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Michele Kayal

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Death to My Embryos! Long Live Stem Cells!

Posted: 03/16/09 07:36 PM ET

While I peeled carrots, my husband flopped down in our kitchen's big red chair and we started making a will. For our embryos.

It was the night before our first IVF treatment -- that's in vitro fertilization for the uninitiated -- and we were answering questions that people who conceive in the back seats of cars or on their living room floors never have to think about: what should be done with our frozen eight-celled offspring?

Which is why I experienced a rush of victory when President Obama lifted the limits on federal funding for stem cell research. The decision tacitly acknowledges what always gets lost in the stem cell debate: that the people donating these embryos are their parents. And that they don't do it lightly.

American women my age -- that is, theoretically child bearing -- grow up with some pretty strong opinions about what is and isn't a baby. Deciding what to do with our embryos made me feel like I was back in my college ethics class, taught by one of those leaping, screaming, silver-haired professors who posed questions like "If it's okay to have an abortion because you're still in school, is it okay to have one because it interferes with your vacation plans?" The answers seemed obvious then, or at least, easier to take sides on. Because they had no real consequences. But once you've emailed electron microscope photos of your embryos to your entire family with stupid subject lines like "They've got my eyes!" they cease to be specks in a Petri dish. They are your potential children. And every decision you make about them is an expression of your beliefs. Which is why the stem cell decision made me feel empowered: finally, I am back in charge of my family's values.

Satu read aloud the options for "Disposal of Excess Frozen Embryos:" 1) give the doctor authority to "dispose" of them in "any manner deemed appropriate," 2) donate the embryos for use in "approved research that will terminate in the disposal of all embryonic cells," 3) donate the frozen embryos to the doctor to offer for anonymous adoption by another couple.

Option No. 1 was clearly out since "any manner deemed appropriate" could mean anything, I figured, from execution by saline solution to death by defrosting.

Option No. 3 -- anonymous adoption by a couple the doctor chooses -- gave me multiple willies. Since when was the doctor -- who barely remembered my name most days -- a trustworthy judge of character? And how would these people be screened? I was being asked to hand these embryos off to unvetted strangers -- who could be deranged, sex offenders or just plain mean -- like a bag of groceries. No thank you.

To me this option also conjured classic Oedipal perils: what if one of our kids meets up with a sister or brother and they get married and don't know they're related? Crazy, yes, long shot, yes, but it could happen! These are the things that make it into News of the Weird.

I also had a selfish objection to Option 3. I wasn't sure I could get out of bed each day knowing that I might -- or might not -- have a child wandering around in the world. That I might be standing in line at Safeway next to my own son or daughter and simply not know it. Each time I glimpsed a child with familiar features -- my husband's broad straight smile? My wide forehead? -- I would wonder whether he or she was mine. A female comedian once joked that when people ask whether she has children she says, "Not that I know of." That would become me.

Which left Option No. 2. Donate the embryos to research.

We checked the box.

Because we're heartless monsters who wish death on our babies? No. Just the opposite. Because we love our children too much.

Too much to sentence them to a wasted, purposeless death (Option 1). Too much to commit them to a family that might not be able to care for them -- or worse (Option 3).

In the end, the decision was just an exercise. I wound up without any embryos to offer. The universe graced me with fewer than a dozen, all of which were put into my womb over the course of three treatments. But for whatever reason, my body doesn't make babies. And they flickered out, one by one, like tiny, distant stars.

It's hard to communicate the guilt I felt over this. That somehow I had failed to sustain my children. Yet, I still would have donated any extra embryos to research. Because the right choice -- the only choice -- was to turn my inability to create life into the chance to save another.

These are the values I would have communicated to my children, had they grown and thrived. President Obama's decision finally acknowledges my right to those values.