Why we just can't let go of our last embryo

"We spent so many years dreaming of a family that we now find ourselves still catching up to the reality".
"We spent so many years dreaming of a family that we now find ourselves still catching up to the reality". Photo: Michele Mossop

In the same week I read about a soaring demand for donated embryos, we received our quarterly storage invoice. There are more than 100,000 frozen embryos - including ours, our last one - in storage in Australia and yet demand is now ''outstripping supply by about 20 to one, meaning hundreds of people are on waiting lists at IVF clinics hoping for an embryo'', as Fairfax reported earlier this month.

It's a curious situation but, as researchers from the University of Technology, Sydney discovered, many Australian couples (more than 40 per cent) are simply refusing to donate their spare embryos.

Many who go through IVF and have stored embryos would appreciate what other infertile couples are going through (in fact, ''feeling compassion for others struggling with infertility'' remains high on the list of motives of those who do choose to donate). Bearing that in mind, things just don't seem to add up.

These latest reports hit a particularly raw nerve for us. While we may have completed our family, as time marches on, notions of donating the embryo - or blastocyst - for research (worthy) or having it destroyed (almost unthinkable) seem less and less viable.

And, in fact, each bill that arrives in the mail is a step closer to that foreboding 10-year mark when we'll have to decide the blastocyst's fate, as is the case under NSW and Victoria's assisted reproduction laws. Strange, but it feels almost as if we're being asked to choose a favourite child.

When finally we do face perhaps the only option left to us - donation - there are a series of hoops we will be required to jump through first. There are mandatory counselling sessions to attend, blood tests for everything from HIV and hepatitis B and C to cystic fibrosis and, of course, paperwork to wade through.

And here's where something closest to an answer lies. We spent so many years dreaming of a family that we now find ourselves still catching up to the reality. And don't even mention getting our heads around the idea that suspended in those vats is a hefty investment of our longing.

Our situation is far from unusual. Leftover blastocysts are generally from a cycle that's produced a child or children. Like many blighted by infertility, I'll be forever grateful to IVF and can't tell you how lucky we are to have our boys - those little raucous, funny, time-consuming reminders of this other life in situ.

In fact, when it comes to my children, words often fail me. And so it's no coincidence the language of ''donation'' is also at the heart of my dilemma.


While I grappled with the terminology, the woman at the fertility clinic wasted no time reminding me of the gravity of our situation. I imagine she had fielded more than her fair share of such inquiries and her heart was clearly in the right place. ''Don't kid yourself,'' she said to me, or words to that effect. ''Think of it as adoption, not a donation.''

It takes the ''switch of just one word'', as online magazine Salon has argued, and a personal reproductive decision becomes political - to say nothing of what it can do to a parent's already brittle emotional compass.

There's no denying assisted reproductive technology has changed the game play of infertility for the better. In many instances, including ours, it has taken hope and turned it into opportunity and we're reminded time and again that it doesn't just take a village to raise a child but sometimes to make one, too.

As the UTS research tells us, if the embryo donor program is to succeed, then we need more uniform practices, streamlined processes, a better managed database and a national awareness program that addresses the emotional needs of donor and recipient. For as long as those embryos remain out of sight and out of mind, they will also remain out of reach of childless couples.

I can think of few things more gratifying than helping another couple realise their dreams of parenthood but right now I simply don't feel up to it. Of course, it breaks my heart. All I know is that, with each passing year, this trembling promise of a life becomes more and more a measure of my vacillation and despair. And there I am again. Holding out for a miracle.

Jen Vuk is a freelance writer.

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