Getting pregnant wasn’t easy for me. It involved years of doctors’ offices, fertility drugs, and false hopes. Still, my story has a happy ending. Two rounds of in vitro fertilization (IVF) led to two healthy sons who fill my life with joy and ensure I can’t walk through the house without stepping on a Lego or a plastic dinosaur.
Once our family was complete, my husband and I assumed our days of fertility-related anguish were over—until we received a bill from our clinic, reminding us that we still had two embryos in frozen storage and charging us hundreds of dollars to keep them there.
On paper, the decision of what to do with our unused embryos should be straightforward. We definitely aren’t having any more children (on some days, even two feels like too many), so clearly we should part with our embryos and move on. But fast forward several years and we’re still paying to store them—because we have no idea what else to do.
Weighing the Options for Our Embryos
Before beginning IVF, most fertility clinics will require you to consider your options for any unused embryos. Our experience was no different. We learned our choices: thaw and destroy the embryos, donate them for scientific research, or donate them to another couple.
I remember reviewing that paperwork, back before I was even pregnant. The idea that we would one day have to decide what to do about our unused embryos seemed far off and, honestly, aspirational. Having more embryos than we needed would mean we’d been able to have a family, something we both desperately wanted.
Now, though, with the frozen storage fees piling up on our credit cards, we’re paralyzed. We’ve both agreed that simply discarding them is off the table. Years later, the physical and emotional work it took to produce still hasn’t faded from our minds, and it feels wrong to just dump something we created from our own bodies into the proverbial trash. It also feels wasteful when so many other couples are desperate to have a child.
And yet, when we discuss the possibility of donating them to another couple, I feel on the verge of hyperventilating. When I try to imagine another family raising children who are biologically mine, I feel the air leave my lungs and a pit of dread in my stomach. While I’m certain I don’t want a bigger family, I can’t envision giving up the embryos that are my children’s siblings to be raised by someone else. It makes no sense to think I’d mourn the loss of something I never had, but I know I would. Knowing those siblings could be out there in the world is something I’d think about every day, and that’s a burden I don’t want to bear.
Knowing those siblings could be out there in the world is something I’d think about every day, and that’s a burden I don’t want to bear.
This leaves donating them to science as a final option, something that 41 percent of patients who’ve completed their fertility treatments express interest in. My husband and I agreed it would feel good and noble to think of our embryos being used to treat genetic conditions or advance research on incurable diseases. Secure in our decision, we checked this box, returned the form to our clinic, and promptly hit a dead end.
Hitting a Major Roadblock in the Process
It turns out that while fertility clinics continue to list the “donate to science” option, it is nearly impossible to do so. When I informed our clinic of our intent, they provided a list of five organizations to contact. Four of them were no longer accepting embryos, and the fifth declined to accept ours because of new, ultra-conservative laws in our state surrounding when “personhood” begins.
…while fertility clinics continue to list the ‘donate to science’ option, it is nearly impossible to do so.
I turned to the internet and spent hours researching other donation possibilities. I learned that there is no central organization where patients can go to find scientific studies looking for embryos and no single entity that can walk them through research projects and facilitate donations. So, after months of frustrated searching, I have yet to locate an organization where we can donate our embryos. Thus we remain in limbo—and an expensive one at that.
But while we keep paying our storage bill, many others have decided not to. There are somewhere between 1 million and 1.5 million frozen embryos in storage, and an estimated 5-7 percent of these are considered “abandoned.” This means the owners have stopped paying the storage fee and are unable to be contacted.
Deciding to Not Decide Right Now
In the end, then, the decision many people are making is to not decide. I have to admit this is tempting. I wasn’t prepared for the complex emotions that would arise from deciding how to “care” for my alive-but-not potential children. I didn’t expect to be haunted by the grief of my infertility struggle all over again as I wrestled with my decision. Not deciding would be a relief and an absolution from the heartbreak that will most certainly result from any of the options before me.
Each night as I tuck my sons into bed, I am bowled over by my love for them. Every inch of their velvety little-boy skin feels like a miracle and every flutter of their sleepy eyelids a gift.
What if I’d never had you? I think, and my heart seizes.
And then my mind turns to what could be, to the two cellular specks of my own making, floating in liquid nitrogen, suspended in time, waiting for my decision.