Thursday, July 13, 2006

Embryo, Interrupted

I don't ordinarily read political magazines, but last week, I had a chance to read a feature in the latest issue of Mother Jones, discussing frozen human embryos (little more than fertilized eggs that have undergone the first couple stages of cell division) that remain following in vitro fertilization. Along with an article discussing the discrimination that has resulted with having fertilization clinics become the de facto judges of who does and does not qualify for IVF procedures, the magazine also wrote a story about the so-called "embryo glut". It turns out that when a couple undergoes IVF, they are frequently left with several unused and frozen down embryos once they achieve a successful pregnancy. Across the country, this results in half a million frozen embryos that are doing little more than accumulating freezer burn. The couples to whom these embryos belong are usually undecided on what to do with the embryos; their options range from keeping them stored and paying the storage fees, trying to find prospective parents for their embryos, or "thawing" them -- essentially disposing of them. Only 3% of parents choose to donate their embryos to scientific research. The article notes a study that found nearly half of all new parents skip town once their IVF has succeeded, leaving fertility clinics with the troubling cost, as well as the moral and legal quandry, of deciding what to do with the abandoned embryos. I imagine that finding couples willing and able to take the embryos can be tough. Implanting the embryos can be an expensive procedure, and some parents may be less willing to adopt a frozen embryo because they will not be birthing a child of their own genetic lineage. To me, it seems like a massive waste of time, energy and money to store frozen embryos indefinitely, especially those which have been abandoned by their "owners"/parents. More and more, it seems like the answers to many incurable ailments may lie in taking advantage of stem cells -- primordial cells with haven't decided what they're going to become yet. Because of their pluripotency, stem cells represent a vast potential for repair. The adult body contains only small regions of stem cells, and most of them have already made some decision as to what they want to become. Other areas of the body cannot be repaired once injured; in particular, the brain has virtually no regenerative ability following injury. Multiple sclerosis affects 1 in 700 Americans, or 300,000 citizens. 1 in 10 people over the age of 65 will be diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease, a debilitating neural degeneration. Roughly 1 million Americans suffer from Parkinson's Disease. These and many other injuries or ailments may find a cure resulting from stem cell research. Literally millions of lives may be saved if cures for these diseases, alone, could be found. And yet, yesterday, Karl Rove told press that President Bush would probably veto a stem cell research bill should it be approved by the Senate. The bill has already passed the House, and is expected to pass the Senate later this month. Under the current stem cell research ban, no federally funded laboratory may conduct any research on embryonic stem cells (i.e. those derived from embryos, which are considered to be the source of the most pluripotent of stem cells). This extends to most labs -- nearly all labs receive some form of federal support in the form of grant money: there really isn't another source for funding of scientific research unless one researches for a private firm (and all findings would thus be the property of said firm). All research in federally funded labs must be done on established stem cell lines, which are contaminated and no longer useful. If a mere 3% of the 500,000 current frozen embryos were donated to research, and we could actually use them, we would have access to nearly 15,000 frozen, unwanted embryos that could be used to save millions of lives. Instead, some pro-lifers object to any use of these fertilized oocytes in research, citing the argument that they are potential human lives. This is true -- were the embryos implanted into a human womb. However, as it stands, these half a million embryos are living a life interrupted, frozen down in a freezer somewhere like so many human popsicles. They aren't living any kind of life at all, and the number of unwanted embryos only grows every year as IVF becomes a more popular and feasible technique for couples trying to start families. Rove defends the possible veto saying,"[research shows] we have far more promise from adult stem cells than from embryonic stem cells." This is hardly surpsing though -- we can't do nearly as much research on embryonic stem cells, so obviously research on other kinds of stem cells will be more promising. Only when we better understand embryonic stem cells will we be able to say which will be more useful under what circumstance. Rove also says, "we were all an embryo at one point, and we ought to as a society be very careful about being callous about the wanton destruction of embryos, of life, " so I wonder if the Bush Administration plans to remove the right of couples to "thaw" their unwanted embryos. If one is to define these fertilized oocytes as life, than wouldn't a meaningless destruction of these embryos be closer to "wanton destruction" than an embryo donated to research, which can at least contribute to saving other lives? Why isn't there a concerted effort by this pro-life administration to find adoptive parents for these frozen embryos, denied life by bureaucracy and uncaring couples? Hell, don't Bush and Rove have the blood of millions on their hands by essentially telling the number of Americans afflicted with incurable disease that their lives mean less than a fertilized egg? Isn't that a wanton destruction of life? I am so sick of these double standards and selective reasoning. Whatever happened to integrity? I can respect a pro-lifer who is really pro-life -- I have a harder time with pro-lifers who only want to protect the lives that they deem are important.


Anonymous said...

I wrote a research paper on this. You pretty much summed up my argument.

7/13/2006 03:57:00 PM  
Anonymous Nio said...

If a couple creates more than one embryo and then refuses to claim it, is that child neglect and abandoment? A question for Rove, et ali.

7/13/2006 07:53:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

it depends on if you classify an embryo a "child", I suppose. Right now, embryos are legally treated as property, being allowed to exchange hands in such a way. This is how couples are able to donate them to science or to another couple...

There would have to be a complete redefinition of an embryo to extend child abandonment and endangerment laws to cover them.

7/18/2006 12:28:00 PM  

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