Ambivalence: in which I pay $270 a year to avoid making a decision about our leftover embryos

Updated Oct 12 2015
Guest post by allison jayne
By: Nina MatthewsCC BY 2.0
Generally speaking, I like to think I'm one of those people who can see all sides of debates. I see the shades of grey (pardon the unintended pop culture reference); I'm diplomatic. My wife might describe this tendency as "annoying" and "indecisive." Abortion, however, is one of those few black and white areas for me. I fully and completely support the right to choose, and believe that abortion should be safe and legal. This isn't a story about abortion, but trust me, this is relevant.

Even when pregnant, with a very much-intended pregnancy requiring thousands of dollars and daily drug injections, I referred to the being I was gestating, now known as my daughter, as the fetus. Although I was blessed with a relatively comfortable, easy pregnancy, being pregnant solidified my pro-choice stance even more — no one should have to go through any of that if they don't want to.

And yet, once a year I get a letter in the mail, and I think about three microscopic 6-cell embryos and picture them as tiny little versions of my beautiful daughter.

The aforementioned pregnancy with the thousands of dollars and drugs started in a lab, with the creation of five embryos, made from donor sperm and eggs collected from my wonderful wife. Two embryos had 8-cells (the ideal), and were squirted into my uterus, and one of those grew and grew and was born a day before her due date but the day after the Pixies show we had tickets for (thanks kid! It was a good show!). The remaining three were put in the deep freeze in case the first try didn't work. And there they remain. Three embryos, conceived the same day as my daughter, frozen in time.

Every year, the clinic mails us a letter, giving my wife and me four options, along with the necessary forms for each. The first option is to destroy the embryos. Seriously, that's the term they use. Destroy. I'm not entirely sure what that process looks like but I have to imagine it involves lasers.

The second option is to donate them to research. The letter assures us that no pregnancies or pod people would result from any of the research, which is comforting, I guess. The third option is to donate them to another patient at the clinic. As in, someone else would have them transferred into their uterus, and if they were successful, they'd be the proud parent of my daughter's full sibling(s). As the paperwork (and required counseling) indicates, it's basically adoption, except that the actual existence of the child isn't guaranteed. One can even opt for open embryo donation!

Then there's the fourth option. The $270 annual storage fee to keep the tiny possibilities in deep-freeze. It's the option that doesn't require my wife and I to actually make a decision — the option of ambivalence. It's the one we chose when we got the paperwork for the first time a few months after our kid was born, because we were both still in newborn haze and figuring out what to make for dinner was monumental enough at the time. It's the decision we made again this year, because the other options just don't feel right… yet?

pro-life

Donating the embryos to research or to another patient are both noble options. For some reason though, the thought of research being done on those embryos scares me. Despite everything I know and feel about biology, they've become maybe-babies in my mind. The decision to donate them to research or have them destroyed is essentially the same; since the research won't result in any pregnancies, eventually the embryos would be destroyed anyway. The maybe-babies, potential full-siblings of my kid, destroyed, possibly (but probably not) with lasers.

Donating them to another patient would be wonderful in so many ways, but just doesn't feel right to me either. That feels like a decision I'd want us to make together with our daughter, as it could mean she would have a full sibling (or three) living in the same city as us. That's pretty huge. How will my daughter feel about her sibling popsicles? We have this really amazing book about how babies are made that totally works for our daughter's conception, and I look forward to all the questions I can imagine her asking someday. Should we tell her about the embryos when she's old enough to understand? If we decide to have them destroyed, will she be angry?

Complicating all of this as well is the not-even-remotely-minor issue that my wife wants another child and I do not. I'm not even sure I would want to use these particular maybe-babies if I ever change my mind on that. If we did have another go at it, I think I'd want to give my own genes a try.

So we put it off. We postpone the decision indefinitely. We dutifully write our cheque every year, and might as well write "here you go fertility clinic, here's another couple hundred bucks because we cannot make up our damned minds" in the memo.

  1. I'm right there with you. I've got about a dozen vials of frozen sperm in storage at our sperm bank. As it turns out, both my wife and I are ridiculously fertile and now that we have two kids, there sits the sperm. We could donate it back to the bank for other families to make more donor siblings, or we could somehow change our mind and have have a litter of kids ourselves. Decisions, decisions.

  2. Omg I could have written this almost word for word. Down to the fact that I call my 4 embryos "Popsicle siblings." I had a total hysterectomy a few months after my daughter was born. Even though I would like another child, my single mom by choice teacher's salary will probably never allow for enough spare change to pay for a surrogate. But even though I am a pro choice flaming liberal , I can't bring myself to destroy my daughter's full siblings either. In fact, I just got my $500 bill in the mail yesterday. I like to think I will consider my options, but inevitably I will put it off as well. Forever. Probably long enough for my daughter to give birth to her own siblings haha.

    • I think the key thing to pro-choice is just that, you get to choose. Whatever that choice is or will be or might be gets to be up to you 🙂

  3. option 5: have more kids.
    is that off the table?

    we are struggling with decisions about frozen sperm storage now too. not the same as a frozen embryo, but still weighty.

    • I don't want more kids. My wife does, so I think that's part of the reason for her ambivalence about it. It's really, really hard when one partner wants more kids and the other doesn't. But that's a whole other post I guess.

  4. I can't speak personally, but I can tell you about my friends who did embryo adoption. One of my law school friends lost her ovaries to cancer (her cancer largely decimated her egg cells, so she could not preserve her own eggs. They took the ovaries and tubes, but left the uterus functional. She and her husband initially looked at adopting a child but she liked the idea of embryos because, to be honest, she wanted the experience of pregnancy (embryo donations can also be done via surrogate too). They loved the experience – she always said that her son became hers when she birthed him and that his "donated" status didn't mean much.

    It's your decision. I think, though, it might help for WHO you're feeling this ambivalance. Is it for you (if you might want to utilize those embryos in the future?) Is it for your wife (if she might want to utilize them?) Is it for your daughter (who you think might have a right to know any siblings she might have in the future?) I think honesty is the best policy here. If you'd feel weird about donating them and your daughter's potential siblings being out there, could open donation assauge those fears so that your daughter could know them? How would it make your wife feel? In situations like this, the only viable way out is to talk through it. It's okay, though, to be indecisive NOW. Life circumstances change and plans can change with them. A couple that wants a another child today might not a year from now. So I'd really say that right now, you ARE making a decision – you're choosing to retain all your options. And that's okay. Obviously, there will come a point where you will have to make some decision, but if that's not today, that's okay. But when the time comes, it'll be a decision that you and your wife (and your daughter to the extent you wish to involve her) will make. But I wouldn't worry about it being a decision that you have to make today.

  5. "Although I was blessed with a relatively comfortable, easy pregnancy, being pregnant solidified my pro-choice stance even more — no one should have to go through any of that if they don't want to. "

    I don't have anything to add to the frozen embryo side of the discussion, but I just wanted to say that I feel the exact same way about my pro-choice stance since getting pregnant, thanks for putting it into words for me!

    • yeah no kidding. i had a relatively easy pregnancy physically, but mentally it was difficult because it was unplanned. i chose to take my pregnancy to term and raise my daughter, but i can't imagine going through all that without wanting to.

      and most of the politicians trying to legislate womens bodies will never ever (unless we have some major scientific breakthrough in the next 40 years) become pregnant…

  6. We've been on a waiting list for close to a year, and will likely have to wait another year to get a chance at a Popsicle sibling someone at my clinic has been generous enough to donate.

    My husband and I have one child that was literally conceived on the first try a few years ago and it didn't even occur to us that after 18 months I would be utterly infertile; almost no eggs left, and the few that were there aren't good. Save for a train wreck of a partial molar pregnancy last year (Google it if you dare), we've had little hope of conceiving naturally.

    My womb is good though and my one successful pregnancy was uncomplicated. IVF is too unlikely with my condition and obviously quite expensive (over $20k out of pocket), and egg donors are twice the cost of IVF, so embryo adoption is our best bet–a great bet, in fact.

    We got pretty excited about it, but when we did a little research, it looked like the bulk of "donated" embryos are to Christian organizations that treat them as if they are fully formed children. Home inspections, declining single parents and same-sex couples, forcing folks to fly cross-country for frozen embryo transfers, morality questionnaires, etc. So our only hope is to wait and wait and wait for the ever growing list with the ever-ambivalent parents to decide whether or not to release their frozen embryos to eagerly waiting couples.

    I have a friend who was given frozen embryos by a coworker when she was put in a position where she could not conceive a second kid. It worked and she carried the child to term. Both families keep in close touch despite living 2 states apart and they even go on vacations together. The kids treat one another as cousins even though they're biologically full sisters. It's truly inspirational to witness.

    I totally understand the ambivalence, but I wonder if you knew the stories and the loving homes these potential kids could be born into, maybe the decision would be easier.

    • Oh, honey, you MUST check out http://www.miracleswaiting.org if you haven't already! It's like OkCupid for people who have embryos to meet people who want them. I'm an attorney and I did my first embryo transfer contract for two lovely couples who met on the site – I have baby pictures of the beautiful twins they all made in an album with all my other "contract kids."

      • I just have to say, when I hear any stories like this it makes me so happy that the internet exists to easily facilitate awesome things like this.

  7. Another thing to consider: the baby you would create, or your wife would create, or the woman to whom you donated would create are all different human beings. Yes, genetically this would be your daughter's full sibling, but pregnant women are not just vessels. The in-utero environment has an effect on a developing fetus. The genetic material provides a blueprint; the pregnant woman builds a baby. Akin to adoption, yes, but not exactly the same. Just as choosing not to provide the environment for these embryos to develop is not the same as abortion.

    • This is definitely true. I carried my daughter, even though she is not genetically mine, and I know we have a special bond because of that.

  8. I am a single mother by choice and in NYC is cost $250/3 months (!!!??) to keep my lone embryo and 1 precious vial of sperm on ice. I have one amazing daughter and am paying through the nose to keep the fantasy of a second alive. At 42 on a freelancer's salary it seems like a it will always remain a fantasy but I vow to keep my options open for a couple more years.

  9. Just to jump into the embryo adoption end of things – we are currently 11weeks2days pregnant with our first, and most likely only, child through surrogacy (my BFF) and embryo adoption. As a lesbian couple our choices for 'adopting' embryos from an agency were pretty sparse – and often the donating parents won't allow the totsicles to be used for surrogacy so there's yet another limit placed on the whole process not to mention the high cost of agency embryos and sometimes you're required to have an adoptive homestudy! – so we consider ourselves extremely lucky that we had not one but TWO families donate to our cause. We connected with our donating families through our surrogacy messageboard. First family simply posted about how he was thinking of donating but didn't know how to go about it. Second family heard about us because our three cycles from the first batch of totsicles didn't take and they wanted us to continue our journey. Six years of failed adoptions and 3 years of failed surrogacy cycles – Without these amazing people we wouldn't FINALLY be where we are today.
    Ironically in 6 months we will most likely be in the same exact predicament – one remaining straw of embies and do we donate (with the permission of our 2nd family since there is a genetic connection) or keep it on ice in case we win the lottery or something and can afford another journey (and my partner changes her mind and wants another one before we reach retirement).

  10. Thank you for talking about this. It is my greatest fear and worry and sadness right now. We have a few frozen ones. I want more kids, he doesn't. It would tear me apart to give them away because *I* want to have them. It's illogical, but I think of them as seed versions of my little baby, just waiting for me to come back for them. It's really upsetting. I don't know how to mentally deal with it. It's different if we were just trying to have a baby naturally, come what may or may not. For me, it's three little opportunities just lying in wait for me.
    Does anyone know how I can mentally deal and reframe this situation so that it doesn't break my heart to think about it and what will inevitably happen in the future?

  11. Just wanted to let you know that I posted a link to this post on the What Makes A Baby Facebook page, and he shared it with the whole page. 🙂

  12. So I want to jump in and ask a question. I don't ever want kids like ever ever. That been said I would love if my eggs could help someone have a child. I have seens sperm donation but I have never really seem anything about eggs. Anyone have any experience with this and could give some guidance?

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