What About the Embryos?
Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART)
Getting married and starting a family seem to be two givens in life for many. Yet for 1 in 8 couples, family building doesn’t come so easily to them. Often times, turning to ART is the only chance for some to grow their families. ART can take many forms, and it’s known most commonly for the medical procedure called In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) where eggs and sperm are extracted from each partner, paired in a lab, and the resulting embryo is then transferred back into the uterus. Only 40 years ago, this idea was considered to be science fiction.
For couples that have undergone IVF, the stress and emotional (as well as financial) burden can take its toll. While many couples are able to successfully navigate building their family (or coming to terms with living child free), others are not. Even after IVF success, the tolls can linger. Many couples will divorce and have the unique decision about what to do with any embryos they created together, which can create further emotional turmoil during a couple’s dissolution of the marriage.
What About the Embryos?
From a legal perspective, embryos aren’t seen as “people” or “property,” but are a unique third category having to do with “personal property”. During the process in which embryos are created, most clinics will have patients sign paperwork speaking to the “disposition of frozen embryos”—meaning patients will have to choose in advance one of three options: to store the embryos, to donate them to other couples, or to use them for scientific inquiry. Often times, these choices are made based upon how couples feel at the time (and wanting to meet the baby they crave) rather than thinking about future difficulties. These documents aren’t necessarily legally binding, so enlisting the assistance of an attorney that is knowledgeable in Reproductive Law is considered to be the best practice (though one that few follow through with).
This area of law is complex as it balances the rights of both parties: one member who has the “right to choose to NOT procreate” and the other member who has the “right to procreate”. As often it can happen with fertility, age plays a factor in procreation in that women have a much narrower window to procreate using their own genetic material than men. Another difficulty is that technology continues to move at a much faster pace than the law does, meaning that a dispute can last many years, even after the divorce has long been finalized. While there are no easy pointers in this area, creating a team of knowledgeable lawyers and a therapist that has been trained in reproductive health can help with the healing process.
If you or someone you know is struggling with the emotional aspects of a situation like this, please call (888) 530-4374.
Dr. Julie Bindeman is a panelist on our Second Saturday Divorce Workshops for Women in Bethesda and is the Co-Director and Co-Founder of Integrative Therapy of Greater Washington. To learn more about her and her practice, visit www.GreaterWashingtonTherapy.com for more information.