Politics & Policy

Meeting “Leftovers”

21 faces give lie to a rhetorical point.

It was a birthday party the likes of which the White House had never before seen: The guests of honor, Tanner Brinkman, 4, and Noelle Faulk, 2, had spent the first few years of their lives in frozen limbo. So had their small companions, now sitting on the floor of the dining room enjoying slices of chocolate-covered cake.

All 21 of these kids had once been “leftover embryos”–tiny humans who remained stored in liquid nitrogen tanks when their genetic parents had borne all the children they wanted via in-vitro fertilization (IVF). Some of their siblings remain in these frozen orphanages. One day, perhaps, they will be thawed and implanted in the wombs of their adoptive mothers–women who want to enlarge their families with children genetically related to the first child.

At the White House, adult guests stare with fascination at children who had been frozen for up to eight years–lively youngsters now dressed in pink party frocks and blue plaid rompers, bouncing on White House sofas and watching with delight as the presidential helicopter lands just outside the window. Just how old are these kids, anyway? If a three-year-old has been frozen for eight years, is he actually eleven?

At a press conference earlier in the day, the children’s parents introduced them to reporters and shared their concerns about a bill calling for federal funding for embryonic-stem-cell research–research that would destroy thousands of other “leftover” embryos.

Among the parents was Steve Johnson, a paraplegic who, with his wife Kate, adopted an embryo whom they named Zara–now a little girl in a pink flowered dress and blond curls playing near her father’s wheelchair. Johnson described the years of pain, high medical costs, and limited mobility he’d endured after a bike accident 12 years before. “My soul aches for a cure for my paralysis,” he said–but not at the cost of a child’s life. “Would I kill my daughter so I could walk again? Of course not. Then why do we think it is okay to kill someone else’s kid?” he asked.

Janet and Kevin Mason juggled twin toddler sons as they described their despair after six years of attempting to conceive a child. After learning of the Snowflake Embryo Adoption program, they adopted 16 stored embryos; Caleb and Jordan are the result.

A genetic mother described how hard it was to give up children “in a suspended state.” An adoptive mom pointed out that “leftover” embryos can cure at least one tragic disease–infertility–without being killed in the process. If stored embryos are destroyed in the quest to cure other ailments, she asked, what do you say to the half-million infertile couples who desperately want a child?

The parents spent a lot of time countering the claims of the hucksters of embryonic-stem-cell research. For instance, there are not 400,000 “leftover” embryos that are “just going to die anyway,” as these people claim. Less than three percent–approximately 11,000 embryos–have been earmarked for research by their parents. The rest are saved for future use by parents or for donation to other infertile couples.

Parents also pointed out that, despite the hype, embryonic-stem-cell research has failed to provide a single treatment. Meanwhile, adult-stem-cell research has led to breakthroughs in treating Parkinson’s, spinal-cord injuries, and juvenile diabetes.

All the parents agreed: There is no such thing as a “leftover embryo;” The 21 children in the room, clinging to their mothers’ legs and sleeping in their fathers’ arms, shatter the myth that they are not human and not alive. Which one, they ask, would you sacrifice on the altar of science?

Down the street, members of Congress argued about the “need” to fund the destruction of still-frozen children just like them–and then voted in favor of doing so. Unaware of the vote, the “leftover embryos” were squeezing the last moments of fun out of their White House party. There are curtains to hide behind, cookies to steal–and maybe, just maybe, that nice man who gave the speech will give them a ride on his helicopter.

Anne Morse is a freelance writer in Virginia.


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