Frozen generation

Science | Half a million embryos wait in a cryogenic limbo whose parameters few doctors, theologians, or parents can define

Issue: "Malaria: Kill or be killed," Oct. 29, 2005

Matt and Andrea Thomas spotted each other walking across campus at Texas A&M University, struck up a conversation, and fell in love. They married after graduation and found jobs in Austin, Texas-Matt as an engineer and Andrea as a teacher. Having children seemed like the next step in their lives together.

The next step turned out to be a six-year journey, the first two of which they spent trying to conceive a child naturally. Not long after their first visit to a fertility doctor, they found out that a specialized form of in vitro fertilization was the only procedure that would give them a chance to conceive. Their options were clear, but their decision was painstaking.

Over the next four years, the Thomases enlisted the prayer and counsel of what seemed like everyone they knew. Their pastor at All Saints Presbyterian Church prayed for them from the pulpit. Sunday school children would pass by Mrs. Thomas at church and say, "I'm praying for God to give you a baby."

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What the Thomases really needed was wisdom. In the spring of 2000, they went to meet with the elders of their church. Sitting with the elders around a large conference table in an office building in downtown Austin, Mr. Thomas opened his heart.

"I have a desire, and I think it's a godly one, to see a daughter who has my wife's bright blue eyes," Mr. Thomas explained to the elders, who agreed his desire was godly. But the Thomases also desired to pursue God's will in every detail of the IVF procedure, one aspect of which made them uncomfortable. The Thomases' doctor recommended that he fertilize as many as 20 of Mrs. Thomas' eggs, place a few in her uterus, then cryogenically freeze the rest for later use, in case the first attempt failed. The chances the embryos would survive the thawing process were as low as 50 percent.

"It's just a little weird to think about freezing your children and thawing them out," Mr. Thomas said. He and his wife decided they would only fertilize as many eggs as they were willing to implant immediately. They fertilized five eggs. Three of them developed into embryos, and two of them thrived in Mrs. Thomas' uterus. Emma and Jacob Thomas were born Feb. 2, 2001.

The Thomases' decision not to fertilize extra embryos went against what had been the accepted practice of IVF clinics for 15 years. In 2002, a survey by the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology estimated that 400,000 embryos remained frozen in IVF clinics across the country. Frozen eggs in the United States far outnumber those in other countries such as Australia and New Zealand, which had about 71,200 combined in 2000. Great Britain estimated in 1996 that it had 52,000 eggs in frozen storage.

Unlike the Thomases, many U.S. doctors, politicians, parents, and Protestant clergy members never thought twice about the practice of embryo freezing-until 1998. That year, Dr. James Thomson at the University of Wisconsin announced he had harvested the first embryonic stem cells from "leftover" IVF embryos. Scientists predicted embryonic stem-cell research would lead to miraculous cures for diseases, thanks to the parents who had donated their test-tube babies' frozen siblings to science.

As news of the new embryonic science spread, pro-life activists protested. In 2001, pro-lifers won a major victory when President Bush put a moratorium on any further embryo destruction by researchers who receive federal funding. Since then, the pro-life movement's defense of frozen embryos has weakened as members of its ranks struggled with the futility of saving 400,000 frozen children. A bill to ease Mr. Bush's restrictions on embryo destruction pulled 50 Republican votes when it passed in the House of Representatives this summer. More recently, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who traditionally votes pro-life, lent his support to the bill. For Mr. Frist and others, the attraction of embryonic stem-cell research is that it answers a question that has stymied evangelicals for over a decade: If parents don't want their own frozen embryos, and scientists can't have them, what is to be done with them?

In 1978, the world's first test-tube baby, Louise Brown, was born in Oldham, England. Since then, most countries have established regulations governing assisted reproductive technology (ART). ART includes IVF, the most common of several fertility treatments that involve doctors handling eggs and sperm. Whether liberal or conservative, most countries have laws stating who can undergo in vitro fertilization, how it should be performed, and what happens to unused embryos.


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