Flurry of hyperbole about the `adoption' of frozen embryos

June 13, 2005|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - I don't think I've ever heard quite so much about snowflakes in June. Talk about an odd weather pattern. Could it be the prevailing political winds?

The weather report began during a photo op of the president kissing babies. This was not unusual for a politician, but these babies were wearing T-shirts that read "former embryo" and "this embryo was not discarded." They were children dubbed "Snowflakes" by a group that promotes what they call "embryo adoption."

The photo op followed the House passage of a bill that would let the government pay for research on stem cell lines derived from leftover embryos stored in fertility clinics. The Senate is expected to pass a similar bill soon, but the president has promised to give it his first-ever veto.

The Snowflakes were on hand to show that, in Mr. Bush's words, "there is no such thing as a spare embryo." The alternative is "adoption."

Mr. Bush, mind you, has done a bit of adopting himself. He's adopted the language of pro-life absolutists. He now calls embryos "real human lives" just like "the lives of those with diseases that might find cures." Tom DeLay goes a step further when he describes research using embryos as "the dismemberment of living, distinct, human beings." Not to be outdone, Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina talks of the "slaughter of human life."

When people claim to believe that a frozen embryo is the moral equal of a child, ethicists like to pose this question: If a clinic is on fire and you could save either a 2-year-old or a vial full of embryos, which would you pick?

In this case, if an embryo is truly another human being, what are we to make of the Snowflake families?

Donielle Brinkman and her husband received 11 frozen embryos from a clinic. After four transfers of multiple eggs and three miscarriages over several years, she gave birth to Tanner. According to their reasoning - not mine - if all the embryos were persons, did she produce one child and destroy 10?

Today, there are 400,000 embryos stored in clinics but only 81 Snowflakes. Photo ops notwithstanding, most couples do not turn to in vitro fertilization because they want their genetic offspring to be raised by others. And few couples are waiting to be impregnated with others' embryos.

Only 4 percent of the frozen embryos are available for donation - half designated for research and half for infertile couples. No way will they all be "adopted."

And this brings us to the question that's been far too easy to evade. What are the responsibilities of the couples who create the frozen embryos and the clinics that store them?

When couples embark on the journey of in vitro fertilization, they are thinking about babies, not leftovers. The ethics committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine has long said that clinics should have couples sign advance directives about the fate of embryos in case of death, divorce, separation, the failure to pay for storage fees or "abandonment." No one knows how many clinics actually do it.

Embryos are not human beings. Nor are they hangnails. They carry the potential for human life that deserves moral attention and respect. It's not disrespectful to donate embryos to the search for a curing diseases. Nor is it respectful to keep embryos in a freezer until they're eligible for Social Security.

People who are responsible for creating an embryo have the responsibility for what happens to that embryo. No clinic should be required to run a frozen limbo. It's up to the man and woman to decide whether the embryos are to be kept in storage or removed, donated to other couples or to science.

So far, the storm over stem cells has been stirred up by politics. But the same couples who pursued parenthood in a petri dish can help quiet a very turbulent weather pattern.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Ms. Goodman now writes one column a week, which appears Mondays in The Sun.

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