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In early May The Washington Post reported a statistic that should alarm anyone who cares about innocent human life: nearly 400,000 embryos, a surplus of nascent human beings, lie frozen in laboratories throughout this nation. The number comes from a national survey conducted by the RAND Corporation and the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology.

Now let that number sink in for a moment. We're talking about the equivalent of people living in Augusta, Georgia, or Flint, Michigan, or Salinas, California. These embryos came into being through in vitro fertilization (IVF), which since the birth of British baby Louise Brown in 1978 has become one of the most common forms of scientifically assisted conception.

As its name implies (in vitro meaning "in glass"), in vitro fertilization involves "harvesting" a woman's eggs and fertilizing them with sperm in a laboratory. One or more embryos are returned to the woman's body, and—if everything goes according to plan—a previously infertile couple will manage to have a child.

Our culture being what it is, however, IVF often is controlled by economies of scale. So, for instance, fertility clinics will urge their patients not to settle for creating one embryo at a time, but to create several and keep extra embryos frozen for possible future use. In recent years, such practices have led to the surreal phenomenon of divorcing couples fighting over who has custody of their frozen embryos, lending new poignancy to the phrase "Our love has gone cold."

We intend no lack of concern for couples who feel drawn to IVF after years of wanting to bear children. There are few voids more sorrowful than yearning to conceive a child with your spouse, only to find month after month that your bodies will ...

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In the Magazine

July 2003

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