Cell Blocked: Fertility Treatments Lead to Questions of Belief

A detour through IVF sent Thea Singer zigzagging across ideological lines. Now she's back where she started. Sort of.

By Thea Singer

Science Gets PersonalThe images capture my ambivalence in a heartbeat. Lying on my desk is a trio of silver-green Polaroids, each showing five to six clusters of cells, soft and grainy as Cream of Wheat and lassoed within an invisible skin. My name, identifying the clumps as mine, stares out from the labels. At one time, I thought of the snapshots, sanguinely, as baby's first pictures. They were taken from 1996 to 1998 at Cornell's Center for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility; the embryos blossomed from the union of my eggs and my husband's sperm in three in vitro fertilization (IVF) cycles.Underneath the photos is a printout of an early home page of the Web site of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, whose scientists announced in June 2006 that they would begin trying to clone human embryonic stem cells. The page displays four watery embryos, nearly identical to mine except that they're bathed in a pool of blue-brown light. I see these embryos as the source of possible treatments and cures for conditions ranging from juvenile diabetes to spinal-cord injuries to Parkinson's disease -- no more, no less. To me, the forms are emotional light-years apart from the life-promising contours of my 16 burgeoning children-to-be. Or are they?Before I entered the gray world of advanced reproductive technologies (ART), in 1995, my stance was clear on what was a person and what hadn't made the leap. Embryos were not people, with a soul and a consciousness; indeed, they didn't even have body parts. They were balls of cells with the theoretical chance of growing into human beings. I was a staunch supporter of a woman's right to choose andbacked embryonic stem cell research 100 percent. Friends in college had had abortions; you knew back then, even if they didn't tell you, from the boxes of thick, gauzy Kotex lying around their apartments. Choosing abortion was a difficult decision, but not an ethical dilemma.Indeed, if you had told me before the mid-1990s that my answer to the question "When does life begin?" could become fluid, even circumstantial -- based more on my psychology of the moment than on my political and religious beliefs -- I would have scolded you for insulting my integrity. I married at 40; at 41, I had a miscarriage, and the fertility doctors -- alarmed at my "advanced age" -- scared me straight into ART. Between the ages of 42 and 45, I went through two gamete intrafallopian transfer (GIFT) and five IVF cycles, producing 111 eggs in total, over half of which became embryos. Twenty-seven of those embryos were transferred into my body; in the GIFT cycles, 15 lone eggs were deposited into my tubes along with carefully spun samples of my husband's sperm. Even now I blanch at the numbers.As the years progressed and the cycles failed, I slipped over some invisible cultural line. I didn't intellectually move in with the religious right. But when it came to my embryos, to my astonishment, I had emotionally set up house in their camp. Revising OpinionsMy relocation from a blue to a red state, in a manner of speaking, came hard and fast, and I followed it up with action. After my first GIFT cycle, I learned that clinics generally discard the leftover embryos they consider too lackluster to freeze. Aghast, I persuaded the embryologist for my second GIFT to freeze the extras at the one-cell stage -- before they had the chance to divide and perhaps fragment -- rather than assess their condition after the standard three-day wait. On the fertility clinic's consent forms, I thickly wrote my initials under the "refused" column for any requests to use my embryos for research purposes; even my eggs weren't up for grabs. I simply could not bear the thought of scientists piercing or probing or tearing them apart. The idea of selective reduction in the event of a multiple pregnancy was anathema to me, even if, I told myself, all seven embryos transferred in the third attempt (my biggest haul) were to implant.I became uncharacteristically religious during those years -- any religion, it didn't matter which -- or maybe I was just in search of a talisman. I'm Jewish, but I began reciting prayers every day to Catholic saints whose pictures my husband's aunt assured me had helped make various nieces pregnant. I rubbed the belly of a friend's ceramic Buddha.

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