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. And when, in 1997, we thawed my frozen embryos for transfer, I performed a ritual in the lab: Hovering over the liquid-nitrogen tank where my "little ones" were banked in a test tube, I recited the Prayer for Pregnancy, in Hebrew, that my stepfather had written with a rabbi friend for me. All four embryos survived the thaw and divided (the general thaw success rate was just 50 percent), and two grew to be "perfect" six-cellers, according to the embryologist, who stood by my side during the service. We were convinced that it was the praying that got them there. Still, that IVF failed too.Yet somewhere, through all my incantations and vetoes on consent forms, a tether to my once analytic, feet-on-the-ground self tugged incessantly. It let me know that my battle to get pregnant had more to do with control -- my (until now) much-lauded ability to make things happen -- than with having a child who shared my genes. Indeed, my husband and I were pursuing adoption too, with zeal, knowing the process could take time.Now, nearly nine years later, I've drifted back over the border to my blue state. I have an eight-year-old daughter, whom we adopted at birth. True, throughout my ordeal, I remained adamantly pro-choice (for other people) and a staunch advocate of stem cell research (with other people's embryos). But it took my flesh-and-blood girl -- the person who plays air flute to my air violin at Starbucks -- to provide the perspective to settle my soul. I look at those Polaroids now and marvel at the transformation of sperm and egg to embryo, but I barely claim the balls of cells as mine. They are the place where, for a matter of days, my husband's and my genes met -- no more, no less. Meanwhile, my baby is upstairs, waiting for me to cuddle with her in bed. And yet... While my when-life-begins conflict has "righted" itself, my cognitive dissonance regarding abortion has taken on a new, horrid twist: What if the 20-year-old who gave birth to my girl had made a different choice? Just the thought stops my breath. Thea Singer has written for The Boston Globe, The Washington Post Magazine, and The Nation. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and daughter.Originally published in MORE magazine, October 2006.

First Published Wed, 1969-12-31 20:33

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