June 2, 2005

Snowflake babies and Nobel sperm.

Two articles in today's NYT caught my eye.

There's this front-page article about "snowflake babies," grown from embryos produced by fertility clinics:
People on this part of the political spectrum have begun calling the process "embryo adoption," echoing the phrase that Snowflakes uses instead of "embryo donation." The Health and Human Services Department has termed the process embryo adoption in certain grants. Bills that would formally call it "embryo adoption" have begun to filter into statehouses in California, New Jersey and Massachusetts, states that, not coincidentally, are at the forefront of legalizing and encouraging embryonic stem cell research.

The adoption terminology irritates the fertility industry, abortion rights advocates and supporters of embryonic stem cell research, who believe that the language suggests - erroneously, they maintain - that an embryo has the same status as a child.

But for some conservative Christians, that is precisely the point.

The children are sometimes dressed in T-shirts that say "snowflake baby" and used in political displays.

The second article is a review of a book about "the rise and fall of the Repository for Germinal Choice, the sperm bank that opened in 1980 and purported to offer top-echelon sperm -'dazzling, backflipping, 175 IQ sperm' - courtesy of Nobel Prize winners." The "genetically ambitious" pregnancy-seeking clients of this place were quite different from the embryo-adopters.

So, what do you think? Is it good or bad for women to use their capacity to produce children in either of these ways? At least in the case of a woman who needs to employ modern technology to become pregnant, what is wrong with acting out your religious beliefs by adopting an embryo that would otherwise be destroyed or experimented upon, and what is wrong with seeking out the best possible sperm? Do we worry that the child will be mistreated, that the parents will think of their child in the wrong way? Do we worry that the women in question will have the wrong religious beliefs or the wrong ideas about what good sperm is?

UPDATE: I'm thinking that there are a lot of people who believe in "choice" when it comes to abortion rights who don't really endorse choice when the woman produces a child, because this woman exercising choice then has a real child under her control, and we may worry about the consequences. If you have that split view of choice, you reveal your mistrust in women. Then there's the split view of the other way: you oppose abortion but you approve of broad autonomy in letting women use various methodologies of reproduction and in acting out their religious, political, social, and intellectual goals through their children.


leeontheroad said...

dont' actually have trouble with folks choosing to make POC (products of conception) available for adoption. I do think the "push" for this by certain religo-political groups is intended to grant some status for embryos, but so what? Plenty of peopel would like to adopt children-- especially infants who haven't been institutionalized. So if the producers of the embryo want to "checkmark" that option, it's ok with me.

But this is no more a "solution" to a perceived problem than many other politically useful campaigns. The fact is that many, not all and perhaps not the majority, but many folks who'd be in the "market" (yes, awful cold term) of "adopting" an embryo still could not themselves bring the embryo to term as a live child birth. I don't know that enough is known about fertility for folsk to know in advance whom they would be.

Still, there's another issue to me. If it is "adoption," perhaps there should be the same adotpion process as others go through-- home study, child abuse registry and criminal checks and all that. That might further the embyo=child argument; but it would regulate what could otherwise become a child-selling industry rooted in nothign to do with the interests of science or families or children.

Daddy Warbucks said...

How about the fact that the President is endorsing the religious discrimination by promoting this group?

From the NYT story:

"Couples adopting or donating Snowflakes embryos are mostly Christian, and most embryo donors are white, Ms. Maze said. Some families are Roman Catholic, even though the church has historically opposed in vitro fertilization."

"Couples must agree to adoption-like procedures: receiving families are screened and must undergo counseling, and Snowflakes allows donating and receiving families to designate criteria for each other, meet and maintain contact after birth. Adopting couples must agree not to abort any embryos."

"Those conditions were fine with Bob and Angie Deacon of Virginia Beach, Va., who donated their 13 embryos after having twins and being discouraged from another pregnancy by a doctor. "With another program, to be honest with you, they could have been adopted by lesbian parents, and I'm totally against that," said Mr. Deacon, 35."

"It took two and a half years to bring themselves to fill out the papers. On their forms, they said the adopting family must be conservative Christians and, ideally, include a stay-at-home mother."

You have to wonder if the family is conservative "Christian" and black, whether they'd be able to adopt a white embryo from this group?

mcg said...

The fact is that many, not all and perhaps not the majority, but many folks who'd be in the "market" (yes, awful cold term) of "adopting" an embryo still could not themselves bring the embryo to term as a live child birth.

At first glance this sounds contradictory to me. If someone is not capable of bringing an embryo to full term, then they are not in the market to adopt one in the first place, are they?

I don't know that enough is known about fertility for folsk to know in advance whom they would be.

But reading this sentence I think I may understand where you're coming from. There are indeed some women whose fertility problems stem from difficulty in implantation due to their uterine lining. For similar reasons, some have a higher miscarriage risk. And there are some women for whom their fertility issues are unexplained.

However, there is in fact a pretty well-defined group of women---women whose own eggs have aged genetically, but who otherwise have healthy reproductive organs---who would be quite reasonable candidates for embryo adoption. These are the same women today who consider donor eggs, in fact. Fertility specialists (including one that I personally have worked with) will tell you that many women have difficulty conceiving with their own eggs but conceive rather quickly with donor eggs.

Similarly, there are women who are carriers genetic defects that they would not wish to pass onto their children; but whom, barring that, would be perfectly capable of bearing children.

So I think there really is a sizeable "market" for donated embryos.

leeontheroad said...

"At first glance this sounds contradictory to me. If someone is not capable of bringing an embryo to full term, then they are not in the market to adopt one in the first place, are they?"

My point is that some to many folks trying to adopt have been through fertility treatments and aren't able to bring the fetus/a child to term. It's not a judgment; it's an observation.

This market isn't offering for adotpion actual children; it's offering frozen embryos for implantation.

Michael said...

What religion is Bush or this agency discriminating against?

leeontheroad said...

So, in essence, I'm a bit objecting to the term "adoption," which I think is more a marketing ploy than an accurate description of the process.

In many states, frozen embryos are *legally* at present not a ward of the state (as are kids in foster care or kids just before a birth mother places through private adoption). Instead, the embyos are the property of the folks of whose DNA they are comprised.

It's a tricky thing and wrapping it up in the fuzzy warm blanket of adoption is I think potentially misleading to the public.

Again, I don't think that inherently makes the idea or the practice "bad." It's just that folks in fertility treatment and seeking adoption often have so much heartbreak, making this matter part of a political publicity campaign worries me.

mcg said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
mcg said...

You have to wonder if the family is conservative "Christian" and black, whether they'd be able to adopt a white embryo from this group?

You might have to "wonder", but I don't. Perhaps that's because I actually know conservative Christians of both races and how they treat each other.

Then again, given your use of quotation marks around the word "Christian", perhaps you think we should use them around the words "black" and "white", too, just in case they don't fit your idea of who they ought to be.

Murky Thoughts said...

You don't have to "trust" women to support their right to abort their own pregnancy. It's at least in part a matter of sovereignity.

cfw said...

Seems like the law should at some point step in and say that an embryo buyer takes the embryo as a sort of guardian (akin to a pet owner as a guardian of a pet dog).

There are some things the state should not allow with an embryo (eg cloning for wrong reasons), just as there are some things a pet guardian cannot do with a pet animal (such as abuse).

I have a hard time seeing how a person opposed to abortion can support embryo donation or adoption. What principled line of distinction does one draw?

If an embryo equals a person, how does buying or selling embryos differ from transactions in "human chattels" in the slavery era?

I'm not sure how one can say it is ok if no money changes hands (but Christian credentials and a stay at home mom, giving the donor warm, fuzzy feelings), but not ok if there is actual money involved.

If one became pregnant and had 13 kids hoping and expecting that 12 would be adopted, would that be alright? If not, why does it become alright if we move back into the womb, unless we treat embryos as a life form akin to a beloved pet (meaning somewhat sub-human)?

If we call embryos humans, decent respect for their feelings would preclude one from becoming pregnant and having 13 embryos hoping and expecting that 12 would be adopted. Wouldn't it?

mcg said...

cfw you've articulated a pretty good slippery slope argument here. For unused embryos that are already being created, it seems to me to be consistent with a pro-life position to encourage their adoption as opposed to their destruction. But how do we set this up in a way that prevents a new market for embryos created specifically for adoption?

One option is to outlaw the creation of excess embryos in the first place. With today's modern technology (e.g., ICSI) it is quite feasible to precisely control the number of embryos produced in any given IVF cycle. It would make the procedure about 10% more expensive, I believe---but IVF is not an option for the weak of wallet anyway. So IVF would not be significantly compromised, and embryo adoption could still take place for any embryos created before this law was in place.

The Catholic Church is supposedly going to weigh in on the issue soon, and is expected to come out against embryo adoption---the reason being that participating in the adoption would in effect make one complicit to the artificial reproductive practices that preceded it (which are also condemned by the Church). But of course I'm hardly present at the deliberations (I'm not even Catholic) so I can't say for sure what the details will be.

mcg said...

You don't have to "trust" women to support their right to abort their own pregnancy. It's at least in part a matter of sovereignity.

Murkythoughts, I think this is the case no matter which position you take on abortion. If abortion is murder, then it's not a matter of trust any more than "normal" murder is. If it's not, then it's a medical procedure subject to the same level of privacy due any OB/GYN proceddure.

mcg said...

I should correct myself. My proposal above would raise the cost of IVF by more than 10%. For a single cycle, ICSI adds about 10% to the cost. But one reason to produce excess embryos is so that you don't have to retrieve them every cycle. So you can create a bunch and then implant them over several cycles until you get pregnant.

Bruce Hayden said...

Well, if the metric for evolutionary or genetic success is the number of offspring you ultimately leave, then this makes a lot of sense.

However, before I would invest (and as a single male, this is infeasible), I would look into why the POC / embryo is spare in the first place. After all, there is almost always a reason for their existance, and it usually has to do with some reproductive problems with the sperm and/or egg donors.

Thus, if these are genetic problems, you would be, in essence, bequeathing them to your children. So, if the reason is, for example, low sperm count, then a son born from this is probably significantly more likely to have this same problem.

In other words, you would be propogating bad genes.

Ann Althouse said...

A reader emails:

My wife and I have been through two (unsuccessful) transfer cycles with 'snowflake' embryos we adopted. Ironically the adoption agreement is actually a contract for transfer of PROPERTY ( since it is such an unclearly developed area of the law) but the concept does offer the possibility of pregnancy, birth, and nursing that more traditional adoptions do not. The cost of embryo adoptions is also typically less than half that of conventional adoption and much less than foreign adoption. This is offset by the risk that no pregnancy will result. In our case a miscarriage at three months was especially wrenching. The baby would have been born this week.

Typically one half of frozen embryos do not make it through the thaw process, and of those transferred to the womb something like 20% actually result in a pregnancy. Tolerable, but unimpressive, odds. Those who believe that such adoptions will somehow save the10,000 or so (out of 400,000) "surplus" embryos currently stored at -320 degrees F are probably fooling themselves -- even at ten times the current adoption rate the vast majority of embryos currently in storage will deteriorate irretrievably before they have any chance at transplanting. More are being created all the time, but at a much lower rate than in previous years because IVF practitioners are not generating so many embryos per recovery. Those numbers are unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

Those who believe that somehow these surplus embryos will all make a contribution to science are also probably fooling themselves and don't really understand the science involved. There are only so many 'lines' of stem cells, or lab mice, or fermentation microbes that can be maintained. Embryonic stem cell research is no more the answer to the surplus embryo question than is embryo adoption. In the end I would expect the number of such lines to remain at about the same order of magnitude as the number of 'snowflake' babies.

Consequently I think it's time to bring a bit more reason to both sides of this discussion. First, nearly all the research progress to date has been with /umbilical/ stem cells. The Bush administration has very substantially increased funding for this research. Second, the administration has not banned embryonic stem cell research -- it has simply said it chooses not to spend federal money to support it. Every administration makes such choices about all sorts of research, and for that matter art and sports as well. Many states and private concerns are, however, currently funding embryonic stem cell research and to date the results are most generously described as 'mixed.' It is not likely to become the panacea it proponents claim. Nor for that matter is 'snowflake' adoption.

There is also a long tradition by which government may reasonably expect the sacrifice of human (and other) life in the service of some greater good, and herein may ultimately lie the most reasonable denouement of a highly emotional issue. In essence, once it becomes clear that other stem cell research efforts have come up dry, conscript these tiny children. In the interim, current policy of not funding such research, yet not banning it, seems fairly reasonable in the circumstances.

Believe me, those of us involved in 'snowflake' adoption did not undertake the effort and expense in order to make some political or religious point. It has been--and remains--far more personal than that, though the experience has certainly carried us to the nexus of perhaps the most thorny, complex and emotional issue of the 'culture war.' Some enjoy being there, some do not, but no one can deny that it has made a profound difference to both the parents and (especially) the children so deeply affected by that particular journey.

vnjagvet said...


Thanks for posting the email. That was one of the best summaries of the situation I have read. The writer clearly has considered the issues surrounding this subject rationally yet with the care and serious purpose it warrants.

This blog site is a haven for sanity. Thanks for keeping it going.

SteveR said...

The email is very strong proof that there is a very resonable and largely private center to this issue. I think if you do not wabt embyonic stem cell research to take place you should be against IVF period, since you are creatng "life" in an unnatural fashion that will have a great likelihood of not surviving. On the other hand you should not advocate creating embryos for the primary purpose of scientific experimentation.

mcg said...

Actually, stever, that email is a good argument against the freezing process, but freezing does not need to be a part of IVF. And even though only a fraction of embryos become full-term pregnancies without freezing, it is not clear that that fraction is any better or worse than if those same embryos were fertilized in utero.

Slac said...

I echo what Jim said.

Also, the hypocritical rhetoric of "choice" irritates me to no end. Thank you for mentioning it in your edit, Ann.

If I may add, the "choice of the embryo" is rarely considered, even if it is as rudimentary as whether or not to multiply cells. (Hear me out on this).

I am not automatically assuming that embryos have the choice to miscarriage, but given the complex and often unpredictable behavior of cellular life, I would not assume that they didn't.

Putting that statement in real-life context, I know a woman who practices a new age sort of spiritualism. After becoming pregnant, she lit candles and incense, and in a small quiet ritual prayed to the soul of the zygote, saying that its presence was neither desired nor welcome. Within days she had a miscarriage. It may be coincidence, or her intense feelings might have triggered a hormonal response that stopped the gestation process, but who knows for certain? Why just assume that because a life process is small and lacks a fully developed brain it lacks choice?

purple_kangaroo said...

I'm a bit confused . . . the article mentioned that most people using the Snowflakes program are white and Christian. But is that because the program restricts service to primarily that group, or just because more white Christians than other groups tend to use the program? That seems an important distinction to me.

If they only allow white Christians or only recruit white Christians to use the program, that might be a problem. But I'm not sure what they can do about it if it's just that not many people from other groups choose to use the program.

Also, the argument over the terms donation and adoption doesn't quite make sense to me. Couldn't it be donation on the giving end and something other than donation (perhaps adoption) on the receiving end? I'm not seeing what would be offensive about either term, really.

It seems that in a successful procedure you might need a term other than donation. This would seem relevant in a situation similar to an open adoption where a child has "genetic" parents (for lack of a better term) and then the parents they live with, and interact with both.

What terms would you use to explain that to the resulting child?