Frozen with an expiry date

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November 22nd this year will be a bad day to be an embryonic New Zealander in vitro.

That’s the first deadline of the 2004 HART (Human Assisted Reproductive Technology) act. All embryos in New Zealand that have been frozen for 10 years or more will be destroyed on that date, unless their parents obtain specific permission by May this year. That permission to extend frozen storage must be granted from an ethics committee, not the facility storing the embryos. One chain of fertility clinics says 350 couples or women will be affected at this deadline. And with over 10 000 embryos in storage in New Zealand, it’s only the start of this issue.

So why are there so many frozen embryos?

IVF has a relatively low success rate per cycle and per embryo. This is particularly true for older women. So to achieve a birth, many embryos and several cycles of IVF may be needed. As there is the expectation that several cycles of IVF may be needed, many oocytes (eggs) are removed from the women and fertilised at once. The ‘best looking’ ones are used for the first cycle of IVF and the remaining embryos are frozen as backups if the first cycle isn’t successful, or if the couple want subsequent children.

The process of removing eggs from a women is very invasive and carries real risks for the women. So it’s not something that the medical staff want to put the woman through repeatedly. It is possible to freeze unfertilised eggs rather than embryo, but currently frozen eggs are far less successful for achieving pregnancy. Embryos survive freezing much more successfully, so the clinics fertilise the extracted eggs, both to implant into the women and to store frozen.

If a cycle results in a live birth, the remaining embryos are left in frozen storage, unless the couple wants another child, or they decide to destroy the embryos.

So it’s the inefficiency and risks of the process that results in the temptation to make ‘excess’ embryos. Most of the embryos that are created don’t survive. Some are discarded after fertilisation. Some don’t survive the freezing and thawing, and are discarded. And many that are implanted don’t survive to birth. And many just remain in storage, with their parents not knowing what to do with them.

Throughout this process, and particularly when the embryos are in frozen storage, they are considered property. And tied to this is the attitude that parents have the right to have children.

The Church considers children to be a gift, not property or something that the parents are owed (CCC 2378). She also teaches that a child’s origin should be an act of love between his or her parents. In this way the child’s interests are put first. And as the weakest party, it should always be the child’s interests that are considered first.

This doesn’t mean all infertile couples are condemned to be childless. IVF isn’t the only answer that medicine has for infertility. Originally it was to be the last resort for couples who had trouble conceiving. It has now all but replaced the more conventional approach of diagnosing the specific problem and providing a therapy for that problem, where possible.

But the result of this attitude to children is the large numbers of embryonic children are in frozen storage in New Zealand and around the world. For most of them, it’s a death sentence. The ones that survive are treated for at least some of their life as possessions of their parents. Unfortunately this feeling of entitlement to children is spreading, and was very evident in the recent marriage legislation debate.

For the sake of our children, we need to defend the right of a child to be born from an act of marital love, and to parents known to him or her.

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