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Frozen embryos: the morally complicated by-product of fertility treatment.

The bill came in the mail last month. It sat, unopened on our front table. Neither my husband nor I touched it or said a word to each other. But one day at work, I got an email from him that read, simply, “Should we pay it?”

“No,” I replied, “Let’s not pay it.” His second email was somber: “I am okay with that, so long as we are both willing to look at each other and our kids and say that it is okay.”

The bill was for Vial Number 2988 – our third child. Well, not actually our child – our embryo, in frozen storage at the in-vitro-fertilization clinic. Vial Number 2988 was the final result of $12,000 worth of IVF treatment: fifty hormone injections, twenty-seven blood draws, sixteen sick days from work and at least one day where the whole process made me feel suicidal. The result: two beautiful children, one boy and one girl, eighteen months apart and both still in diapers, and across town, a cluster of cells in limbo.

I couldn’t help but think of this third embryo (which was frozen at five days’ development) as a child. I always wanted three children. To me, three seemed to be the magic number that made a family “big.”A fortune teller once told me that I’d have three children, two boys and a girl. Like a child’s birthday wish, I never told anyone her prediction, fearing it might not come true. The image of those three babies stuck in my head.

Growing up liberal, I always believed in a woman’s right to choose and that an embryo (the term used until week eight of a pregnancy, when the embryo becomes a fetus) wasn’t actually a child. Yet, I couldn’t help but think of this third embryo (which was frozen at five days’ development) as a child, especially because both the other embryos I had created eventually became children.

The day after our email decision, I called the number on the invoice. “Um, I don’t want to pay my bill for embryo storage.” I said.

“What do you mean you just don’t want to pay it?” the woman at the billing office said. She sounded confused.

“I, uh, don’t want to have my embryo stored anymore.” I said, feeling horrible.

“Oh! Well, in that case, we just send you out a form to tell us what you want done with the embryos and you send it back to us and that’s it!” she said brightly, “Oh! And it has to be notarized!”

I hung up without requesting the form. I wasn’t ready to have my office secretary notarize a form that said I didn’t want more children.

And yet, I really didn’t and neither did my husband. Our family felt complete. And I felt I couldn’t face a third difficult pregnancy. My two pregnancies were rough and high-risk. My doctor even forbade me from taking the subway. I had placenta previa and a weakened cervix – two disorders that might have caused problems, but luckily didn’t. My daughter and son came into the world full-term, fat, pink and amazing. I couldn’t believe my luck.

And I didn’t want to press it. During my initial treatment, my doctor warned against carrying multiple babies with my medical conditions, so he implanted only one. It worked. Success using only one embryo is very rare (some say 20%), even in the most advanced of New York clinics. But success using only one frozen embryo is more so; typically, only about half of embryos even survive thawing. When I went back to the clinic to start trying for baby number two, in went one frozen embryo from that same, first, IVF cycle. It also worked. I won the IVF lottery – twice. Once you have two big wins like that, you have to acknowledge that on your next play, you’re more likely to lose. Better, I thought, to let the storage facility dispose of that embryo than to go through the grueling IVF process only to have the procedure fail or to miscarry.

I never considered giving the embryo up for “adoption” or donating it for stem-cell research. I know that sounds selfish. Here I had a perfectly good embryo and I didn’t want it. I knew how awful it felt to be infertile. Why not give it to an infertile couple longing for a child? Or donate it to science? Well, stem-cell research blogs and the paltry explanation of “donating to science” in my IVF pamphlet conjured up images of human cloning. And I cringed when I looked at resources like the National Embryo Donation Center website, on which such embryos are referred to as “snowflake kids.” All I could think of was the eighteen-year-old child on my doorstep. What would I say? “Uh, well, we had your brother and your sister and we pretty much had our hands full after that.” They say you can donate anonymously, but who hasn’t turned on a talk show to see an adoptee reunited with his mother after a lifelong search? I can’t help but feel it’s only a matter of time before those anonymous frozen embryos find their way back home.

The clich’ is true, having kids changes everything – including the decision to have more kids. The clich’ is true, having kids changes everything – including the decision to have more kids. And the dream of easily, happily having three children ran up against reality. And that reality is: I have two kids who are far closer in age than I ever would have planned because I was getting older and had struggled for years to have kids at all. I went into the IVF clinic frightened and hopeless and left it $12,000 poorer and thirty-five pounds heavier, extolling the virtues of modern medicine. I went from daybreak trips to get my hormone levels tested to daybreak coffee runs covered in baby vomit. Sometimes I feel I don’t have the right to complain, because I worked so hard to become a mother, in all its horror and glory. But the truth is: having two young children is harder than I ever imagined.

The billing office started leaving vaguely threatening messages on my machine regarding the unpaid bill, which was for several hundred dollars. I had another birthday and was officially in my late thirties. The kids got the croup and I spent Memorial Day weekend convinced the four of us wouldn’t make it out of the steamy bathroom alive. My daughter learned to sing her ABC’s and my son started to crawl. We decided to move and found a wonderful three-bedroom house. And just like that, I decided my family wouldn’t be bound by the outcome of that $25 palm reading. I called the billing department back and asked them to send me the form, on which our names were printed and there were highlighted lines for our signatures stating that we wished for the contents of Vial Number 2988 to be thawed. We signed the form, got it notarized and sent it the same day. And every day I count my blessings. One. Two.

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