Ruth Whippman has four embryo frozen in storage four ready-made children suspended in time. The longer they are left, the more one thought gnaws at her
San Ramon is a forgettable commuter-belt city in northern California. Theres a Chipotle Mexican Grill, a handful of nail salons and the corporate offices of AT& T. But most notably, at the least for me, it is the locating of a large industrial freezer containing our four potential children.
Three years ago, my husband and I went through three rounds of in vitro fertilisation( IVF) to conceive our second son, Zeph. We already had one boy, Solly, built easily the old-fashioned style. After Sollys first birthday, we had moved from London to the US and assumed that a sibling would follow soon after. But as we were adjusting to our new life in California, my ovaries had clearly decided to pack up and retire to Florida because nothing was happening.
In what can only amount to a criminal conspiracy between mom nature and the patriarchy, it turns out that the single biggest factor affecting fertility is female age. It took several months of injecting performance-enhancers into my reproductive organs, $20,000 and two soul-crushing miscarriages to get us our longed-for second child. My kids were a photofinish with the end of my fertility, I wrote in the book I was working on at the time. A neat, happy objective to the sprawling pain of IVF.
Except that it wasnt quite so simple.
The final cycle of IVF had been a success. So much so that as well as giving us Zeph, it has also produced four surplus embryo, technically Zephs fraternal twins. According to protocol, the clinic had frozen these for potential afterwards utilize. There was no way of knowing how many if any of these embryos were viable, but statistically for my age, two of them should be. And there they still are, nearly three years on, languishing in an industrial park in San Ramon, and calling to me with increasingly shrill urgency.
Our frosties, because the internet fertility forums like to call them, are part of a growing frozen embryo population. Although no central the documents are kept, it is estimated that there could be up to two million frozen human embryos stored across the globe. More are created from new IVF cycles every month.
In theory, a frozen embryo can last almost indefinitely and, as long as it is chromosomally normal, can be defrosted at any time in the future to make a newborn. A patient at our clinic lately dedicated birth to a healthy son from an embryo frozen 19 years left by another couple. Even disregarding the sci-fi prospect that some future megalomaniac embryologist might defrost its population and conscript them into his slave army, neither the legal system nor our ethical scenery has quite caught up with the implications of this icebound human underworld.
Most clinics have a similar policy to ours that they are able to store embryos until their owners either stop paying their storage bill( typically about 30 a month) or when the woman is 52. After that, the couple has the option to donate them to another family, hand them over to medical research or have them destroyed. But in reality, the legal implications for a clinic destroying embryos without express permission could be significant. There have already been tribunal combats over embryo detention females desperate for a last trench opportunity at a newborn fighting for the right to use them against their former partners hopes. Men fighting for the right not to become fathers against their will.
For the first year or so of Zephs life, I didnt give much thought to his frozen siblings. But over day, the problem about what to do with them has become more acute.
Frozen at five days old, these embryos already have their entire genome in place.
The infinitely intricate coding that builds up a human being has already been locked down; it has been irrevocably determined not just if they are chromosomally normal and therefore viable, but also if they are male or female, dark haired or light. It is already decided whether they will have my wide, flat feet, or my husbands bony shoulder blades, my sons curly hair or my mothers ability to go for days on end with barely any sleep. Without any way of accessing these truths, all the possibilities co-exist in my mind.
My attachment to these frozen cell clusters is plainly vastly less than it is to an actual child. But over hour, it has somehow settled into the same basic category of feeling. Every time I picture them I get a visceral jolt of maternal feeling. Sweethearts, you must be so cold in there without your coats. I am their mother.
In the world of IVF, even discussing a third child feelings impossibly greedy, like agonising over whether to buy a third yacht at a food bank. But deep down, I have always hankered for three children. I came from a quiet, bookish two-child family and have always loved the somewhat anarchic dynamic of three, the balance of the family merely tipped in favour of young rather than old. One of those embryos could become another soft-cheeked toddler in pyjamas on the sofa, another person round the table at Christmas. Each represents a third higher opportunity that one of our children will visit us in our old age or give us grandchildren or marriage someone we like.
Then again, each also represents a third more sick days and lunches to pack, a third more bone-aching exhaustion and heart-chilling fret and whining and tantrums and hours despairing while another small child refuses to put his shoes on.
Happiness researchers draw a distinction between life satisfaction, entailing the deeper overall appraisal we make of our own wellbeing when taken in the abstract, and the more fickle moment-to-moment moods of our lived experience. The current thinking is that these two types of happiness work completely independently of each other and it is perfectly possible to have one without the other.
Perhaps nowhere is this paradox more apparent than in the realm of parenthood. There is no doubt in my intellect that my children bring me the overarching deep various kinds of happiness, but some days, around 5pm, when Im struggling to boil some pasta, with urgent child-need in penetrating stereo, that happiness can sometimes feel as though its interred so deep it would need a specialist team of navy divers to locate it. Would a third child in our 40 s stretching us to breaking point?
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