Selfish Parents: Embryos on Ice and Utilitarian IVF

Meet Gillian St. Lawrence, a new breed of IVF mother: fertile utilitarian.

She’s blonde, 30, married for nine years to a nice guy named Paul, and she heads a real estate investment firm in tony Georgetown, Washington, D.C.

Unlike other women who pursue in vitro fertilization, Gillian is blessed with fertility, inconveniently so.  Writing in The Washington Post, Gillian recounts how she and Paul want to be parents. Maybe.  Someday.

But definitely not now, at 30 and 32.

A child might disrupt their carefully laid plans, which include career, money, and planning to be perfect parents: “My husband wants to be able to coach little league, and we both want very reduced work hours so we never have to look at day care or a nanny…[We] just want to give a future child every bit of our time that we can without dealing with financial stress…” (Um, you forgot to mention winning the lottery, and sailing the globe without a care in the world. Wake up, Gillian, and shake the dreamy visions from your eyes.)

Sadly, unrealistic expectations are the least of her problems.

Gillian anticipates another 10 or 15 years before they will have enough time and money to make room in their lives for a child. That perfect timing, however, has one flaw: infertility increases with age and, as Gillian explains, they risk “higher miscarriage and genetic disorder rates… in babies conceived from parents older than 35.” (Translation: We’ve got exacting standards: an imperfect baby won’t pass muster.)

So what’s a young, naturally fertile couple to do? Change their plans and embrace reality? Buy a minivan instead of a Lexus, eat burgers not shrimp, stay home, and hey, here’s an idea…go make passionate love and thrill each other with the awe and mystery of creating a new life together?

Nah, too pedestrian. Gillian crafted an innovative solution, now complete with explanatory website (is a consulting business far behind?) and carefully totaled expenses and records of 15-minute office visits. She and Paul spent a year and roughly $20,000 to “create embryos, freeze them and, essentially, donate them to our future selves” through in vitro fertilization, as “insurance against future infertility.” Gillian calls it “Preservation IVF.” (Pardon my skepticism…but for a couple cramped for time and money, that’s a rather pricey solution, compared to a good bottle of wine and a romantic night together.)

Their IVF purchase, which their website bills as “Freedom From Our Fertility Clocks,” buys them the ability to “pursue our goals without giving up the chance to be parents.”

Having their babies and freezing them too.

Let’s be clear.  Gillian and Paul are parents already. They created five little embryos and put them on ice for the next 10-15 years, until Gillian is “ready.” (Imagine the convenience: Freeze-dried children, ready when you’re ready. Defrost, implant, and presto, instant children.)  It kind of reminds me of the compulsive shopper who buys five pairs of winter boots in summertime so she can put them on the shelf for later, “just in case” they fit her fashion whims later on.

Only we’re not talking about shoes here.  We’re talking about real people.  Children, however tiny.

I’ll let more knowledgeable voices address the morality of in vitro fertilization, whether to remedy infertility or preserve “all options,” as in Gillian’s case.

But as a parent, I find Gillian’s story appalling. In spite her meticulous plans and growing bank account, she’s running a catastrophic deficit in the three “must haves”  of good parenting.

First, love. In her pages of analytical discussion about wanting a child and the painstaking research to find the “best” way to make one, she never mentions the word “love.” Not even once. She betrays no awareness of the spousal love factor –that when a husband and wife love deeply, their love yearns to create, to expand and express itself in the creation of another person who becomes a unique reflection of their union.

In this, Gillian’s probably not alone. Scientists predict more couples will join her in severing love from baby-making as they pursue a highly desirable commodity–the perfect child.  A recent report on technological advances in IVF says that, within ten years, some couples will forego the natural context of lovemaking because the quality control features of IVF technology will eclipse the results of natural conception.

IVF, and selective embryo destruction, may eventually yield a better product, (i.e. child), than loving conception, but at what cost to our humanity? At what cost to love?

Fast forward to the future, and Gillian’s love void becomes even more tragic.  She seems tone deaf to a child’s deepest needs—for love, unconditional, unlimited love, regardless of parents’ naturally finite supply of time and money.  In addition, Gillian gives no hint that she anticipates the joy of love, which delights in another’s growth, fulfillment, and flourishing. I suspect she will be too busy measuring her personal return on their joint parenting investment.

Which brings me to the second essential of good parenting: sacrifice. Gillian, being a mom is not all about you.  Good parents, like good spouses, put the needs of others first. They want what is good for the other and will sacrifice their own desires—even their own needs (sleep comes to mind)—in order to provide that.

Parenthood teaches us that life does not revolve around our wants. Rich fulfillment grows when we sacrifice and give to our loved ones. It’s a hard lesson, learned reluctantly, and requiring daily practice.  For the next ten or fifteen years, however, Gillian will ingrain the habit of putting herself first as she elevates her personal goals—career ambition, wealth, fitness, fun–over the children she’s already created and who languish, frozen, waiting for their mother’s heart to thaw.

Her careful planning betrays a stingy disposition, measuring out servings of attention and money according to her own selfish inclinations rather than others’ needs. Pity the poor child who arrives needing more attention, sacrifice, and effort than Gillian and Paul plan to give. After decades spent hoarding the best of their time, energy, focus, and money for themselves, Gillian and Paul will be poorly positioned to learn generosity and true self-giving in the face of a child’s unpredictable and inconvenient needs.

The third vital factor that’s missing is this: a good parent welcomes each child as a gift, a person with an inherent value and dignity, regardless of usefulness, talents, eventual achievements, convenience, or lovability.

Utilitarianism lurks beneath the surface as Gillian discusses her expectations of parenthood. Embryos—children—are a means to an end, helping to secure an idealized vision of parenthood for the real stars of the show: the parents. They will enjoy plenty of time, money, and energy, and a perfect child who will eventually achieve great things and send reflected glory their way, with little or no parental sacrifice required.

But Gillian’s utilitiarian mindset really breaks out into the open when a reader asks her what she intends to do with any “leftover” embryos who are not implanted in her womb. Although they created five children, Gillian and Paul intend single embryo transfer sometime after age 40, meaning they’ll try one at a time. In typical IVF, remaining embryos are destroyed when their expiration date arrives. Not so for Gillian.

Those leftover children can still benefit her: “Statistically, with five embryos, we may only be able to achieve one or two successful pregnancies so it is likely we will use them all. If not, we plan to save them because with advanced technology, 20 or 30 years from now one of us could get a bad disease and those embryos could save one of our lives because of the DNA being from us.”

Using your own children for spare parts. Cold-hearted. Chilling.

But fitting, I suppose, for a utilitarian mama who puts her kids on ice.

(c) 2010 Mary Rice Hasson

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3 thoughts on “Selfish Parents: Embryos on Ice and Utilitarian IVF

  1. Mary, your latest post has brought me to tears. Not only do you speak the truth, but your writing brings chills. The passion is evident in every sentence you compose, and I am sure it flowed naturally from you, as good writing does.

    I am 22 years old, a recent college grad, and a former leader of the pro-life group at my school. I can’t wait to have children naturally, the old-fashioned way, even if it means imperfections or challenges. And I consider your life story and example inspiring. You are what I like to call a REAL feminist: pro-woman in all the most desirable ways.

    Thank you for your passion and your words. Keep up the good work!

  2. Mary,
    Thanks for speaking to this. It is chilling indeed. I’m reminded of the Bible verse, Luke 12:20 But God said to him, ‘you fool, this night your soul shall be required of you: then whose shall those things be, which you have provided?’

  3. I am a single 34 year old female, about to have my eggs frozen.

    I would never tell anyone because I know that many would judge me to be selfish, loveless and unfit to be a mother.

    It’s not really anyone’s place to pass judgement as you never know what is in another person’s heart. One thing for sure: I am happy for the choices that I have, thanks to advances in science.

    If you are a parent of your own biological children- are you ever confronted with accusations of being selfish? Procreating when there are so many orphans in the world? We have artificially increased our lifespan by decades. What’s so wrong with artificially increasing your fertility window by a few years?

    If a man says he wants to wait until he is financially stable ( let’s say in his early 40’s) to start a family- he is applauded. If a woman says the same thing- and the technology is there to help- she is seen as selfish.

    If a 35 year old man says he hasn’t found the right girl yet, but wants one day to have his own family- he is seen as “sweet”, “romantic” and a great catch. If a 35 year old woman says the same thing- she is “picky”, desperate and pass her prime.

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