Triplets 9 months old, going on 14 years

Florida couple's babies came from strangers' embryos frozen 12 years

April 08, 2004|By Jeff Kunerth | Jeff Kunerth,ORLANDO SENTINEL

The Mangsen triplets are 9 months old now, colliding into each other with their rolling walkers like baby bumper cars.

There's angelic Angelina, the good baby who never cries, never fusses. Matthew, who out-eats, out-weighs, out-whines his siblings. And Justin, the perpetual-motion machine nicknamed "the Rocket" by his parents.

But these are no ordinary triplets. They were born from embryos that their doctor said had been frozen for nearly 12 years.

"We never thought embryos of this age would be as viable and potent. To have all of them survive after implantation is quite remarkable," said Mark Trolice, the fertility doctor who provided the three donated embryos to Chris and Sylvia Mangsen.

Births from embryos open the door to parenthood for infertile couples such as Chris and Sylvia, but they also pull back the curtain on the 400,000 embryos in the United States suspended in time and liquid nitrogen.

Since the first baby was born in the United States from a frozen embryo in 1986, embryos have been the center of controversy over stem-cell research, caught in the middle of custody battles and ignited debate over the beginning of life.

But it is indecision and abandonment that have made the long-term storage of frozen embryos a medical dilemma for fertility centers. Couples with unused frozen embryos often procrastinate for years over whether to keep them in storage, allow them to thaw and expire, donate them to science or pass them on to other couples.

Only about 2 percent of the nation's frozen embryos go to infertile couples.

"People don't want to let go of the embryos. It's an emotional attachment - it's the potential for a baby," said Kate Howell, director of Xytex Tissue Services, a long-term embryo storage facility in Augusta, Ga.

The unused, frozen embryos result from the in vitro fertilization process by which 10 or more eggs are removed from a woman and combined with a man's sperm. From the resulting embryos, as many as four are transplanted back into the womb.

The remaining embryos are "cryopreserved" in canisters of liquid nitrogen 196 degrees Celsius below zero.

A study by the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology in 2003 found that 88 percent of those 400,000 frozen embryos were being held for future use by the couples who produced them.

Some are waiting to see whether their initial attempts at pregnancy succeed. Others will use the extra embryos to produce siblings. And some embryos remain frozen in the event that a couple loses a child to disease or accident.

At the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine in Norfolk, Va., some frozen embryos go back 15 years, said director Jacob Mayer. For some clients, the thought of destroying the embryos or giving them to research is like killing their offspring. And donating them to other couples is like giving away their children.

"Sometimes, it's a hard decision to make. People tend to want to put that off, push it to the back of their minds," he said.

One 37-year-old mother of triplets born in 2002 said she and her husband are still struggling with the decision of what to do with their extra frozen embryos.

When she thinks about giving up the embryos to another family, she imagines her boys having siblings raised by someone else.

"One thought that goes through your mind is, `Oh, they are going to have some little brother or sister somewhere else.' Basically, you are giving them up for adoption," she said.

Joining those embryos whose destiny is not yet decided are others, forgotten or abandoned.

A study found that of the 400,000 frozen embryos, about 9,000 were set for destruction, 11,000 given to research, 9,000 donated to families such as the Mangsens and 14,000 whose status was uncertain - including abandonment.

Although there is no law regarding what fertility centers can do with abandoned embryos, American Society of Reproductive Medicine guidelines say that after five years clinics can dispose of unclaimed embryos but cannot donate them to other couples or for medical research.

This creates problems for fertility doctors such as Craig R. Sweet in Fort Myers, Fla., who has about 70 frozen embryos from couples he can no longer find. To donate the embryos to other couples, Sweet said, he would have to file individual lawsuits against former clients to establish "property rights" over the embryos.

"It is unfair to the embryos abandoned by their parents and then abandoned by their caregivers - us," Sweet said. "It becomes a property issue that has to go through the courts to insulate the clinics from lawsuits."

The Mangsens had been trying to have children ever since they married six years ago. The couple was unable to conceive because Sylvia Mangsen is in her 40s and Chris Mangsen is sterile from radiation treatments for cancer when he was in his 20s. Sylvia Mangsen was 42 when she underwent her first attempt at in vitro fertilization with donated frozen embryos.

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