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Freezer Malfunctions Underscore The Dark Realities Of Artificial Reproduction


On March 4, Pacific Fertility Clinic of San Francisco and Cleveland’s University Hospitals Fertility Center both experienced a similar technical malfunction of their embryo and egg storage tanks. These resulted in increased storage tank temperatures at both clinics, which endangered the viability of thousands of frozen human eggs and embryos.

The responses have been telling on a number of levels: from the statements the clinics issued, to the angry reactions of the clinic clients, to the way the story has been handled in the media, these technological breakdowns have highlighted the moral pitfalls of the artificial reproductive technology (ART) market, where children are created, stored, and sometimes terminated (accidentally or on purpose) for a large profit.

“These are people’s most precious, most prized, most irreplaceable assets,” explained one CBS News anchor while reporting on the malfunctions. To someone tuning in right at that moment, hearing that might conjure up images of family heirlooms, art, and trinkets endangered by a malfunction at a temperature-controlled storage facility, not a fertility clinic where thousands of souls sit perpetually on ice—some, apparently, for as long as 30 years.

What Nobody’s Talking About May Be the Most Important

In fact, most of the mainstream reports on the temperature failures carefully danced around the true extent of the devastation: that thousands of unrepeatable human lives are now lost as a result. If one believes the preponderance of scientific evidence that indicates life begins at conception, there is simply no other way to view these malfunctions.

Yet the media has almost solely focused on highlighting women and couples’ dashed “hopes” and lost money. They have pondered what procedural and mechanical safeguards can be put in place so these tragic accidents do not happen again. But they’re not questioning whether encouraging women to freeze their eggs—a painful, expensive gamble—or infertile couples to pursue invitro fertilization as the best means for achieving the family of their dreams, are good ideas in the first place.

This all highlights just how little moral consideration our society has given to not only the vast stores of human embryos languishing on ice for decades on end, but to the entire ART industry, and what the existence of this lucrative market implies about the rights of children in America today.

The clinics themselves have obviously been very apologetic for these malfunctions, but only extend this sympathy to adult clients for the loss of their “tissue.” In the United States, the ART industry is highly unregulated, and errors like these shine an unwanted light on the clandestine market for lab-created children.

The Adults Are More Important Than the Children

So it should come as no surprise that the San Francisco and Cleveland clinics at the center of the controversy have gone into major damage-control mode. Carl Herbert, president of Pacific Fertility in San Francisco, spoke in an interview about the viability of the eggs and embryos endangered by the malfunction, saying, “If the tissue is not viable, we are going to make our patients happy one way or another.”

Again, we see what and who is most important to the ART industry: the desires and satisfaction of their paying adult clientele. No thought or mention is given to the rights of the endangered embryos conceived in their labs, nor to the children they will become if they survive the rest of the IVF process.

Studies suggest that children conceived through ART are not fully comfortable with the knowledge of their beginnings. As Christopher White of the Center for Bioethics and Culture states in a 2012 essay from the Public Discourse: “In a 2010 study, ‘My Daddy’s Name is Donor,’ 45 percent of children conceived from an anonymous sperm donation reported that they were bothered by the fact that money was exchanged in order to conceive them.”

But, as we see through the clinics’ responses, it is the satisfaction of the paying would-be parents that is of paramount importance, over and above any harm done to the lives that begin in their laboratories.

The Tragedy Is of Lives Cut Short

The responses of the parents and would-be parents have been heartbreaking. As one woman with two embryos affected by the malfunctions put it: “My first thought was, ‘There go my babies. I’m not going to be able to have kids anymore.’” Many of the couples with embryos stored in the affected tanks are devastated at the thought of being unable to provide their living children biological siblings, and some patients who harvested eggs and sperm prior to cancer treatments have no chance of having biological children now.

The shock and devastation these patients are facing should not be ignored or belittled. As someone who has experienced a devastating miscarriage, I can well imagine how some of these patients must feel knowing that their embryos have died through no immediate cause of their own. But while the hurt and anger of the affected couples is understandable, it may still be somewhat misplaced.

As with miscarriages, the deaths of these embryos are a reminder that, while it is a good and beautiful thing to desire children, their lives are to be valued in their own right, and for their own sakes. Their loss should be mourned as the tragedy of a life cut short, more than mourned for the dashed hopes of their parents.

The entire ART industry is built on satisfying the desires of adults. But if this controversy can make us more deeply consider as a nation, for one moment, the devastating reality of hundreds of thousands of unique, unrepeatable human lives frozen in time in laboratories across the country, then the thousands of lives lost during these recent malfunctions need not have been lost in vain.