A Quick Note on the Frozen Embryo Problem and The Florida Primary

Late last year I wrote about the disposition of excess frozen embryos, a problem which has arisen as a result of the widespread use of IVF.  Now Newt Gingrich has drawn attention to this question in the Republican primary election in Florida.   (Fair warning:  I am quoted in the particular coverage I linked to.)

While I do think the question of what to do with the frozen embryos that are piling up in clinics around the world is important, I’m not remotely persuaded that any real light will be thrown on the subject by injecting it into the Republican primary campaigns.   That’s largely because I don’t think they’ll be any real consideration of what makes the question hard.

For many people it’s difficult to categorize frozen embryos.  They aren’t children/people.   (Yes, I know some will say they are, but I think most people will not and certainly most people who engage in IVF will not.)   But they are also not simple objects like tables and chairs.   They have special significance–special potential.

Many people using IVF will want to save them for a while, thinking they may use them in the future.  And of course, many people will use some of them in the future.  But in the end, some will be leftover.   And then?  Do you give them away?   Have them destroyed?   Donate them for research?   Keep them frozen forever?  These are, it must be clear, potentially difficult questions.

They are also, it seems to me, personal questions.   If one person or couple wants to donate them to another person or couple who wants to use them, who am I to stop them?   But if she/he/they do not want to let someone else use them, who am I to insist that they must?

I’m glad to know that some clinics are trying to get people to focus on these questions.   I wonder about what the most likely time for those conversations really is.  I mean, it’s easy to say you should think about it from the get-go, but realistically people just starting IVF have many other things that must take precedence in their thoughts.   I suspect it is inevitable that this is a bridge you think about crossing only when you come to it.

Ultimately though I think the issue an important one, I do have my doubts about whether injecting the issue into the end-stage of a fiercely contested Republican primary is likely to offer a chance for much insightful thinking.


11 responses to “A Quick Note on the Frozen Embryo Problem and The Florida Primary

  1. You are correct. Discussing it as part of a primary debate won’t be useful in dealing with the issue. However Gingrich most likely didn’t intend for the discussion to create a potential resolution. I suspect he brought it up for other reasons.

    • I have more than a small suspicion on that direction, actually. Which in a way makes it worse. It’s a form of exploitation–to take a real issue–one on which careful thinking would be good–and make it into a political vehicle in an atmosphere where careful thinking is highly unlikely to occur. Sigh.

  2. Hi Julie,

    I am not sure Newt cares a lick about the surplus frozen embryos . Rather it was a clearly calculated decision to pander to the Personhood crowd while opening the door to an argument that all IVF should be banned. If you accept his position that life begins at conception, than freezing excess embryos with no immediate intent to use, is tantamount to the destruction of human life.

    That is the backdoor approach the pro-life and religious crowd has used in the past to justify their opposition to assisted reproduction. It is just couched in more palatable terms. In order to satisfy their concerns then, the only way IVF could proceed is if the RE only creates the number of embryos he or she is prepared to use in a fresh transfer. Needless to say, if an RE can only aspirate 1-2 eggs per cycle (given current recommendations on the number of embryos to transfer), it will significantly reduce the number of patients who could afford the substantially increased expense of IVF — effectively eliminating it as a family building option for the vast majority of infertility patients.

    • First off–what is an “RE.” I’m stumped on that one though I feel like I should know.

      I do think that a lot of the rhetoric here is that IVF is going almost always be wrong. I hadn’t thought about it in the cost terms you outline, but that’s right, too, of course.

      When Mississippi considered that personhood amendment I think proponents didn’t really want to talk about what it would mean for IVF.https://julieshapiro.wordpress.com/2011/10/26/if-a-fertilized-egg-is-a-person-where-does-that-lead/
      IVF if pretty widely accepted (esp. if done with the gametes of the people involved) and so the idea of banning it is not politically popular.

      • Julie – I’m guessing RE is reproductive endocrinologist.

      • RE = reproductive endocrinologist.

        While I agree that outlawing IVF would be political suicide, there will be that inevitable judicial challenge regarding whether embryos are persons. If so, then there is a credible argument that freezing nascent human life is presumptively illegal. That would then only permit IVF in situations where all embryos created must be transferred in a single, fresh cycle. In addition to the added cost, and the inability to use PGD, it would also prohibit doctors from screening out poor quality embryos, leading to transfers that might not be in the patient’s best medical interests.

  3. I really don’t like the sound of Newt Gingrich getting involved in this. Italy changed its rules about a year ago, and it is no longer possible there to create more embryos than will be implanted.

    They also banned gamete donation and pre-gestational diagnosis. Bizarrely, it is not possible to test embryos for things like Huntington’s Disease or sickle-cell disease, yet it is still possible to have a “selective termination” (abortion) later for those conditions.

  4. Newt throws out comments that meet with the approval of whatever audience group he is speaking too. The other week he casually noted he would completely defund PP and spend that same money on adoption services – apparently it is just that easy – deny ALL health services provided by PP to lower income women and take the babies they produce without access to BC and send them for adoption – done deal – crowd loved the idea. I doubt there were many adoptees in the crowd…or mothers who surrendered babies for adoption – simply because it does not factor in the real obvious issues surrounding either.

    I guess you don’t need me to state my real feelings about old Newt. I will say people don’t change their stripes and the public seems to forget to look at history to know the future…

  5. When an egg is fertilized slightly too late in the cycle, iit becomes an embryo, but it doesn’t have time to release the hormones that call off menstruation and so is lost. It is not “destroyed”, it just doesn’t become implanted and doesn’t come to life. It isn’t killed, it isn’t destroyed, it isn’t mourned or noticed at all. The same thing should happen to all the embryos in freezers. The freezers should just be turned off, they are a waste of electricity that cannot be justified. There is absolutely no need to keep them on. That wouldn’t destroy any embryos or kill any living persons, it should be just like not getting pregnant.

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