Who'll bear an unwanted foetus?

Anti-abortionists must face the consequences of their plans for embryo adoption, says Polly Toynbee
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The Independent Online
"Imagine walking down the street and bumping into your child's twin. You never knew she existed. You never wanted her to exist. She'd be a few years younger than my daughter, but her twin none the less. My child, my husband's child, our flesh and blood and yet not ours. The thought is abhorrent."

That was the reaction of one mother of a test-tube baby yesterday to the bizarre suggestion that spare embryos taken from women like her during treatment should be donated to infertile couples without her consent. These embryos were frozen for her own possible use if she later wanted another child. The idea of giving them to other people has been proposed by David Alton MP, the anti-abortion campaigner, together with a group called Comment on Reproductive Ethics (Core), which is non-religious although its founder, Josephine Quintavalle, is a Roman Catholic member of Life, the anti-abortion organisation.

Mr Alton wants any unclaimed foetuses to be implanted in other women's bodies without the genetic parents' consent. The overwhelming practical and legal problems seem not to concern him. Examining the language he uses, it is plain that he is not overly interested in the technical questions but in creating a legal and moral precedent. He proposes these "orphaned" embryos should be "adopted" by other infertile couples and even made "wards of court", as if they were infants left on the orphanage steps.

It is not difficult to detect the line of argument that underpins his plan. Although these four-cell embryos are so small that eight of them would fit on the full-stop at the end of this sentence, he believes they are children with all the same rights as born children and he wants to establish this principle in law. If he were ever to succeed in having embryos declared wards of court, then of course embryo research and abortion would become untenable and that is his prime motive.

Before anyone gets too heated about this extraordinary idea, it is not going to happen, now or in any foreseeable future. It is the figment of a largely Roman Catholic and fundamentalist imagination, of those that seek to reopen the whole question of IVF treatment, embryology and abortion whenever they see the smallest window of opportunity. However many times these basic principles have been debated in Parliament, these groups will seek to raise them again and again, on any pretext, usually side-swiping the organisation they hate - the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.

This time, Mr Alton and his fellow- campaigners have pounced on the upcoming five-year deadline for the keeping of frozen embryos. When the HFEA was set up in 1991, its regulations stated that no embryo could be stored for more than five years. Now the first five years is up and some 9,000 are due for defrosting (or "allowed to perish", as the HFEA euphemistically puts it).

The Department of Health, however, is about to produce new regulations that are likely to suggest that where parents come forward and request it, their embryos could stay frozen for up to 10 years. While many want no more children, some people have deliberately delayed because they want to space out their families, and others are saving money for the expensive treatment to implant the embryos.

Mr Alton has seized on the fact that there are some 2,000 frozen embryos - "orphans" - whose parents have disappeared. These parents have not answered registered letters and their whereabouts are unknown.

The HFEA has ensured clinics make every effort to trace them and yesterday issued a public plea for them to come forward. But some are foreign, while others may have undergone many excruciating cycles of treatment and failed to produce a live baby. They may be too depressed to contemplate the embryos they have left in storage. Some may simply be avoiding the pounds 100-a-year fee most clinics charge to keep frozen embryos. According to one clinic, only about 20 per cent bother to pay, despite regular reminders. By the time it has built up to pounds 500 they may choose to keep their heads down. Ungrateful, perhaps, but human.

For whatever reason, to assume that these people's embryos can be donated to others without their consent leaves everyone working in the field aghast. Each clinic has an ethics committee and they all work on the fundamental principle of consent at every stage by all concerned. No one can envisage a time when that principle would be abandoned.

Couples rarely give consent for their embryos to be donated to others, although many consent to their use in research. Embryo donation is so rare that out of 21,000 IVF treatments in 1993 (the last year for which there are figures), only 160 used donated embryos; these figures are likely to have reduced sharply since then.

For beyond the question of principle, the whole notion is a non-starter anyway. There is a huge waiting list of infertile couples desperate for a donated egg, to which the husband's sperm will then be added to create an embryo. The shortage of eggs is hardly surprising: not many women are willing to undergo the drugs and the operation involved in donating an egg, and many do not like the idea of having a child out there somewhere who is unknown to them. The couples who want a donated egg know that at least it will be genetically the husband's child.

Until recently, possibly 1 per cent of infertile couples were in search of a donated embryo because both of them were infertile. This has now been reduced to virtually zero, since revolutionary new techniques can collect unformed sperm from most infertile men. The very few for whom this does not work are, statistically, highly unlikely to be married to infertile women. In other words, most infertile couples are not in search of embryos, but of either eggs or sperm.

The second practical problem is the very low success rate of frozen embryos, perhaps around 6 per cent of treatments resulting in a live birth, says Paul Serhal of University College, London's IVF unit. When embryos are collected, the healthiest are implanted fresh into the mother's womb and have the best chance of succeeding. The rest are frozen. In other words, frozen embryos are second-best.

So who would want to "adopt" Mr Alton's foetal "orphans"? Not, it seems, the infertile. Who else, then? The only likely candidates might be those who, like Alton, regard them as God's children, destined for murder unless saved by implantation in a vacant womb.

I have a modest proposal: teams of Catholic nuns should step forward and volunteer for these immaculate conceptions. "Save a Foetus for Jesus" could be the rallying cry for all those who believe that from the moment of conception, a unique and immortal soul is created.

If the law or ethics committees were ever to permit it, it would be interesting to see how many anti-abortion campaigners would volunteer their wombs to save these frozen embryos. Many, of course, do not have wombs, because they are men. Developing technology may, before long, make implantation a possibility but until then will they volunteer their wives, sisters and daughters? If they honestly believe, as they say they do, that an invisible embryo has the same right to life as any living human being, then they should feel duty-bound to bear successions of them. If they honestly believe, as they say they do, that an embryo's right to life supersedes a mother's wish not to bear it, then they should give up their wombs in the same way that they seek to force other women to.

In the meantime, the language of "orphans", "adoption" and "wards of court" has no place in the freezer of IVF clinics.

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