After I struggled to get pregnant for many years, my partner, Rob, and I finally had our daughter in August 2020, thanks to some alchemy of science and serendipity. We had gone into our in vitro fertilization experience wanting one child. But in those exhausting days after she was born — and in the many months since — the five leftover embryos from our I.V.F. cycle, frozen in liquid nitrogen, have called out to me.
I understand deep in my already tired bones that more children would mean more energy, more money and less time. But occasionally I also feel the tug to try for another baby. I find myself thinking that because we’re older parents — or, as the medical field calls me, “geriatric” — our daughter, Clementine, should have a sibling to share the joys and rough patches in life with, for that inevitable day when we’ll be gone.
Although we could discard or donate our embryos (to science or to another couple), each month when our $55 storage bill comes in, I pay it. I pay to store a collection of cells that we have no concrete plans to use because I can’t bear to let go of the possibility that those embryos represent: the possibility of a parallel universe where our lives would make sense with another baby. Knowing our embryos are out there has become a reminder that there are always chances for do-overs. But keeping our embryos frozen means they continue to exist in a limbo between life and whatever lies in the potential just before.
As much as my decision — or, really, my inability to make one — has haunted me, I am now doubly haunted that these choices could soon be taken out of my hands and the hands of other families around the country. With Roe v. Wade on the chopping block, there’s a growing push toward legislation that would ban abortion from the moment of fertilization or conception — legislation that could threaten not only abortion access but also access to some forms of birth control and even I.V.F. If a fertilized egg is considered a life, could discarding embryos someday be considered manslaughter? What about keeping them in a freezer indefinitely?
While anti-abortion activists don’t appear to be coming after I.V.F. intentionally, the fear is that in clamping down on abortion, state laws may hinder assisted reproductive technologies too. I.V.F. wasn’t an option for families until after Roe v. Wade was decided, so we’re entering uncharted waters. That is leaving experts concerned not only about the above questions but also about whether I.V.F. clinics would have to limit the number of embryos created, or even implant more embryos than they otherwise might have to reduce the number of leftovers. All of that could make I.V.F. more expensive and more difficult to access — adding a burden to an already burdensome process that is out of reach for so many American families.
Maybe it’s because I went through so much to have a child that I can’t let go of our embryos. I left a marriage with a man who didn’t want kids. Then I met Rob, and when we decided to start a family together we learned that none of my frozen eggs — the ones I believed were my insurance policy — were viable. Not long after, I underwent two rounds of I.V.F., during which my doctors had to surgically remove my eggs after pumping me with hormones for weeks, leaving my body and my mind bruised and battered.
I believe in science to my core, and I understand the difference between the potential of a child and an actual child. Still, after all that, tossing our embryos in the garbage just feels wrong.
“Your word ‘potential’ is really important,” said my infertility specialist, Isaac Sasson, when I called him to talk about my dilemma. “This is your cluster of cells that have the potential to be a child — if, like, a bazillion things actually work out properly.”
Dr. Sasson is right that a bazillion things would need to happen for those potential babies to become actual babies. But I can’t shake the feeling that so many things already had to happen for that particular collection of cells to end up frozen in Chesterbrook, Penn.
That location matters, by the way. Pennsylvania is a deep purple state with complicated abortion politics. Recently, anti-abortion lawmakers there have been considering a state constitutional amendment that, if approved by voters, could ban abortion and threaten I.V.F. procedures in the state. If that amendment were to pass, the decision about what to do with our embryos could be made for us.
There’s a part of me that feels a twinge of relief at the idea of someone else making this decision for me; at least then I could stop the pendulum swing of indecision. But there’s a much larger part of me that feels enraged that the state would get to decide something tied to how I identify as a person, and how we identify as a family.
Rob and I have discussed moving our embryos to New York, long considered a haven for abortion rights. But that could be pricey and logistically complicated — and clearly, being decisive about our embryos is not our strong suit. So for now we are waiting and seeing.
“For the next year or so, people will need to make decisions in an ambiguous environment,” Sean B. Tipton of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine said when we spoke recently. “It’s a very uncomfortable place to be for everybody concerned.”
Eventually, what’s permitted in terms of moving, storing or discarding embryos could depend on which state you live in or where your embryos are stored. Each state effectively will be left to decide when life begins — something that is not medically definable. “I joke with my patients and say, ‘I missed the day in medical school when they taught us about when life begins,’” Dr. Sasson told me. “Is it at implantation? Is it just when sperm meets an egg? No one knows.”
No one knows — not my doctor, not a state lawmaker and certainly not me.
Sometimes I imagine our frozen embryos like the soldiers in “The Nutcracker” — an inert stack of toys that, if Rob and I were to wave our magic wands, would suddenly open their eyes, their rickety bodies jerking to and fro. That fantasy obscures a more complicated reality. But it also gets at something that is so precious to me: For now, we still get to decide whether our embryos will have the chance to become children someday, stretching out their limbs to come alive in our arms.
Ruthie Ackerman is the founder and chief writing coach at the Ignite Writers Collective and is working on a memoir.
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