Angel Babies and Blastulas: IVF and the Personhood Movement

Snapshots of life at home.
May 23 2012 6:02 AM

Visible Life

IVF, personhood, and the Two-Week Wait.

(Continued from Page 2)

There are also "angel baby" memorial tickers for children lost to miscarriage or stillbirth. Backgrounds include clouds, rainbows, and serene meadows, and sliders include doves, teddy bears, bunnies, and babies of various ethnicities and postures: some are sleeping peacefully, while others are sitting upright and haloed, heaven-bound. Some have wings, some slide down rainbows; they come in singles or groups of two, three, or four. They all look the way we expect babies, not embryos or fetuses, to look; they are pleasantly chubby, adorably forelocked, dressed in shades of blue or pink. The suggested message for an angel baby ticker is "It's been x months & y days since we said goodbye." The grieving mother might have lost her baby at birth or sometime long before—in IVF, losses are common days or weeks after the transfer of embryos. Though books might tell her that her baby, at three to four weeks, is the size of a poppyseed, that is not what she pictures. She imagines a "real" baby: smiling, gendered, and cuddly. But the angel baby—a cartoon, an image, an idea—might be all she gets.  

Before we had the technology we have now—before home pregnancy tests, before IVF, before microscopic images of blastulas—a pregnancy was suspected with a missed period, but imminent life was confirmed not through a visual sign but through the quickening, the first fetal movements felt by the mother, which typically happens at four or five months’ gestation. Aristotle considered quickening the signal that a human soul had entered the fetus. Until about 100 years ago, when doctors and scientists began collecting and displaying fetal specimens, most people could not picture an embryo or a fetus—and didn't try. In some cultures, fetuses born very prematurely were so foreign and unfamiliar that they were interpreted as something other than human—as kangaroos, monkeys, fish bellies, or spirits.

It is now possible, in the most advanced and high-tech RE clinics, to record every moment of cell division in an IVF cycle through time-lapse imaging. Embryologists believe that by studying these images—how and when each embryo divides—they will be able to select the best-quality embryos for transfer, improving the patient's likelihood of pregnancy. Such images will surely become the subject of political and bioethical debates—the time-stamped creation of life is a powerful tool for those concerned with personhood at the cellular level. Dr. Ramos, for her part, is excited by the extra assurance this technology offers her patients and hopes to obtain it for her laboratory in the next few years. By then, my decision will be made. I will have tried IVF. Or I will have moved on.

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I told a friend recently that sometimes I feel strangely grateful for the pause I'm in now. My husband and I both know it is unlikely that natural TTC cycles will produce a pregnancy for us, and we have time—a little bit, anyway—to consider not only the financial and emotional cost of an IVF cycle or cycles, but also how a pregnancy would affect our lives. Our house is 800 square feet, for example. Where would we put the crib? When would I write, and who would take care of our child while I teach or my husband works? What if the child is sick or troubled; what if I am a bad mother? What if?

My friend, childless herself, and a biologist, said she thought it was better when you didn't try to answer those questions first, when a pregnancy made the answers irrelevant. I agree, and I would trade these questions and reservations in a second for a pregnancy that happened without medical intervention. But that isn't my situation, and it probably won't be. So I have to ask the questions. I have to visit the clinics and the labs, talk to the doctors, read the message boards, walk to the river with my husband. I have to talk about uncertainty and ambivalence with my child-free friends, the writers and artists and scientists I know who are making a life that is not organized around childrearing.

But I've decided I like the word pause better than the word wait. Sometimes it's used as a euphemism for menopause—and I hope that is years away—but I interpret pause not to mean the suspension of all activity, but the cessation of frenzy and anxiety. It implies peace and freedom, reflection, even agency, in a way that wait does not. The recently published book Bringing Up Bebe uses the word to describe the way a French parent takes a moment before comforting a crying child. The pause gives children an opportunity to self-soothe, to calm themselves independently instead of relying on an outside force. If I ever have a child, I will surely try this parenting trick, but for now, it seems to apply to my own life. I think of the interests I have—writing, reading, listening to music, kayaking—all as self-soothing exercises, as forms of independence from suffering, from sadness, from focusing too hard on the wait. They are also the life, at the moment, that is most visible and real for me.

Belle Boggs has worked in public schools across the U.S. Her new novel, The Ugly Bear List, is forthcoming.

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