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Fundies, slaves, junkies, gays, and 'Flakes

Tonight before he finally dropped off — making a clunk so loud you probably heard it and loosed your bowels in sudden fright — Charlie cried for an hour and a half. So you will forgive me, perhaps, if I am not eloquent as I sputter in rage about this article on "embryo adoption" from the New York Times:

Randy and Julie McClure had three children who were long out of diapers and no plans for more when they heard about a program called Snowflakes, which arranges for women to become pregnant with embryos left over at fertility clinics.

"We really felt like the Lord was calling us to try to give one of these embryos, these children, a chance to live," Ms. McClure said.

Mr. McClure, though, disliked the fertility business, which he felt created extra embryos that were often destroyed or aborted. He feared that paying fees to receive the embryos would be helping an industry "that I have real problems with."

He consulted a Southern Baptist church elder, who advised him, " 'If you want to free the slaves, sometimes you have to deal with the slave trader,' " Mr. McClure said.

Randall, Randall, Randall.


I don't even know how to begin. I'd blame Charlie for that but the very analogy is so overblown, so intentionally inflammatory, so breathtakingly...well, wrong that even had he not perforated my eardrum with his scalded-cat cries, I suspect I'd be feeling a delicate touch of nauseated disequilibrium.

Yeah, boy, those eight cells are pretty grievously oppressed there in the dark, chilly confines of their cryo tank — hey, that's just like being abducted from your homeland, enduring an endless voyage on a floating Hell, and disembarking to find yourself owned. Why, lingering in insensate stasis is every bit as bad as being branded, mutilated, and hanged for disobedience. Yep, postponing telophase? That right there is a dream deferred, my friends, and therefore a dream denied.

If a frozen ball of human cells not visible to the naked eye and a thinking, feeling, fully potentiated person are even remotely equivalent, I'll eat Abe Lincoln's moldering stovepipe hat.

As an aside, I might take the McClures' claim of altruism a little more seriously if, instead of "adopting" those embryos themselves, they'd paid to have them transferred to an infertile couple who truly desire a child for his or her own sake, rather than shouldering what sounds suspiciously like white man's burden to win points with the Big Guy.

Now: why am I using scare quotes?

People on this part of the political spectrum have begun calling the process "embryo adoption," echoing the phrase that Snowflakes uses instead of "embryo donation." [...] The adoption terminology irritates the fertility industry, abortion rights advocates and supporters of embryonic stem cell research, who believe that the language suggests - erroneously, they maintain - that an embryo has the same status as a child.

But for some conservative Christians, that is precisely the point.

I'd be curious to know what adoption advocates — um, adoption-of-children advocates — think of this. If the McClures above are any indication of the sentiment behind embryo "adoption," I'd imagine it would rankle. While people who've adopted babies generally express reverence and gratitude, knowing what a priceless gift they've been given, the people discussed in the article who "adopt" frozen embryos seem to think they're doing those sad forsaken embryos some kind of favor. It's a little too close to the way some people tell adoptive parents how noble they are for taking in that poor unfortunate child of a filthy junkie.

Okay, that was unfair of me. The "filthy junkie" part goes unsaid. Usually.

But [embryo "adoption"] is not without risks. [Once] embryos are donated, only half survive the thawing process, and of those, only about 35 percent result in a baby. One mother died last year from pregnancy complications, said Lori Maze, director of Snowflakes.

Stop the presses! Pregnancy with donated embryos can be risky! Sort of like, um, any other kind of pregnancy. Thank you, New York Times, for the breaking motherfucking news.

In my opinion, it's disingenuous to mourn the embryos that don't make it through the thaw, or those that don't implant and become a continuing pregnancy, without acknowledging the waste — eggs that don't fertilize, embryos that don't implant, pregnancies that don't continue — built into even unassisted conception. (Disingenuous, that is, unless they're your embryos, in which case I'll hand you the Kleenex and pat your shoulder clumsily but with love.) Thanks to diligent work and a few blinding strokes of genius, science has been able to improve on nature's pregnancy rates, which hover around 25% for fertile couples in any given month. A 35% pregnancy rate isn't a risk; it's a triumph.

To carry an embryo, Ms. McClure [...] first had to undergo surgery to remove polyps. Then, most of the 13 embryos proved unviable, and one round of embryo implantation failed before she finally had a successful pregnancy using the final embryo.

Those embryos that proved unviable: were they "just [children] at an earlier stage of development" if they were chromosomally incapable of ever increasing beyond six or seven days' growth? Or of ever living outside the womb?

What about those that were normal but didn't, for whatever reason, implant? What if those embryos had found a more hospitable uterus than Julie McClure's? Would they have grown into fully developed children? Given the conservative aspirations toward a so-called "culture of life," can we say, if they were normal, that Julie McClure killed them?

These are philosophical questions that trouble greater minds than mine. Right now my own mind is fit for little more than doggedly counting aloud as I measure formula to make sure Charlie's next bottle isn't served chunky style, requiring a fork and a set of lobster crackers. But I do know where I stand on this issue. I do know that my failed embryos weren't people, no matter how hard the Christian right tries to convince me they were. If they were people, they'd be here now. If they were children, I'd have a houseful.

Couples adopting or donating Snowflakes embryos are mostly Christian, and most embryo donors are white, Ms. Maze said.

"Mostly Christian." Mostly. Hmmm. I would like to know which other denominations are represented. I asked Paul what he thought. He said in a doubtful tone, "Well, Christians...um...and then maybe Episcopalians..."

Couples must agree to adoption-like procedures: receiving families are screened and must undergo counseling, and Snowflakes allows donating and receiving families to designate criteria for each other, meet and maintain contact after birth.

Now I can hear you thinking, But this doesn't sound entirely unreasonable. I mean, really, if you consider...

Wait! Stop thinking! Time for a field trip! Fun with Google: snowflakes embryo adoption.

Not entirely unreasonable. Mmmm-hm. Now how come it costs prospective parents more to, ah, rescue unborn children with Snowflakes — at least $6800 — than it does to receive donated embryos — simply the cost of an FET plus legal fees? It seems that the additional cost pays to vet the prospective parents to make sure they're not, you know, fruity.

Those conditions were fine with Bob and Angie Deacon of Virginia Beach, Va., who donated their 13 embryos [...]. "With another program, to be honest with you, they could have been adopted by lesbian parents, and I'm totally against that," said Mr. Deacon, 35.

You know, I wish I had a clutch of embryos in the freezer so I could box 'em up and send 'em off to the lesbians right now. The only stipulation would be that any lesbian who conceived boy/girl twins would be legally obligated to name them Bob and Angie Deacon.

I like to think I am tough but fair. Just ask Charlie, who is so grounded after tonight's histrionics.

And this kind of discrimination, this unapologetically religious mission is being subsidized by the United States government (also known as you and me, my friend, you and heathen me):

Health and Human Services has given grants to Snowflakes and other organizations specifically to promote "embryo adoption." Several groups that oppose the term embryo adoption, including the American Fertility Association, have also received federal grants and used the money to educate couples that embryo donation is one option among many.

I can only hope that the American Fertility Association is using their grant money to continue to fight the good fight on behalf of gay sperm donors.

And to wrap things up, we have a photo op, complete with using children to advance a political agenda. If Charlie's screaming earlier didn't cause you to evacuate your bowels in fear, maybe this will:

[...] To protest a bill supporting the use of embryos for stem cell research, President Bush appeared with the McClures and 20 other Snowflakes families, kissing the babies, some of whom wore T-shirts that said "former embryo," or "this embryo was not discarded." Federal and state lawmakers have held similar appearances.

It certainly scares the shit out of me.


A reader sent mail suggesting I mention these alternatives for those who'd like to donate or receive donated embryos:

There are also other agencies doing embryo donation that don’t get anywhere near the publicity as Snowflakes. Consequently, potential donors who are turned off by Snowflakes feel like they have nowhere to go and they either destroy their embryos or let them languish in storage forever. One way to help is to publicize the other alternatives every time you mention how troubled you are by Snowflakes.

It is unfortunate that Snowflakes, with its religious bent, gets all the press, because there are other organizations out there that do embryo donation (or even embryo adoption), that don’t charge such outrageous fees or require that families go through so many hoops. If you want to make a difference in this area, one way to do it is to mention alternatives to Snowflakes — I wish the NY Times article had done so. Here are some of the alternatives:

  1. Donate/Receive anonymously through your own clinic or to another clinic that accepts outside embryos (Cooper Center is one). The downside/upside depending on your perspective is that donors/recipients know nothing about each other and have no way of contacting one another should there ever be a need (medical or psychological) in the future. Additionally, if there are multiple straws (12 embies divided into 3 or 4 straws each), they may be divided up to multiple families. Often the donors aren’t even allowed to find out if the embies they donated resulted in a pregnancy or not.
  2. Donate to/Receive from a different agency. Agencies often will allow a full continuum of openness from totally closed (like the IVF clinics) to totally open (where you’ve met and know each other’s names, addresses, phone numbers) to everything in between (contact, but only through the agency). Among agencies that do embryo donation/adoption are:

    1. Theresa Erickson is a lawyer who runs Conceptual Options and she treats it more like a legal transaction/property transfer than an adoption. Of course it's so much more than a "property transfer," but for legal purposes, that treatment gives both parties the legal protection given the current state of the law. (There isn't really anything specific to embryo donation/adoption on the books YET.) Unfortunately, the waiting list at Conceptual Options is really long. I think they have about 25 couples/singles hoping to get chosen by a donor at the moment. Many on the waiting list have been on the waiting list for a year or more and have not been selected. The cost of the legal fees is generally about $2000 for the recipient family.
    2. For those wanting more of a religious affiliation but who are concerned about the costs of Snowflakes, there is Embryos Alive. They do not require a home study, but do require more information from donors including certification of medical health; copies of health, life, and homeowners' insurance; copies of driving records; etc. The cost of the agency fees (including legal paperwork) is generally about $3000-3500 for the recipient family. Due to a recent wave of donations, the waiting list is not that long (although, as is true with Conceptual Options, since the donors pick, it really doesn't matter how long you are on the list; it's more a matter of how much your profile appeals to the donors).
    3. Miracles Waiting is coming out soon (hopefully July) — this will be a resource center for both donors and potential recipients. I believe it will include a bulletin board to facilitate matching among donors/recipients.

Thank you to the kind reader who took the time to compile this list.