Life Health & Wellbeing

Friday 22 June 2018

Alarm sounds for the world's would-be mums

Malfunctions with frozen embryos at two US fertility clinics show the fragility of hundreds of people's baby dreams

In vitro fertilisation process close up. An egg bank storage tank contains the frozen expectations of hundreds of people wishing for a baby.
In vitro fertilisation process close up. An egg bank storage tank contains the frozen expectations of hundreds of people wishing for a baby.

Eva Wiseman

I've been waiting for this. I've been waiting for a fertility clinic to accidentally defrost its embryos ever since I was invited to see one London egg bank's storage tanks, and said, out loud, to the nurse: "Surely not?"

On March 4, two tanks at two fertility clinics in America malfunctioned.

At a clinic in Cleveland an alarm sounded to indicate low liquid nitrogen levels, but nobody heard. At a clinic in San Francisco (where patients pay $600 a year for storage alone, with many encouraged to do so by packages offered by their employers in tech, Facebook and Apple), an embryologist noticed low levels during a check, so quickly moved the eggs and embryos, stacked invisibly in fine, long straws, a little like the ones you can buy at the fair with sherbet in, to another tank.

Both clinics are yet to discover whether any have been damaged.

Across the US, hundreds of people are waiting to find out if their plans for a family have melted, too, if their investments, both soul and cash, have been squandered.

"It's really quite sad the samples weren't split up," one expert said, discussing the clinics' common method of filing patients' embryos together, rather than across different tanks. "They were literally putting all the eggs in one basket." On the TV news, the malfunctions were described in the language of earthquakes, or flood - a "fertility disaster".

What tank is capable of containing not just one hope, not just one person's 20-year plan, but hundreds of them?

"Surely not?" I said, looking around at the tanks that were kicking about at our feet, these small metal barrels, hairy with wires.

In London, it was a supply cupboard, of the sort traditionally used to store buckets for accidents, or reams of toilet paper, or perhaps pens. And there were some of these things here, too, alongside the eggs, shelves of binders, a system, but it was the casualness of the place, like a backstage afterthought, that shocked me into a fantasy of catastrophe.

By that point I'd spoken to many of the women who had saved small fortunes, taken the drugs, dealt with the hormones, sat down and plotted their lives on paper like a "choose your own adventure" story, succumbed to the egg harvesting "procedure" and its series of mild perils, in order to purchase a home to freeze their distant hopes in these metal tanks, on this cupboard floor. And the risks, as they stood, were defined starkly. The biggest risk reported was that it might not work. That this whole thing was so new that only a tiny proportion of women had unfrozen and implanted their eggs, and gone on to have a healthy child. Still, with this knowledge, more and more people (those with the cash, as well as the hunger) were choosing to take that risk.

But the other risks, the ones that clinicians are not trained to debate, these conversations being above most doctors' pay grade, are complex and answerless. There is the risk that, even after planning for a family so meticulously that you willingly inject yourself daily with hormones, and splay your legs monthly for a 'dildocam' broadcasting to a room of strangers, you will end up alone. Some people will surely relish that independence, and feel comfortable buying donor sperm and bringing a kid up alone; most prefer someone to parent with, and this is one of the unsayable risks that also kicks about in these fertility clinics. The risk that hetero dating culture will continue to insist on a degree of dishonesty, so chucking all responsibility for fertility into the hands (and wallet) of the woman, meaning the only plan she is really able to make becomes a painful plan to pay to delay.

And then there is this - the risk that even after all those concerns have been considered and annotated, the facilities themselves are flawed. Of course they are. What tank, really, is capable of containing not just one hope, not just one person's 20-year plan, of birthday cakes and grazed knees and the profundity of being needed, but hundreds of them, in long sherbet straws?

Standing in that room I was inside a metaphor. Every tank contained a thousand conversations, about desire and lack, and frozen expectations of what a life should look like. Every tank contained not just the promise of a return on these women's wobbly investments, the price of a small car in which they could have escaped, but the promise of change - of being rescued from uncertainty, the promise of a life like their parents', the promise of sleeplessness, debt, fear, love, the promise of adulthood, grief, someone to hold in the night. The promise that the life these women had pictured for themselves would one day open for them like a pop-up book, and into it they'd gratefully fall, because this is what people do, right, and because these women, too, are people.

Then, in their clinic, the beep of an alarm echoing impotently, the tanks' contents started to melt, that unheard alarm a reminder of how new this is, how new we are, how many questions they have left to answer. Including, "What now?" What the hell now?

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