Republican presidential contender Newt Gingrich hit upon a reproductive minefield on Sunday when he called for deeper scrutiny of in vitro fertilization (IVF) clinics, where women go for high-tech help to conceive.
Gingrich, who believes life begins at conception, wants a commission to dissect the ethical issues attendant with assisted reproductive technology. Ostensibly, it’s not the babies born from IVF he’s got a problem with; it’s the potential babies — and there are lots and lots of them — who aren’t.
“If you have in vitro fertilization you are creating life. And therefore we should look seriously at what should the rules be for clinics that do that because they’re creating life,” Gingrich, who opposes abortion, told the Associated Press.
As far back as 2003, researchers estimated there were 400,000 embryos frozen in the U.S. That number is undoubtedly far greater today, as more women delay childbearing and may inevitably need assistance having a baby.
“There are at least tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of frozen embryos in little freezers all over the world, and no one knows quite what to do with them,” says Julie Shapiro, a law professor at Seattle University who is writing a book about parenthood in the age of new reproductive technologies. “This is a cumulative problem, and at some point, we are going to have to deal with it.”
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The creation of excess embryos is central to the IVF process. Women’s ovaries are hyperstimulated to produce multiple eggs, which are then harvested and fertilized with sperm to create embryos. Only the hardiest, healthiest embryos are chosen for transfer into a woman’s uterus. For most women, no more than two embryos are recommended for transfer. Considering that hyperstimulation can yield more than a dozen embryos — hello, Octomom — the question of what to do with the leftovers is one that can’t be ignored.
Yet many women are doing a pretty good job of doing just that. Typically, excess embryos are frozen in liquid nitrogen for potential future use. Once a woman decides her family is complete, she has limited options: destroy the frozen embryos by thawing them, offer them to research or, infrequently, donate them to another couple for adoption.
What seems to happen most commonly is nothing: women and their partners continue to pay annual storage fees because the thought of destroying their genetic material or handing it over to someone else to raise is unsettling.
Considering Gingrich’s anti-abortion stand, it’s likely that he’d frown upon embryo destruction. For his part, former President George W. Bush limited research using embryos; President Obama later lifted those restrictions.
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Last year, I wrote about Stanford researchers who were tackling the delicate issue of persuading more patients to donate their embryos to science. Past studies have found that 10% of patients donate to research, but Christopher Scott, director of the Program on Stem Cells in Society at Stanford, believes that number would jump if fertility centers employed a respectful, no-pressure system of asking.
But donating to research will never be a choice everyone is comfortable with. As Scott noted, “Genetic material lives beyond us, of course, because we have children and grandchildren, but it also lives beyond us in a Petri dish.”
Perhaps, says Shapiro, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that Gingrich raised the topic of embryo disposal. “This is a cumulative problem, and at some point, we are going to have to deal with it. But please — no more legislation regulating the future of egg and sperm. “These are useful conversations to have, but I don’t think we need more laws about it,” says Shapiro. “These are deeply personal choices.”
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