Freezing Gametes For An Uncertain Future

I read two stories today that put me in mind of the dilemmas presented by our ability to freeze (or cryopreserve) gametes.    There’s this story from Israel, which is really more of an op-ed piece and really more of a promotion for this site.    And then there’s this essay from today’s Science section in the NYT.   They are in many ways quite different but they are also, to my mind, complementary.

In the Times Suleika Jaquad writes about the choices she faces as she embarks on necessary chemotherapy while only in her twenties.   While the treatment may save her life it could also destroy her eggs.  Thus, if she wants to preserve the ability to have a biologically related child, she has to consider freezing her eggs. 

Now this is not at all uncommon for men, but there are important differences when women face this choice.  Freezing sperm is easy and well understood.  We’ve done it for a long time.   You can look around here and find discussions of the topic.

Freezing eggs is harder.   In fact, it’s easier to freeze embryos than eggs.   So the best way to preserve Jaquad’s genetic material would be to allow them to be fertilized by sperm and then freeze the embryos.    The problem is that the most obvious source of sperm–her boyfriend–is relatively new to the scene.  What if he doesn’t last?   Would she want the embryos made with his sperm?   She calls it awkward territory and that seems pretty mild.   (FWIW, I think choosing to freeze her eggs alone, as she does, is probably the wiser course.)

But my purpose isn’t really to second guess her–this is an incredibly personal decision that she should feel no obligation to defend.  Really it’s just to marvel and the questions we are now face.   Of course, it’s also worth noting that the reason for freezing the eggs has to do with the importance of having a genetically related child, as does the freezing of sperm in similar cases.

In that last regard this essay describes something quite different from the Israeli program.   The idea behind the Biological Will is that you leave your gametes to be frozen for someone else’s use.   It’s a will–as in last will and testament–so that by definition it only comes into play after your death.  I suppose you might direct the gametes to a particular person, but it seems like it is also possible to just direct that they be made available.   The idea is that the person who uses the gametes doesn’t have to worry about your role in the child’s life (since you are by then dead) but can have access to all of the extended family and the medical history and so on.    It’s a way around the fear of the known sperm or egg provider becoming a bit too intrusive, I guess.

It’s certainly something to think about.   I notice that for the time being it says it is available for US citizens only, but I wonder if it is actually likely to be effective throughout the US.   (Laws vary quite a bit state to state.)

I’m going to stop here for the moment, partly because I’m not sure what to say to tie everything up.   It just seems to me that it is interesting that we are offered all these opportunities (or asked to make choices) about what to do with out gametes–something no one thought about a hundred years ago, I’d guess.


11 responses to “Freezing Gametes For An Uncertain Future

  1. The other obvious reason for putting our own stuff on ice is not genetics but economics. Why pay for something you can make for yourself? I’m sure in the years to come we will see plenty of direct marketing to people using just that very angle. In fact just as we are now beginning to chip our dogs and children for safety sake, it seems completely plausible that people raising children will be told to have some of their children’s stuff iced and banked as a private reserve so that they don’t need to worry about finding that perfect mate right out of college they can relax and take their time until they find that right person and are ready to settle down and raise a family.

    Of course I think we’re a bunch of idiots to allow people control over the ability to reproduce our bodies. Do we honestly believe that eggs and sperm and embryos will be kept in a little box with our name on it until we come for them? Is that how the bank works? Is it not just a little curious that these are referred to as banks rather than as storage facilities or safe deposit boxes? What happens to our money when we put it in a bank? If everyone went to the bank on the same day and asked for all their money, what would happen? Would they have all our money? No they would not. They are only required to keep 10% on hand and the rest they use for their own investments. All that sperm and all those eggs and embryos just sitting in these unregulated banks worth billions of dollars and the depositors could not tell the difference between theirs and someone else’s at high noon under a microscope. The depositor has no real idea how many eggs she produced or how many cc’s he produced or how many embryos there really were. They have no idea if the genes they withdraw are the same as the ones they deposited and if they are not by the time they have the child it will be too late to do anything about it. You can’t send the kid back and there is no way to figure out whose child they are really raising. By the time those kids grow up and start to get upset the people that started these banks will be dead and they’ll have had a grand old time getting fat taking raw materials from people for free – no wait people pay them to take the raw materials and store them for them. They get paid to receive something they can turn around and sell for almost pure profit. Like social security they are using what gets put in by patients now to treat other patients and when the depositors go to make a withdrawl they’ll be given whatever is available at the time.

    And while I’m at it. With enough raw genetic material to build a super army why is nobody worried about these banks falling into the wrong hands? This really is the stuff of science fiction movies its like we are willingly enslaving ourselves by handing over control of every aspect of our freedom. From carrying the little transponders in our pockets so that we can be located at all times to telling the little box our every single thought when we google to paying a corporation to put our genetic material in their banks for us – we are really not so swift. I’m taking the donor dot off my drivers license, it occurred to me the other day that they could take my reproductive components. Not that I’m such a desirable model or that at 40 my stuff is still viable but on general principal if they are killing girls along the el paso border for their eggs there is no telling what gets taken when drivers license donor passes away. I’ve sure changed my mind about that.

    • I doubt anyone is freezing their own gametes for purely economic reasons. I think the costs of retrieval and storage can be pretty high, actually, so it wouldn’t make sense.

      I think freezing your own is nearly always motivated by the desire to have access to your own genetic material so that you can have a genetically related child at a later date. For men, the only reason I’ve seen for doing this is chemotherapy or other illness that will end sperm production. I think I’ve seen instances of women freezing eggs to stop a biological clock, but mostly that, too, is because of planned medical treatment. (I don’t quite see how the economic motive could work if you didn’t know you were going to lose your own materials that are in your own body.)

      I also think that the mechanics of retrieval, storage and then subequent use are quite well set up at the good gamete banks. There are multiple safeguards. Thus, if you’re a careful consumer and choose a reputable facility, the parade of horribles you sketch is pretty unlikely.

  2. My own overly subjective and overly angry and somewhat metaphysical reaction is: the adults now even have time on their side.

    A very old dying couple can have a baby via a surrogate if they have remembered to freeze their goods in time. The baby will be an orphan soon after birth, but she should be grateful for the gift of life.

    Just when the donor conceived are finally starting to get the right to know their biological parents, the adults will now use time against them, instead of anonymity: your biological parents died before you were born and you’ll never get to know them. Muahaha. We win. You’re ours, all ours.

    • I just adore this girl. Such a clear thinker and a good writer.

    • I do think there is something a bit odd about choosing to use sperm providers who you know are dead. But notice that at least part of the motivation for making this choice (at least as stated in the article) is that it is the only way you can get to use a known sperm donor. As much as anything, this seems to be a weird work-around for a restrictive law. Surely a better response would be to allow the use of known donors without giving them legal rights as fathers?

      • I’m sorry, I haven’t read the article – I truly trust your summary.

        I agree, SURELY “a better response would be to allow the use of known donors”, but, as you also correctly noted, it’s “a way around the fear of the known sperm or egg provider becoming a bit too intrusive.” Now we’re getting somewhere. Many biological children of donors want to know their biological parents. Many social parents of DC persons want their children NOT to really and truly know their biological parents.

        Sure, here’s a name and some medical info. But that’s all you get, because your bio dad is dead. I’m all you’ve got. You’ll never really know if you have something in common with him – because I don’t want you to.

        • In fairness, I should say that the article talks about the benefit to the child of having access to the sperm donor’s extended family. That means it isn’t quite as stark as you suggest. You get more than a name and you might actually get a sense of what a person was like. (My kids have a deceased parent but have a strong sense of her, I think (and I hope) at least in part from having contact with her extended family.)

          I’m sure there are many parents of donor conceived children who do really want the donor to just become invisible. But there are also many parents for whom the donor is a player in the child’s life. What role the donor plays varies widely. As I said in the post I just put up, I tend to like to give people choices, so my inclination is to try to figure out how to get people to make the better choice (which maybe is the second described above) rather than to tell them they must make it.

      • Julie try changing the word “rights” for the word “obligations”. Defend the reason for not requiring all biological fathers to support their offspring. Defend the reason why some children deserve their biological father’s support while others do not. Defend the reason why some of them should have a say so in their child’s upbringing while others do not. So should a mother be allowed to waive her child’s right to support from their biological fathers? Why is it ok to pretend that donor offspring have no biological fathers? Why do this at all? Why stand between a child and his or her paternal family? Who benefits from that? The mother? Her romantic partner? Why would a romantic partner even figure into the equasion? Why do they? Why should they matter more than the child’s paternal relatives?

        • Okay–so we’re only talking about financial support? I’ll assume so.

          I know you won’t like this, but I’d start here: why should any person be obligated to support a child? Perhaps it is because their actions caused the child to come into being.

          This might make sense, but it does leave a lot of possibilities–an intended parent? The man who has sex with a woman? The doctor who does IUI? I don’t quite know how to choose which person. Maybe everyone on a “more the merrier” theory?

          I am actually willing to consider imposing financial responsiblities on a man who has sex with a woman as a result of which she becomes pregnant. I do see the possibility of holding him responsible for the foreseeable consequences of his actions. But this doesn’t get me to the sperm donor. He provides his sperm knowing that it will only be used by someone who intends to conceive a child to be raised without his involvment. So while his participation is necessary, I think there’s an intervening actor (the person who chooses to use the sperm) who is better situated to bear the obligation.

          I’d also like to consider assigning the rights part (which I’ve ignored here) on a separate basis–one tied to the well-being of children.

          I’d also consider saying that we are all responsible for the well-being of children and that there should be state child-care subsidies, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish.

          • “I’d also consider saying that we are all responsible for the well-being of children and that there should be state child-care subsidies, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish.”
            I agree and that is why we have an infrastructure that provides emergency support for parents who for whatever reason are not supporting their children. I am fine with my tax dollars paying for that safety net. I may never need it but I’ve also never had a house fire and I don’t mind paying for a fire department to put out someone else’s. Someday I might go to the library and check out a book – happy it’s there if I need it.
            But parents are in fact expected to support their own children so long as there is something to support them with. So what makes a person a parent according to current law? Well unless you happen to fall into the category of “donor” your responsible for physical AND financial support of your offspring, because after all, if not you then who? If we had it your way then people with offspring would be financially responsible for their offspring and then not responsible for their physical care? they just don’t have that responsibility anymore? Who should be obligated to the physical care of the offspring they are financially supporting? The state? Let’s be across the board here because the problem is that its not across the board right now. Some have to some don’t and that is the problem. If all had to then all would have to follow the same protocol to be let off the hook.

  3. Have you read Pronoia’s most brilliant little essay on this very subject. Its my favorite thing I’ve ever read EVER! Its about the irony of the wisdom in the system you advocate from the view of a person made to suck it up and take it.

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