Infertile couples turn to 'adoption' of premade embryos Doctors mix eggs, sperm to produce a variety with different pedigrees

November 23, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- Kathy Butler, a 47-year-old New Jersey woman, is pregnant with triplets. But the babies bear no relationship to her or to her husband, Gary. They are growing from ready-made embryos that the Butlers selected and paid for at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.

Doctors at the medical center had mixed human eggs and sperm to make a variety of embryos with different pedigrees. Then they froze the embryos. The idea was to allow prospective parents to select embryos whose parents resemble them physically or have the same ethnic background and are well educated -- the best possible sperm and egg donors for those who cannot have babies of their own.

The Butlers are part of a quiet but fast-emerging new world of assisted reproduction in the United States. Doctors have

become skilled at creating human embryos, and anguished infertile couples are more than willing to pay for whatever infertility clinics can offer. The technique has resulted in an unknown number of births.

Kathy Butler said she and her husband had few options. They had spent all their money on other infertility treatments. So when they discovered that they could select a group of premade frozen embryos for $2,750, they were overjoyed.

For many who venture into the doors of leading infertility clinics, what the Butlers have done will be understandable, even enviable. After all, those few centers with embryos that are up for what the doctors euphemistically call "adoption" have waiting lists of couples who want them.

Premade human embryos are rare and largely confined to a handful of burgeoning centers such as the one at Columbia-Presbyterian, where doctors quietly tell patients about the embryos but do not advertise them. "If you talk to smaller centers, they'll say they never heard of such a thing," said Dr. Mark Sauer of Columbia-Presbyterian.

Some embryos are custom-made by doctors, while others have been made by doctors for infertile couples and then not used. These couples paid for their own egg and sperm donors and then ended up with more embryos than they needed. The clinics offer these embryos to people who cannot afford the more than $16,000 it would cost for a single attempt at pregnancy with sperm and egg donors they select themselves.

Is there something chilling about the idea of making embryos on speculation and selecting egg and sperm donors according to looks, education and ethnicity?

"It does seem like a supermarket approach to embryos," said Lori B. Andrews, a professor of law at Chicago-Kent College of Law.

Doctors who treat infertility say the questions are beside the point. "It's normal human nature" to want to choose donors of eggs and sperm, Sauer said. "Behind closed doors, the most liberal-minded people are about as discriminating as you can get. So don't accuse us of playing God."

The premade embryos appear to inhabit ambiguous legal territory, Andrews said. Laws governing sperm and egg donors vary from state to state, and many states have no laws. And the law has not addressed such questions as the status of embryos formed in the laboratory, or who the guardians of the frozen embryos may be.

The technique also seems to raise a tangle of ethical issues, such as the potential, in theory, for siblings to be raised by separate parents without any knowledge that they have brothers or sisters.

Freezing eggs is still not a completely reliable art. But once eggs are fertilized, the embryos can be readily frozen, stored indefinitely and survive the thawing process for placement in a woman's womb.

Egg donors agree to inject themselves with drugs to stimulate their ovaries, making the ovaries swell with ripening eggs. It is not a totally benign experience, said Dr. Mitchell Tucker, who is scientific director at Reproductive Biology Associates in Atlanta. rare occasions, he said, the woman's ovaries become overstimulated. "Her estrogen levels go through the roof, and she goes into a crisis where you get fluid retention," he said. "In the severest cases, the kidneys shut down," and, very rarely, women have died.

Sauer says he creates embryos for adoption when an infertile woman who has selected and contracted for an egg donor suddenly changes her mind. In a large program such as his, with about 150 to 200 egg donations a year, it is not uncommon for the recipient to back out at the last minute, Sauer said. Sometimes there is a death in the family. Other times, he said, "there are money issues or squabbles."

Pub Date: 11/23/97

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