A case study by the Eastern Virginia Medical School recently published in the journal Fertility and Sterility notes that “a baby boy was born in May to a 42-year-old woman after being adopted as an embryo from a couple who created it 20 years ago.” According to the U.K.’s Telegraph, “In Britain most frozen embryos are used by the couple who created them, destroyed or donated for research. Few are offered for adoption and this is thought to be because of rules that mean offspring can trace their biological parents.”
The Virginian-Pilot reports that there are possibly 500,000 embryos currently “on ice” in the United States, without any laws governing the amount of time they can be stored. British law states that embryos can be stored for 55 years, but some scientists are urging against such a lengthy timeline. Dr. Sergio Oehninger says, “We do not want to be thinking about having 40-year-old embryos in the freezer. We would have a new generation using embryos of the older generation.” And not just a new generation of strangers, either.
In 2007, an unnamed woman “froze some of her own eggs so they could be used by her then-seven-year-old daughter who was likely to be infertile because of a medical condition.” The Telegraph notes, “If the girl used the eggs she would effectively give birth to her own half brother or sister.”
Dr. Sherman Silber, head of the Infertility Center of St. Louis, told AOL Health, “Women who need to delay childbearing should have either eggs or ovarian tissue frozen while they are young to preserve their fertility.” Many cancer patients have done exactly that. The question then becomes, will women begin to freeze their reproductive tissue in order to focus on their careers at a young age, having the ability to get pregnant without donor eggs at say, 50? Silber says, “Women can preserve their fertility for later now. The several techniques available for it — egg freezing, embryo freezing and ovary tissue freezing — are very, very robust and reliable.”
And what about regulating the adoption of embryos? The baby boy born in May from the adopted embryo “has biological siblings who are 20 years older — which has sparked debate over whether the trend is a good idea,” reports AOL Health. Having a biological sister old enough to be your mom sure sounds better to me than having a mom who’s your biological sister.
Because frozen embryos “are in a state of suspended animation, theoretically, they could be in storage hundreds of years,” embryologist and study author Jacob Mayer told The Virginian-Pilot. Bioethicist Arthur Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania says, “that idea opens a Pandora’s box of ethical questions…. What happens if ‘parents’ of these embryos divorce or disagree about the disposition of them? What if a couple wanted to implant an embryo years past their prime parenting years?” And I’ll add, what if the “parents” of the embryo aren’t the biological parents of the embryo at all? How does that complicate matters? Of course, annual storage fees at the clinics that hold these embryos may help make the decision to keep, donate or destroy the embryos easier, because I can’t imagine anyone would want to pay for them to be held indefinitely. But clearly this is an issue that will keep bioethicists – and individuals seeking fertility treatment – busy for years to come.