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On the cusp of life, and of law

Half a million embryos sit in clinic freezers in the U.S. Now infertility patients privately steer their fates, but that may change in some states.

October 06, 2008|Shari Roan | Times Staff Writer

The federal government supports, via funding, only one option: adoption to another couple for pregnancy. In a highly publicized event at the White House in May 2005, President Bush posed for pictures with children born from adopted embryos -- sometimes called "snowflake adoptions," referring to the fact that the embryos are frozen and unique. And the Department of Health and Human Services funded a three-day conference in May to promote this alternative.

About 1,000 babies have been born in the U.S. from embryo adoption since it became available 10 years ago, said Ron Stoddart, who founded the Snowflakes Embryo Adoption Program, based in Fullerton.

However, research by Anne Drapkin Lyerly, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Duke University, as well as other surveys, have found that most families prefer not to donate embryos for adoption. In a paper published last year, of 1,020 couples with frozen embryos, 22% said they were somewhat or very likely to donate to another couple. Slightly more said they would probably thaw and discard them. Almost half said they would donate them to science, including for use in stem cell research.


Donating to research appears to represent to many couples a kind of peaceful middle ground.

Human embryos are the primary source of stem cells, and the uptick in stem cell research has fostered a growing demand for donated embryos. Although such research destroys the embryos, the broader effort is aimed at curing disease. This goal resonates with couples who have endured reproductive health problems, says Lee Rubin Collins, co-chairwoman of Resolve's national advocacy committee. "Reproductive medicine is about creating life, not ending it," she says.

Angela and Dave Casella tried for three years to have a baby. Using in vitro fertilization, Angela Casella became pregnant with twins on two occasions but miscarried both times. Devastated, the Huntington Beach couple took a year to grieve and think about their options. They decided to adopt a child but still had to contend with a single embryo left in cryopreservation.

They chose to donate it to research.

"We felt maybe this was the embryo that was going to close the deal for science," Angela Casella, a Pilates instructor, says of the embryo. "Maybe she didn't grow up to be a scientist or a doctor or anything you would want for your child. But maybe she would still do some good for the world."

Other couples who want to donate to science find that researchers are not nearby, that their infertility clinic isn't associated with a research program and thus can't facilitate donations, or that their state prohibits research on embryos.

"There are tremendous obstacles to being able to donate to research," Collins says. "The research community hasn't caught up with the desire of many patients to contribute."


Infertility patients may support embryo use in research, but much of the nation appears to be more conflicted.

No federal funding is available for embryonic stem cell research, and only eight states -- including California -- fund such research within their borders. Last year, Bush vetoed a bill that would have allowed federal funding for new stem cell lines derived from fertility clinic embryos.

In a survey of 1,003 adults in the U.S. published in the spring issue of the New Atlantis, about half the respondents said destroying embryos is unethical because they're humans, but 41% -- some of the very same people -- said it was ethical to destroy human embryos in the course of research if the research can help people.

"People are not quite sure where this set of issues belongs," says Yuval Levin, bioethics director for the Ethics and Public Policy Center, an ecumenical think tank in Washington that publishes the New Atlantis. "To some it's an element of the abortion debate. For other people it has to do with science and medicine. We've never really thought through what the moral status of the embryo is."

That's beginning to happen. The proposed Colorado amendment states, "The term 'person' or 'persons' shall include any human from the time of fertilization." If it is passed, the courts would have to interpret the meaning of those words, says Kristi Burton, sponsor of the initiative and founder of Colorado for Equal Rights, which focuses on the rights of unborn children. The goal of the amendment, says Burton, a college student, "is to respect and protect all life."

Fertility advocates are skeptical that "personhood laws" wouldn't limit their choices for reproductive healthcare. In August, Resolve released a statement opposing the Colorado amendment.

"The motivation is abortion," says R. Alta Charo, a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "If the Supreme Court allows states to declare embryos as personhood, you would be in a position to say immediately that all abortions have to stop."

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