So you—or somebody you know—are planning a baby through IVF, a pretty common occurrence these days, and end up freezing the extra embryos that are not used in the procedure. God forbid you and your partner split, who does the embryo belong to? Does it have legal rights? And can it lay claim to a trust fund? Sounds bizarre, but if you’ve been reading the tabloid section, Modern Family (ironically!) actress Sofia Vergara has been sued (on behalf of her embryos) by former fiancé Nick Loeb to allow him access to the embryos, who he calls Emma and Isabella and has a trust fund going for. There could be better reasons to claim right to birth, than to be beneficiary of all that cool cash, but that’s another debate!
There seems to be a thin line between morality and what’s supposed to be purely a lab procedure. Vergara, too, reportedly wants the embryos indefinitely frozen, fighting shy of asking them to be destroyed. This, even though she has moved on from her ex and is now married to somebody else.
When does life start? And is destroying an embryo actually akin to abortion? Between polarising pro-life arguments and women’s rights groups lies a space that is still extremely ambiguous when it comes to rights and duties regarding embryos, particularly those that lie in cold storage. And, it’s not just parents or guardians of these who hesitate to pull the plug, but the medical fraternity too. Dr Firuza R. Parikh, leading Mumbai-based fertility specialist, candidly states in an email chat, “Under usual circumstances, we only transfer one or two good quality embryos; extra embryos are cryopreserved. Our consent form for patients states that the embryos would be frozen for two years. If the couples wish to continue to preserve them, then a written intimation is required. However, till date, we have not disposed of embryos even in circumstances when putative parents have forgotten about them as we consider the beginning of life as the time when fertilisation occurs.”
In other words, life begins at conception. To put it somewhat crudely, can someone who eats eggs really be called a vegetarian? So, is Loeb perfectly within reason when he wants Emma and Isabella to get a fighting chance to be born through a surrogate womb?
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As Parikh remarks, “Every complex situation likes this points at the lacunae in our legal and social understanding of ART (assisted reproductive technology).” The law has a lot to deal with. One can imagine that for a couple planning to expand their family, divorce would ideally be the last thing on their minds. But, it may be prudent to pause and ponder custody in case of a split, or even death of one partner. Parikh points out the case of an American couple, way back in the Eighties, who passed away in a plane crash, leaving behind embryos that had been frozen at an Australian hospital, in the middle of a legal tussle. Ultimately, the hospital was granted rights to give these up for adoption. There have been many cases since, but no clear answers so far.
Couples, explains Parekh, have the choice to discard their embryos, donate them towards stem cell research or for adoption to another couple, something she has personally witnessed. Given the long wait for adopting a baby from an agency, embryo donation may be a quicker option for parents-in-waiting. But for parents to deal with the “excess embryo” (their children’s potential sibling or their child) growing anonymously, requires a leap of faith.
While we wrap our heads around these issues, a snap poll of a handful of men gave interesting answers. Surprisingly, legalities aside, all believed in giving the embryos a chance to come into the world as the right thing to do. One said, “Since Sofia Vergara has moved on from the relationship, she has no right to decide what happens to the embryos either.” Another suggested they split the embryos between them. The paternity gene is alive and kicking, as single fathers become more commonplace, and actor Tusshar Kapoor even becoming a father through surrogacy.
As we consider the emotional and moral viewpoints, let’s also look at the numbers. We don’t have figures for India yet, but in the US, the number of embryos being preserved is pegged at almost a million. So, as pro-life protestors tell Sofia Vergara to “unfreeze her heart”, let’s appreciate that there are no easy answers…not yet, anyway! And next time you have an omelette, it may be telling you something!
(The writer is an editorial consultant and co-founder of The Goodwill Project. She tweets @anuvee). Views expressed are personal.