Originally published in the San Antonio Express-News, June 5, 2005
by SUsan Ives
On Tuesday, President Bush threatened to veto a House Bill which would overturn his 2001 policy that allows federal funding for research only on the 78 embryonic stem cell lines that already existed at the time. The bill would extend the cutoff date indefinitely by allowing federal funding for research on ‘left over’ embryos in fertility clinics.
The president warned, “this bill would take us across a critical ethical line, by creating new incentives for the ongoing destruction of emerging human life. Crossing this line would be a great mistake.”
Here’s how those embryos got left behind at the in vitro fertilization clinic.
A woman, who has undergone a course of hormone treatments to stimulate egg production, has her eggs harvested at one of the 400 or so IVF clinics in the U.S. As many as 12 -24 mature eggs, called oocytes, may be collected; unassisted; a woman normally produces one egg per monthly cycle. They are all fertilized by injecting them with sperm.
After 12-16 hours, the eggs are checked under a microscope to make sure that fertilization occurred. If all is well, three or four of the most robust are selected and implanted into the woman’s uterus. At this point they are about 36 hours old and consist of four cells and are the size of a pinprick. Then she waits 16 days for the results of a pregnancy test.
So what happens to the half dozen – sometimes as many as 20 – embryos that are left behind at the end of every fertility treatment?
At most clinics, the spares are deep-frozen in liquid nitrogen, a process called cryopreservation. The embryos have the water sucked out of them (which would burst the cells at sub-zero temperatures) and are plumped back up with antifreeze. They are frozen in straws, which resemble coffee stirrers. Two years ago, a study by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine reported that there were about 400,000 frozen embryos in storage in the United States.
If the original attempt fails to produce a pregnancy, then some embryos may be thawed and a second or even third implantation may be attempted.
Some embryos are destroyed, sometimes immediately, sometimes after the woman decides that her family is complete or that she does not want to undergo any more treatments. They are flushed down the drain, transferred to medical waste bin where they are later incinerated or perhaps exposed to the air and left to die naturally, which takes up to four days.
Some women give permission for their embryos to be used for research or training. About 9,000 of the embryos are available for “adoption” by other infertile women; at the end of 2003, 45 such babies were born to non-donor women.
These clumps of 4 cells have no brain, no central nervous system, no consciousness and no awareness of their environment. They are incapable of feeling pain.
Some have been in the deep freeze for almost 20 years. Most will remain there forever, or will be destroyed, or are already, unknown to anyone, dead or damaged. Each year, more frozen embryos, many of them unwanted and unneeded, stack up in freezers across the country.
I don’t get it. Why the outcry over a few thousand embryos, already marked for destruction, when tens of thousands are being destroyed every year without a peep of protest from Congress? Why the revulsion against using these doomed embryos for stem cell research that has the potential to save, prolong or improve more than 100 million American lives and not a whimper about hundreds of thousands of embryos that are destined to remain in the deep freeze until the next millennium?
Why do they see the speck in their neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the logs in their own eyes?
Well, maybe I do get it. It’s not about stem cell research; it’s not about abandoned embryos. It’s about abortion. If abortion opponents can win public acknowledgement that a four cell embryo floating in a glass tube is a “living, distinct human being,” to use Majority Leader Tom Delay’s words, how can abortion of an 8-week-old fetus be tolerated?
If we were to concede (which I do not) that these four-cell embryo are indeed fully human, perhaps their most noble destiny is to be used to further research that will save countless lives. Then, and only then, they will not have died in vain.