The morally deserted world of frozen embryos.

Science, technology, and life.
Dec. 12 2008 7:42 AM

The Frozen Ones

The morally deserted world of spare embryos.

I remember the day my first child was born. He lay sleeping, swaddled, in a plastic bin at the hospital. That's when I finally understood what it meant to be a parent. "If we leave this hospital without this baby," I told my wife, "we'll be arrested."

It was a joke, but it was also true. You arrive at the hospital as two people, and you leave as three. You can't just make a baby and walk away. It's yours forever.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Unless, that is, you make a baby through in vitro fertilization. In that case, you can put the embryo away in a freezer and decide what to do about it later. Or never.

8-cell embryo

In the United States alone, approximately 500,000 embryos now lie suspended in this frozen world. Thousands more accumulate every year. They go there because we make more embryos than are necessary for one child, and we set some aside in case we need them for a second child. They're our backup kids. In our heads, they aren't real yet. But in the freezer, they are.

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President Bush, God bless him, wants to find homes for them. He wants the parents who made them to let others gestate, deliver, and raise them. It's a beautiful thought. But a survey published last week in Fertility and Sterility says it's not going to happen. The survey sampled more than 1,000 people who had embryos on ice. Only 7 percent said they were very likely to give their embryos to other parents. Twice as many were willing to consider donating embryos for research as for reproduction.

Why? Because we don't want other people raising our kids. In the survey, the authors found that "concern about or responsibility for the health or welfare of the embryo or the child it could become … was negatively associated with reproductive donation and positively associated with options not resulting in a child." For these people, the "sense of responsibility precludes their allowing their embryos to become children in any family except their own."

To pro-lifers, this preference for destruction is baffling. We're talking about an embryo in a freezer. Nobody's asking you, the genetic mother, to put it in your own body. We'll do all the work. Just let us have it. We'll give it life, love, and a good home.

But the mindset of possessive responsibility says: No. This embryo is mine. I can't let it grow into a child if I'm not there. I'd rather extinguish it. This is a cruel instinct, but it's pervasive. It's why Bush's father couldn't persuade women to choose adoption over abortion and why Bush can't persuade them to choose adoption even when no pregnancy on their part is required.

Imploring these people to embrace a baby-making "culture of life" is noble, but it isn't realistic. Nor is putting ads in church newsletters for 500,000 adoptive wombs. The realistic answer is to stop making and freezing so many extra embryos in the first place. That, too, requires moral strength. If you can't stand to become a parent to a batch of frozen embryos, why are you creating them? Sort out your ethics before you cross that line.

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