The Next Frontier of the Stem Cell Debate

"Snowflake" babies, embryo "adoption," and being pre-born again

In November, Lauren, a pretty 36-year-old physician's assistant with a passing resemblance to Frances McDormand, traveled from her home in New York's Hudson Valley to a Knoxville, Tennessee, fertility clinic to claim three embryos left over from another couple's in vitro fertilization cycle.

Lauren and her husband can't conceive on their own. Three years earlier, they had adopted a little girl, and now, in a final bid to experience pregnancy, Lauren headed to the clinic, where the frozen embryos were thawed and transferred to her uterus.

Doctors call the procedure "embryo donation."

Jeffrey Marini
The next minority group: Frozen bundles of cells in “concentration cans”?
The next minority group: Frozen bundles of cells in “concentration cans”?

Today, six months pregnant with triplets, Lauren is uncomfortable: Her back is killing her, and she has heartburn.

She reclines in a red, plastic chair at the local indoor play center in Fishkill, while her daughter, Maliha, romps on an inflatable castle nearby. Exhausted, she rubs her stomach up high, where the heartburn is the worst, and eats an energy bar. An Army veteran and a former marathoner, she's a little in awe of what has happened to her body.

But her discomfort goes beyond aches and pains. She also chafes at the idea that some people think of her as a participant in the ongoing culture wars involving abortion and stem cell research.

Since 1997, a small but growing arm of the pro-life movement has been promoting a new name for what Lauren went through to get herself pregnant: They call it "embryo adoption."

The idea is to convince people that embryos created for in vitro fertilization—undifferentiated clumps of cells roughly the size of a comma—are actually individuals that deserve legal rights and the same protections afforded to actual children during adoption. To help popularize the notion of embryos as unique individuals, pro-life advocates refer to them as human "snowflakes" (because no two are alike), and say that women like Lauren are helping to bring "snowflake babies" into the world.

But Lauren and her husband want to distance themselves from the political debate—they just want to have more children.

"I don't feel like there are unborn children out there that I need to save," she says. But she admits that she hasn't mustered up the nerve to tell her priest where her babies came from. And on the subject of embryonic stem cell research—which is very much a part of the "embryo adoption" debate—she is equally conflicted.

As expected, President Obama's election resulted in the lifting of severe restrictions on embryonic stem cell research put in place by his predecessor. Before Obama's election, however, pro-life advocates had already begun to think of other ways to block researchers who want access to embryos left over from in vitro fertilization—which is why they hope you'll be hearing more in coming years about embryos as people.

Embryo donation, or adoption—whichever you prefer to call it—is still little known to the public. But as the push for embryonic stem cell research intensifies, so will efforts by pro-life advocates to gain legal rights for embryos. Some advocates have already begun calling for nationwide "mandatory implantation provisions," which would require patients with excess frozen embryos to either implant them or relinquish them to adoptive parents, as is already the case in Louisiana, where a frozen embryo is a legal person and it's illegal to discard one.

"This is a civil rights movement," says Sam Casey, executive vice president and general counsel for Advocates International, a conservative Christian legal society. "The parallels are there. We could not admit the humanity of the slave; we had to think of them as biologically inferior sub-species." Likewise, calling frozen embryos "tissues" serves the purposes of the oppressors, says Casey. Right now, they're "a minority group without a vote."

Reproductive rights activists and supporters of embryonic stem cell research are watching with growing alarm. "I think it is dangerous," says Sean Tipton, spokesman for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. "It's the language of embryo adoption that helps people start equating in their minds an embryo with a child. And if you establish that legally, it becomes very important."

By important, of course, he means bad—bad for in vitro fertilization, bad for the future of embryonic stem cell research, and bad for reproductive liberty.

As the conflict grows, however, most parents who turn to embryo adoption are doing so for reasons that have nothing to do with a political debate. "About 15 percent of our clients genuinely believe embryos are pre-born children," says Megan Corcoran, director of the Snowflakes Frozen Embryo Adoption program, the country's first such agency, based in Fullerton, California. "Most are really here not to save an embryo, but to get pregnant. They'll say, 'Yes, I believe that these embryos are life,' but they're the same people five months into it that say, 'Can we make sure that the embryos are from a woman under 32, that she's healthy, that the embryologist was from a highly rated clinic?' "

Lauren's decision to go with embryos was anything but ideological. "If I could have a child on my own, that would have been my first choice," she says. "I don't feel like I need to be a crusader in this."

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