It took less than five minutes to place the embryo in my uterus. Wearing a paper gown and cap, I was led by a nurse to a surgical suite, where I placed my legs in stirrups. I assumed the position, and a second nurse confirmed my identity while someone else inserted a catheter through my cervix. Then a doctor—and this is the term he used—"squirted" a roughly 0.1 millimeter bundle of cells into me. After six months of infertility treatment, I was prepared to have some emotional reaction, but it felt more like I was being prepared for a covert science experiment than a much-hoped-for pregnancy.
Then came the photo. As I was wheeled out of the operating room, someone handed me a heavily magnified shot of the embryo printed on glossy paper. I let out the kind of unruly laugh that has no place in a hospital. The seriousness of the moment had been punctured by the arrival of what felt like a souvenir, the kind shilled by amusement parks after a ride on their tallest roller coaster. Visually, it wasn’t much to see: a gray, scaly moon blown up to the size of an Oreo. Still, it was my Oreo moon. I put the picture in the corner of my bedroom mirror and gazed at it while my husband gave me the nightly progesterone shot to help my “maybe baby” survive the precious days after in vitro fertilization. A few weeks later, after I miscarried, I tucked the photo in a drawer where I knew it would get lost but not destroyed.
Four months passed, and it was time to do it all over again. Hair in cap, legs in stirrups, squirt. Afterward I tossed the photo of embryo number two in with the post-op paperwork, uninterested in contemplating its potential. Today I have all the evidence I need in the form of a sturdy one-year-old boy named Levi. But Levi’s very first photo? Yeah, I don’t know where that went.
These are some ambivalent feelings, I know. But the five-day-old embryos often used in IVF can do this to a person. They’re tiny, smaller than a grain of sand, and they give rise to some big emotions and bigger questions. What, really, was I holding a picture of? A person? A speck on a page? A chemistry experiment that could be destined to fail? Forty years after IVF became an option, we’re only beginning to figure that out. “Medically, we know what an embryo is. But what kind of moral and legal status does it have? There isn’t much agreement about that,” says Lisa Campo-Engelstein, Ph.D., an associate professor of bioethics at Albany Medical College in New York, !-- react-text: 105 --">. “Are they persons, property, or something in between?”
Even with all the controversy, more and more are using frozen embryos to help build their families: IVF rates continue to rise and cases of donation went from 621 cycles in 2004 to 1,179 cycles in 2014.
And what if your own answer to that question changes? Or your partner disagrees? Ruth Whippman, a 44-year-old author based in northern California, conceived her second son, Zeph, through IVF. At first she rarely thought about the four extra embryos she and her husband kept in the freezer following his birth. But then, about a year later, Whippman found herself sentimentalizing her frozen embryos, or “frosties,” as they’re sometimes referred to on infertility discussion boards.
There are currently !-- react-text: 116 --">, a source of both hope and stress for potential parents around the country. Research shows that figuring out what to do with unused embryos is a difficult and contentious process: A University of California, San Francisco, study found that one third of people keep their embryos on ice because !-- react-text: 119 --">. Sometimes this is the result of ambivalence; other times it’s because of a disagreement between a couple. “It crept up on me that their genetic material had already been set—whether they had curly hair, were male or female,” Whippman says of her own embryos. “It felt like, These are my kids, and they are in the freezer. As if they didn’t have their coat on and were cold.” Her husband, Neil, a software product manager, felt little connection to what he calls his “AmEx points,” a reference to the monthly $45 storage fees they paid with their credit card. (Even if clients stop paying those fees, few facilities will dispose of them out of fear of getting sued down the line.)
While Whippman always thought about having three kids, it was the existence of the extra embryos that turned this hazy longing into an undeniable need. She and Neil decided to give their embryos a shot. Two were deemed viable to try, and the second one stuck. Now they are parents to three sons, two of whom were fertilized at the same time—fraternal twins born four years apart. Whippman describes herself as “100 percent pro-choice” and sees no conflict between her feelings about her embryos and a woman’s right to abort them. “These are my emotions for me to deal with about my embryos. That is what choice means,” she says. “The embryos meant totally different things to me and to my husband. To him, they were as close to nothing as you can possibly get. To me, they were as close to everything as you can possibly get.”