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The Maybe-Baby Dilemma
What to do with unused embryos, a byproduct of a booming fertility business, is a question patients are rarely prepared to deal with. They have several choices: finding a research program or fellow patient to accept a donation, discarding the extra embryos, or doing absolutely nothing.
Christine Pearlstein of Hudson was busy with three children under 4 when the letter arrived. Her fertility clinic needed to know what she and her husband wanted to do with their four frozen embryos, created during an in vitro fertilization treatment. They could order the clinic to discard the embryos. They could donate them for medical research or to another infertile patient. They could maintain them in their current frozen state and begin paying monthly storage fees. Or they could dispose of them in some other, unspecified way. The letter gave the pair 90 days to decide.
Pearlstein, a marketing professional, says she and her husband knew they were done having children, but throwing the embryos away -- the simplest option -- didn’t feel quite right to her. “We went through so much to get them,” she says. “I couldn’t just trash them.” But finding a better solution has proved a complex and often lonely road. “People just don’t talk about it,” says Pearlstein. “My parents didn’t go through it; my friends didn’t go through it. You’re at the mercy of the Internet.”
Since 1978, the year a British woman gave birth to the first “test-tube baby,” millions of eventual babies have been conceived in petri dishes. Since the 1980s, millions of embryos have been cryo-preserved, or “frozen” in liquid nitrogen, allowing patients a further chance at pregnancy if a first embryo transfer doesn’t work or if they want another child or children some years down the road. Massachusetts, one of the few states to mandate insurance coverage of infertility treatments, has the highest per capita usage rate of in vitro fertilization in the nation. Currently there are about 8,000 treatments begun here annually, and local clinicians estimate that 30 to 40 percent will result in at least one cryo-preserved embryo; one clinic reports it recently banked 22 embryos for a patient. According to numbers from the clinics, it is safe to assume that there are at least 20,000 embryos in storage around the state. Read more.