choices that have to be made or potential solutions in Wetzstein's article? Not really, other than a shocking realization that the proponents of IVF just don't understand the harm they are doing. She quotes from stories that bemoan the plight of the poor families who are saddled with the stress of having extra frozen embryos, and the poor overburdened researchers who just can't take on anymore "extras" because of the excessive cost. She also brings in a doctor who wonders what the future will hold for these frozen embryos as they are no more than articles to be willed to their siblings or others.

It was a troubling and puzzling article, a twisted examination of the issue devoid of any question of morality. And, really, how does it help to solicit sympathy for the perpetrators of this debacle? If they would simply stop producing embryos through IVF the problem would be contained. But, they continue to perpetuate the problem. When will they see what they are doing?

1 comment:

Darby said...

I've been looking forward to your thoughts on this disturbing issue and you have not disappointed me. Well said!

As you know, I read the Wetzstein article, too. What stood out for me - and truly gave me the 'willies' - was the notion that these embryos, these human souls, are treated as nothing more than leftover by-products of some lab procedure. Where I work, by law, we have to keep employee records for something like 30 years. We have continuing conversations about where to put them. Should we requisition more file cabinets? Do we have room? Wetzstein and the others she mentions in her article seem to be discussing the problem of extra embryos in much the same vein.

Thank you for a great post!