"Medically, most of us feel conception occurs when an embryo actually implants in the body of a woman," says Selwyn Oskowitz, assistant professor of ob-gyn and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School. Some groups believe conception occurs with fertilization or lovemaking, he says, but "if one believes that conception is a phenomenon of a unique union between an embryo and its mother, then that occurs only within the body." In that view, fertilization precedes--and is separate from--conception, whether reproduction is natural or in vitro. Although some people believe that the embryo has no moral status, the view most widely held among ethicists and legal scholars is that the embryo, in the formulation of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM), "deserves respect greater than that accorded to human tissue but not the respect accorded to actual persons."
Whether or not human life exists from the moment of conception has "already torn our country apart," says Harvard law professor Elizabeth Bartholet '62, J.D. '65. "I'm an abortion-rights person, and I certainly do not see an embryo as equivalent to a person, but there's an ethical dilemma with a procedure that systematically engages in embryo destruction." She adds that cryopreservation in itself is a social time bomb. "It seems irresponsible not to decide anything and just freeze embryos, because that's what the patient wants and because, for the moment, it gets the doctors off the hook." Great Britain is her case in point. When Parliament passed a law requiring that frozen embryos not used within five years be destroyed, and thousands of embryos were destroyed, "there was a huge public reaction," says Bartholet. "In this country, this is not a problem that's going to go away. We have to decide what we're going to do with these tens of thousands of embryos we're stockpiling. Do you want someone to unfreeze these embryos generations later and have a sibling born when you're a grandparent?"
"Most people feel that frozen embryos should not outlive the donors," says Kenneth Ryan, M.D. '52, Ladd professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive biology emeritus, who is co-chair of ASRM's ethics committee. "And when people have embryos frozen, they ought to make a decision as to how they're going to be used and what their disposition is to be." As of late September, the reproductive center at Brigham and Women's Hospital had frozen its 663d embryo for 1997. Altogether, they have 5,118 "freeze-dried" embryos that look like shriveled microscopic raisins. When they're thawed at room temperature for another try at getting pregnant, they swell back up. But once a couple succeeds at pregnancy and has a family of two or three, what should they do with the embryos that are left? Most can't decide.