Back at the clinic, Dr. Smotrich placed three embryos in Candace. Jeffry and Cristen knew their chances were less than 50-50, but they were hopeful. Just one or, perhaps, all three will stick. High hopes, indeed, but the rule is otherwise. The best guesstimate is that only one of ten implanted embryos stays for the full term. We’ve all heard of the exhausted mother with as many as seven embryos implanted, resulting in a multiple birth after which telethons are organized and the neighborhood volunteers in shifts to change diapers. Couples and clinics want pregnancies. That can mean upping the ante with fertility drugs and the questionable practice of putting in a dozen embryos to enhance the odds (in England the law limits the number to four). But the “success rate” of in vitro remains dicey: Only 40 percent of couples who do three cycles or more (each cycle is one implantation of embryos) will get a baby.
Dicey, indeed, for Cristen and Jeffry and Candace, now an even closer triumvirate. But, sadly, none of the three implanted; Candace’s body absorbed them. After consultation, the group decided to unthaw the other three embryos and try again. A month later, that too was a bust. It was “all downhill on the emotional roller coaster,” Cristen recalls. Either they’d start once more from scratch, meaning another $10,000 cycle and the coordinated labor of the female tag team, or quit. Cristen, a fighter, says, “I wasn’t ready to give up,” even after the second failure. Jeffry adds, “We felt the odds increase every time because the doctor learns a little bit more about what he can change to make our chances greater.”
On the third cycle, they created five embryos and Smotrich placed four in Candace. Jeffry calls it “getting more aggressive,” while Cristen acknowledges some desperation. Candace agreed that if all four, or three or two, stuck, she would carry the lot to term. The lone leftover embryo they froze. Though the Hayses and Candace knew about “selective reduction,” whereby they could reduce the number inside Candace if there were complications, in principle the three decided against it. Doing so remained hypothetical: One of the four clung to Candace’s uterus and buried itself in the lining. The embryo-cum-fetus had few problems as it grew to term. In March 1999, Jayden Marie Hays was born, pudgy and healthy, a saucer-eyed charmer who by the time I meet her at age nine months cadges me to pick her up and hold her just so she can push my tape recorder off the table.
Though Cristen and Jeffry and Candace came to a perfect end with Jayden’s birth, which is also the perfect beginning of this little girl’s life, there is another “being” or “life” left to consider. That other frozen, and as yet unused, embryo. And the Hayses have considered it.
Options for the future of frozen embryos are several. Smotrich described four: Use them again for another cycle; not use them again and instruct the clinic to thaw and discard them (couples can request a memorial service); donate them to an infertile couple; donate them to research. “Most couples recognize how difficult it is to create embryos,” he says, “so it’s unusual for them to want to discard them.” Most keep them frozen; the storage fee runs around $150 a year. (The oldest known freezer-to-birth embryo is one that was held for seven years.) Their numbers are also reduced because, according to Smotrich, there’s only a “67 percent successful thaw-rate,” which means one-third of them die.
The Hayses have decided to leave their remaining embryo frozen, for the time being. If they change their minds, they will donate it to medical research.
I ask them how they regard its “moral status.” Quickly, it seems, the joyful ending of Jayden’s conception and birth is left in the dust.
“I don’t know,” Jeffry says. “I guess I see it as — even though it’s frozen, it’s alive.”
“Can you say it’s alive?” Cristen counters. “Because it doesn’t have a heartbeat.”
Jeffry stares at me, his inquisitor. “So the question you’re raising, damn you” — he and I laugh nervously — “who are we to take this potential life’s being and donate it to science when it could live?”
“We’ll use it,” Cristen says with certainty, confiding later that she has a new surrogate picked out, her younger sister. Candace, at 40, has said no thanks to another mission.
“I’d like to think we’d use it,” Jeffry adds. “But if we don’t, our choice was not to donate to another couple to start a family but to donate to science so something could be learned from [the embryo].” His voice is a bit ethereal; Cristen is quiet. There’s a sense — and I can’t quite put my finger on it — not that the Hayses have disregarded the “rights” of this being but that thinking about the “moral status” of a five-day-old blastocyst/embryo yields no firm answer as in, “Oh, yes, it is a full legal and moral person,” or “Oh, no, we have no attachment to it.” Thinking this through for anyone, let alone the parents, while the embryo sits in the cryogenic freezer at minus 196 degrees Celsius in a liquid-nitrogen crystallized state, yields far more questions than answers. (There’s a lot of thinking-through going on these days in America, with 150,000 to 200,000 embryos in their technological purgatory. Waiting and thinking, I coulda been a contender.)
“In essence,” Jeffry says, seemingly not wanting to admit it, “we’re putting this out to pasture, we’re condemning this embryo to death.”
“It’s like organ donation,” Cristen says.
“No, it’s not,” he says. “An organ isn’t a life.”
She agrees, and adds, “Then we’re going to use it.” Jeffry laughs and reminds her that this embryo is “not a very viable one, and so I guess I’m justifying in my own mind that if we don’t use it, then we’ll donate it to science.” But deciding whether to keep it, he admits, is also a way to delay a decision about its status. “I didn’t sit down and think, ‘What if I donate this to science? Then that means I’m not allowing this embryo a chance to live?’ ” And if it’s a life — I believe he understands this but didn’t express it this way — then it’s troubling, because donating the embryo to research will mean terminating its life. “And I’m against abortion,” he says, renewing his moral quandary more than he may want to.